Life after Rona: Workers still licking their wounds after mass job losses

For 23 years, from Monday morning until Friday, Terry Godden rolled out of bed, pulled on his coat and hitched up a 16-foot trailer destined for Rona stores across the Avalon. Like clockwork he’d pick up supplies, get his assignment, and then head out to whichever house he’d be renovating that day.

“Then all of a sudden we were out of business,” Godden, a siding installer, recalled from his home in the Goulds area of St. John’s. “They just said, ‘Your job is redundant.'”

Godden was one of more than 300 workers in Newfoundland, the majority of them unionized, who lost their jobs in November when U.S.-based building supply company Lowe’s announced it would shutter 51 Rona stores across North America.

Six of those locations, spread across the island, closed Jan. 27 after liquidating their inventory.

Lowe’s had acquired Rona, a company originally headquartered in Quebec, only three years earlier.

“No one knew anything” about the decision, Godden said, not even managers or his union. “We were all blindsided at the exact same time.”

The swift felling of the chain’s presence here has reverberated throughout the island. Some workers, with a lifetime of specialized skills, have secured work with Hickey’s, Kent and Home Hardware.

Others have struggled to find anything at all.

Union bypassed

Godden was one of the lucky few Rona employees offered work. He’ll be installing siding, as he has done every weekday for the last two decades, with Kent this spring.

But unlike his last job, this one is precarious. Work could dry up. As a contractor, he’s paid less, and will go without benefits.

“Once you take it all into consideration,” he sighed, “it is a big loss.”

Rona employees received working severance for 12 weeks after Lowe’s executives cut their ties to the province, Godden explained, and then were handed a leaving package based on the number of years each worker had spent with the company.

Lowe’s dispensed 40 weeks’ pay to Godden. His colleague, with Rona for over a decade, received a package worth two and a half months’ wages.

Workers were told they had to remain with Rona until the closing date to qualify for severance pay.

The union wasn’t involved in those negotiations, says Cathy Baker, the Atlantic Canada Regional Council of Carpenters, Millwrights and Allied Workers representative who handled workers’ questions during the closures.

Lowe’s head office “wouldn’t tell us anything,” Baker said — an affront, she explains, to how the union normally wants to do business when members face the prospect of widespread dismissal.

“It should never have happened. We should have been given the opportunity to discuss those terms.”

Baker confirmed that many Rona employees are still searching for work. In some cases, entire families were tied to the company, their household incomes wiped out.

The problem now, she points out, is that there’s “not a whole lot of extra jobs” on an island enduring an oil-boom hangover.

“It was a decent-paying job. People thought it was secure,” she said. “It was their livelihoods.”

‘Everyone was making money’

The company claims stores were underperforming, but employees contacted by CBC News tell a different story, describing ongoing system updates, new product shipments and even contract negotiations up until November’s announcement.

“Everyone was making money. Everything was going well,” Godden said.

Why Lowe’s pulled out of Newfoundland is still a mystery to him. He doesn’t think the company targeted Atlantic stores in order to break the union and open a new shop with lower-paid employees, though, as rumours suggest.

Lowe’s itself only vaguely answered the question, alluding to “strategic reassessment” and committing to “improve the overall health of its store portfolio” in a press release in November.

When Lowe’s first entered the scene, Godden and his colleagues thought the corporation might shut down a store or two if some locations weren’t doing well.

“But for them to come in and close down all these stores and put everybody out of work, I don’t agree with that,” Godden says quietly. “I’m angry. I don’t want to be angry, but I am.”

Godden says even though he’s taken a blow, he and his wife will do fine. But others, some of them single parents or co-working partners, might face a different future.

“And they had the same benefits that I had,” he said. “So no matter where they went to work to, everybody’s losing on this.”

If Lowe’s had never swooped in, Godden adds, he doubts his colleagues would now be battling idleness and uncertainty.

“Definitely. We’d still be working,” he said. “There was no reason for us to ever shut down.”

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