Hospital laundry workers walk out, province files labour board complaint

The New Brunswick government has filed a complaint against unionized Saint John Laundry workers who left the job to protest how they're being treated.

The application to the New Brunswick Labour and Employment board alleges the CUPE members are striking illegally.

Workers say they're fed up with conditions at the government-run plant in west Saint John and with uncaring management.

"It's been like this for three years," said employee Tyler Calnan. "So we're at the end today. We're done with it."

Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC

Saint John Laundry, previously called Fundy Linen, is run through Service New Brunswick and provides laundry service to hospitals and nursing homes.

On Thursday morning, at least 14 workers stood outside the Saint John plant, holding yellow signs in the shape of fists with CUPE printed on them, and blowing noisemakers at trucks trying to enter the facility.

Workers blocked multiple trucks from entering for about 10 minutes, then stepped out of their way.

Lise Landry of the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board confirmed a hearing was scheduled for Thursday afternoon in Fredericton. The basis of the complaint is that workers walked off the job while still under a collective agreement, which would make their demonstration illegal.

The board must make a decision within the next 24 hours.

There was a CUPE truck at the facility, and CUPE New Brunswick president Brien Watson made an appearance in the morning.

He did not comment on whether the union supports the walkout but said Saint John Laundry has been "a pressure cooker for a very, very long time" and working conditions have been "atrocious." 

Calnan said workers are asking for two union representatives to return to work, and they want the facility to stop using contractors. It's not clear how many non-union workers are employed. 

We're not going to go in there and work when they don't treat us like a human being - Tyler Calnan, worker

"Finally, we want respect, and we want transparency," he said. "I don't mind working. None of us mind working.

"It's just we're not going to go in there and work when they don't treat us like a human being."

He said workers have been told to raise their hands to ask for permission to go to the washroom.

Valerie Kilfoil, spokesperson for Service New Brunswick, said there are eight machines in a U-shaped format that the workers are feeding. If a worker leaves a machine, it stops.

"So, the system is that there is a floater available at all times to enable the workers to take bathroom breaks when they need to, without stopping the machines and disrupting production schedule," she said. 

"They don't need to ask permission for a bathroom break, they just need to flag down the floater to take over feeding their machine."

Calnan said all CUPE members were off the job on Thursday.

How it got to this point

Calnan said workers walked out Wednesday morning after a disagreement between union representatives and management. He alleges non-unionized managers are doing the work of CUPE members.

Police were called to Saint John Laundry twice Wednesday morning, said Jim Hennesy of the Saint John Police Force. He said police were called at 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. "because of the size of the crowd and noise."

Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC

There were no arrests, Hennesy said, and police officers are still in the area "working with the union and managers to facilitate their Charter of Rights for a lawful and peaceful picket."

Valerie Kilfoil, spokesperson for Service New Brunswick, said the government's position is that this is an illegal walkout. 

"Workers are expected to report for their shifts," she said. "If they do not, they could face penalties and disciplinary action."

Kilfoil said because there are no employees working at the facility, laundry is being sent to Ottawa to be cleaned. When asked how much that's costing the province, she said she would provide the answer later Thursday.

Kilfoil also said she'll have more details after the hearing.