Workers have built shacks in front of the Infinity Rubber plant where they have been on strike for nine months.
They start walking the line at 5:30 a.m. and continue until 6:30 p.m., covering every hour that the plant is in operation. The toxic smell of burning rubber comes and goes in waves, lifting from the plain white building behind them and carrying over the sidewalk in front of the busy strip of North Queen where they sit, stand, pace, and wait. Employees of the Infinity Rubber plant and members of the United Steelworker’s Local 526 have been on strike since December 1, 2009, and there’s no resolution in sight, and no one is paying any attention.
In November 2008, Infinity employees agreed to a 10% pay cut, bringing their salary down to eighteen dollars per hour from twenty dollars per hour. “We thought: okay, we understand the economy is bad, and we’ll help them out,” says Eric Hassan, vice president of Local 526 and the de facto spokesperson among the group of nine present when we visited the picket line last week. A year later, Hassan says, Infinity demanded more concessions, wanting to cut wages by twice as much as they had the year prior: after the cost of benefits, salaries would now round out to $13.65 per hour. (Infinity Rubber declined to return calls for comment.)
Every day, a bus pulls up in front of the picket line, and about fifty workers hired from an agency file out and and go into the plant to do the jobs of the men sitting outside the building. “They walk in, and we can’t do much,” says Hassan. “We exercise our rights, but we don’t go beyond that. It’s a very peaceful picket.” The agency men have been known to taunt and even spit on the strikers, Hassan says, though he declines to repeat their jeers. “Just stupid things,” he says vaguely, “but we restrain ourselves.”
Vincente Pico and Julio Briceno.
The demographic of the men on strike slopes towards retirement age: most are in their fifties, some in their sixties, and many support families. Hassan runs down the strike attendance sheet for us, listing off years of service and country of origin as he goes over each name. Almost all the men are immigrants, and Hassan has in fact been working at Infinity for the shortest period of time: eleven years. Top-ranked for seniority is Henry Palma, who’s been at the plant for thirty-eight years.
Hassan gestures towards one of his colleagues: “He’s an old man. Who’s going to hire him? How’s he going to live? Infinity doesn’t want to pay them their severance. These guys are in a jail. They’re strapped here. They have nowhere to go now.”
Eric Hassan (far right) acts as spokesperson for his colleagues.
They’ve built several clapboard shacks—a shanty town in miniature. Hassan gives us a tour of the shelter closest to the site’s one tiny patch of shade: they’ve got a propane hotplate, a cooler, the makings of instant coffee, and, pinned to the wall, a magazine pull-out of a topless woman that looks like it came straight out of the early ’90s.
Working at the rubber plant was grueling, Hassan says. His job as a rubber mixer meant mixing eighty-pound bales of rubber with chemical additive in a space with bad ventilation, his nose and mouth covered by just a plain painter’s mask while he breathed in a smell that would stick to his clothes and skin, not going away with washing. Being on strike is worse. “This is not a strike, this is a joke,” he says. “They’re working inside, and I’m standing outside like an idiot. They can do anything they want: bring in scabs, take your job away. That’s the Canadian law.”
There are rumours that business is picking up and that Infinity is planning to start running a night shift. The twenty-nine strikers are making plans to follow suit. “If they’re going to run 24-7, we’re going to be here 24-7. Even if we have only four guys on the picket, we’re going to stand here in rain, snow, anything. As long as the union backs us, we are going to be here.”
Photos by Nancy Paiva/Torontoist.