JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
FORT ERIE – A company that purchased the assets of a printing plant in Stevensville has gone to court to try to lift a “blockade” of vehicles entering and leaving the facility imposed by former workers terminated without severance pay.
On Thursday, U.S.-based Quad Graphics Inc. filed an motion seeking an injunction from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to prevent former employees of Vertis Communications, in Stevensville, from picketing the Eagle Street plant gate.
The plaintiff’s lawyers say Quad Graphics, a U.S. printing company, purchased the internal assets of the Vertis plant – but not the building – after Vertis filed for bankruptcy in the United States last fall.
Quad now wants to remove those assets, such as ink, paper and machinery, but the company alleges former Vertis employees are preventing them from doing so.
Quad was represented in court by the Toronto firm of Aird & Berlis.
Lawyer Lorenzo Lisi told Justice Robert J. Nightingale that Quad didn’t want to take action against the workers, but were left with no choice.
“We need to address the issue of this blockade,” Lisi told the judge. “We are between a rock and a hard place… We don’t come here lightly.”
Lisi told court Niagara Regional Police have said they are not willing to intervene in the dispute without a court injunction specifying what the workers can and cannot do.
For their part, the workers say they’re not turning vehicles away, but instead temporarily delaying cars and trucks attempting to enter the plant gate as part of “information picket” aimed at drawing attention to their dispute with their former employer.
Lawyer Denis Ellickson, of the Toronto firm CaleyWray Labour/Employment Lawyers, was in court representing the workers.
“I’m advised it’s not a blockade,” said Ellickson, who asked the judge to stay the proceedings until Monday in order to give him and his clients more time to prepare their case.
The judge ultimately agreed to the adjournment, but in the meantime the lawyers representing both sides met during a short recess and agreed to take the next day or two to attempt to negotiate a compromise position acceptable to both parties.
“We’re going to see if we agree on a picketing protocol,” Ellickson told Bullet News outside the courtroom after the hearing.
“I anticipate we will be successful,” he added.
In the event the two sides can’t reach an agreement, the hearing will continue before Justice Nightingale on Monday.
In January, more than 100 employees – most unionized – were summarily terminated without severance pay.
The workers claim to be owed up to $2.7 million.
They’re afraid Vertis’ assests will be sold off before their labour-relations complaint against the company can be resolved. The workers have asked both the federal and provincial govrnments to step in and help them recover the money they feel is owed to them.
Recently, Welland NDP MPP Cindy Forster and Welland NDP MP Malcolm Allen visited the workers on the picket line in Stevensville as a show of solidarity. Forster and Allen have both raised the issue in the provincial Legislature and federal House of Commons respectively.
Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor, a member of the provincial Liberal government, has also been down to the line and has been in regular contact with union officials offering whatever assistance is available from his office. Craitor attended Thursday’s court hearing, along with Jim Thibert, general manager of the Fort Erie Economic Development and Tourism Corp.
Dan Wickson, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union Local 425G and a former Vertis employee himself, said the workers plan to hold firm in their position, but have no intention of violating a court order, if issued by the judge.
“We don’t want to break any laws,” Wickson told Bullet News following court. “We’ll comply with any order the judge gives us. But we won’t go away. We’re owed $2.7 million.”