by Sahar Ashraf
A two-week long strike has led to victory for the employees of Ippolito Produce Ltd at the Ontario Food Terminal, who unionized with Teamsters Local 419 to fight for fair wages, paid sick days, and greater job security.
Workers picketed every morning leading up to negotiations, blocking the entrance to the Ontario Food Terminal and backing up traffic along The Queensway to pressure their employer into agreeing to their demands.
“For all of us, this is our first union and our first collective agreement,” said Jamyang Yeshi in a statement from the strikers. “Since coming to Canada, none of us have ever worked in a unionized environment. We feel more secure in our jobs. We fought and gained many concessions from the employer.”
Ippolito was promised over $1.7 million from the provincial government for its $26.6 million expansion project last year, but the multimillion dollar company pays its employees’ up to $7 less than the industry standard of $22 per hour.
In addition to stagnant wages, unpaid sick days and irregular hours, employees are also pressured to complete orders unreasonably fast by Ippolito President Joe Da Silva.
“We have to work in 20 minutes and whoever doesn’t has to come upstairs and see him and give an explanation,” said Yeshi. “We’re dealing with really heavy machinery. They weigh up to 900 kg. If you mishandle it you could end up getting a big injury.”
Because of the unsafe conditions and unreasonable expectations, one worker injured his finger and another ended up with a broken leg.
Yeshi and his coworkers were inspired to take a stand after seeing the success of their fellow employees at the Ontario Food Terminal, which rents space to several fruit and produce retailers.
Last year, employees of Fresh Taste unionized and went on strike to negotiate their first contract. Soon after, employees of another company, Fresh Advancements, negotiated their own contract without having to go on strike.
Ippolito is the third company to unionize in the past year, and employees were able to do so with the help and guidance of those who fought for better working conditions before them.
“The workers at Ippolito had a lot of questions,” said Tenzin Tekan of Parkdale Community Legal Services, one of the many organizations that rallied in support of the workers on strike. “They naturally turned towards people who went through this last year. Workers at Fresh Taste and Fresh Advancements even pooled some money together and donated it to the strike fund of workers at Ippolito.”
Most of the workers unionizing are Tibetan immigrants and have ties to the large Tibetan community in Parkdale who led the very successful rent strike against Metcap Living Management Inc this past summer. To fight for their rights, Ippolito employees not only drew on the guidance of other striking workers, but also relied on the experience of striking tenants.
Ippolito did not bargain in good faith during the first round of negotiations on November 13, when they threatened to take away workers’ annual bonus. However, two weeks of picketing and disrupting the flow of business at the Ontario Food Terminal forced the employer to come back to the table and agree to workers’ demands.