Dr. Oetker workers take to the picket line outside London, Ont. plant

Striking members of UFCW Local 157 outside of the Dr. Oetker plant in London, Ont. on Feb. 16, 2022. Scott Monich/980 CFPL

Unionized workers at the Dr. Oetker pizza plant in southeast London, Ont., hit the picket line on Wednesday morning after rejecting the company’s final contract offer over the weekend, with one union representative describing the relationship between the two sides in the talks as “toxic.”

Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 175, which represents approximately 251 workers at the plant, entered legal strike position at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday after voting against the offer from the company on Saturday. Production at the plant has been shut down as a result.

Roughly 60 per cent of members at the plant, 162, voted in Saturday’s ratification meeting, with just over half, 91, voting to reject the deal, union officials said.

According to Sam Caetano, director for UFCW Local 175, the final offer from the company had included a staggered wage increase that differed based on the member’s classification.

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“It wasn’t the equal amount of increase in rates of pay across the table. Also the production bonus. There were two different production bonuses, depending on which classification you were in,” Caetano said Wednesday.

“The members of the committee decided that they would not recommend a deal where there wasn’t money across the board for all the members, and the same amount of bonus for all the members.”

Global News reached out to Dr. Oetker about the strike, but the company declined to comment.

Plant employees represented by the union work in all areas of the facility, Caetano says, including general labour, bakery and maintenance.

Members joined UFCW in 2018, and their most recent contract, ratified in 2019, expired at the end of December 2021. Talks on a new three-year deal began in September, and so far 10 days of bargaining have occurred.

In November, union members at the plant gave their negotiating committee an 88 per cent strike mandate.

No future talks have been scheduled yet.

“There were a lot of agreed-to items, and a lot of language that we’ve agreed to,” Caetano said. “On the last day, the only thing that was left on the table was monetary, which was an increase in the rates of pay across the board and production bonuses for all employees.”

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Caetano says the bargaining committee had relayed to the company that the COVID-19 pandemic had resulted in drastic changes to the way the plant operates, including how workers interact with one another.

“We have to wear masks and shields, we’re isolated from other friends in the workplace, you have to eat lunch by yourself in front of plexiglass, you have to stagger the start times and break times,” he said.

“(The committee) felt that they should be compensated with some kind of production bonus for the last two years working through the COVID pandemic.”

The union had also been pushing for an end to rotational shift work, but Caetano says that proposal was later withdrawn by UFCW. Production employees currently work two weeks of days and then two weeks of afternoons, he said.

As gusts of wind hit Wednesday morning, workers could be seen picketing outside the main entrance of the factory, located on Dr. Oetker Gate, just southwest of Bradley Avenue and Veterans Memorial Parkway.

“These workers have worked tirelessly through this pandemic, coming to work every day, making sure they’re putting food on the table for families,” said Fred Teeple, a representative with the local, in an interview outside the facility. “They believe, and we believe, and we support them, that there should be more money on the table.

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“Obviously, the relationship between members and the employer is kind of toxic, so we want that addressed as well. Plus health and safety is a thing that is a big sticking point” both for COVID-19 and in general, he said.

The Dr. Oetker plant opened in 2014 and manufactures millions of frozen pizzas every year for the German multinational. The facility is described by the UFCW as a “production hub for the company’s North American pizza operations.”

Caetano said the union was hopeful that “something will transpire by the end of the week” when it comes to resuming contract talks with the company.

“The employer will reach out to us to get back to the table and start our discussion about trying to reach a settlement where we can bring it back to the membership.”

— with files from Scott Monich

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