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Matheson hires investigator as labour dispute continues

MATHESON - As a labour dispute drags on in Matheson, the township has hired a third-party investigator to look into social media comments and picketers.

In a statement released on Friday (Feb. 23), the township said senior managers have filed complaints under the Occupational Health and Safety Act that must be investigated. The complaints, according to the township, are about "persistent, critical social media" posts and "the actors in certain picket line matters that have created a work setting so extreme and inappropriate, it represents an unsafe work environment which is illegal."

The Township of Black River-Matheson and CUPE Local 1490 workers have been in a labour dispute for more than four months.

On Oct. 15, the township locked out 14 union members. When the township ended the lockout on Jan. 21, the union members rejected the deal on the table and went on strike. The key concern for the union has been a two-tiered wage grid.

The township's statement this week noted it wants to clarify its position respecting the safety of employees during the ongoing labour dispute.

"Recent news releases by the union have created a false impression of unsafe picket lines and dangerous conduct," reads the statement.

“Even though, it is true that persons on both sides of the picket lines over the 18 weeks of the dispute have been subject to criminal charges, there have been very few incidents."

One councillor's name is not on the letter.

It was signed by Mayor Doug Bender, Ward 1 Coun. Chantal Rondeau, Ward 3 Coun. Dave Dyment, Ward 4 Coun. Allana Schmidt, Ward 5 Coun. Louise Gadoury and Ward 6 Coun. Steve Campsall. It was not signed by Ward 2 Coun. Keith Neal.

On Feb. 17, CUPE released a statement that two equipment operators were hit by two different scabs (a person who works despite the labour dispute) driving a pickup truck through picket lines on Feb. 14.

The union alleges it's the second and third incidents of a vehicle "being weaponized to attack" the union members.

"CUPE is calling on the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and Crown attorney to fully investigate and bring criminal charges against the two drivers responsible for Wednesday’s attacks on striking workers.”

“Mayor Doug Bender and all six township councillors are on the hook for what their scabs do. It’s time for police to do their job, investigate those who are directing the work of the scabs, and enforce the law to protect workers and the public from any more violence," said Serge Bouchard, president of CUPE Local 1490, in the news release.

SEE: Matheson ends lockout, workers now on strike

The town said they respect the right of the union members to “picket peacefully and communicate about their dispute with the township truthfully.”

“In return, the council expect that the picketers will acknowledge the right of other employees to cross their picket lines to attend work and go about their business,” they wrote.

"At one point, the representatives of the parties had, with the assistance of the OPP, discussed rules to regulate picket line conduct. This is sensible since when the labour dispute is resolved, both the picketers and those who chose to cross the line must work together again. Aggressive, unpleasant, nasty behaviour by either party does not help.”

The town said the safety of employees attempting to go to work has been threatened and “various contributors to social media have fomented dissent and anti-township sentiment.”

“They have promoted and repeated and expanded upon false allegations about township bargaining positions. They criticize management for things that are simply untrue,” they wrote.

“Worse, these bloggers and emailers seem to believe they can vilify people and attack their reputations with impunity, behind the veil of a computer screen away from scrutiny at the picket line. They seek to be divisive and troublesome as an entertainment form, ignoring the pain, suffering and stress their thoughtless communications cause… People have lost sight of the fact that free speech includes the right to disagree.”

SEE: Matheson closes town hall, cancels council meeting for 'safety concerns'

The town said a labour dispute should be settled by the parties involved at the bargaining table.

“When the time for settlement comes, the deal will not be made on Facebook or by a blogger in her basement or by a picketer who drove in from Toronto,” they wrote.

“The deal will be made by local people who live in our community. A safe workplace is what everyone should want. Council intends to make that so.”

Marissa Lentz, Local Journalism Initiative, TimminsToday.com