Nearly 200 workers at the Irving Shipyard walked off the job Thursday morning after employees said resentment “boiled over” when they learned a co-worker had killed himself following a suspension, and what they say was months of harassment by management.
A shipyard worker who preferred not to give his name said he “almost cried right on the spot” when he heard of Peter MacKenzie’s death, who he said he worked with for 25 years.
“He was singled out and harassed in many regards,” said the man. “We’ve had enough and it’s as simple as that … it boiled over.”
Workers left their jobs around 7:30 a.m., lining both sides of Barrington Street at the bottom of Devonshire Avenue and crossing the street each time the lights changed.
Union president Cliff Pickrem said MacKenzie was suspended for 30 days due to poor workmanship on his scaffolding Tuesday, but later heard an engineer say the work was “quite up to standard.”
In a statement, Irving said “It is not appropriate to speak about details regarding individual employees.”
Halifax RCMP spokesman Cpl. Scott MacRae said they received a suicide call for a home in Eastern Passage on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. and found a 58-year-old man dead.
Metro reached out to the victim’s family, who preferred not to comment.
Tyler Stewart, 29, was among many who said the company has become much harsher and more disciplinary in the last year and half since Irving won the national shipbuilding contract and new management came in.
“A lot of the older gentlemen, they’re trying to almost make them retire …they want to make their lives miserable,” Stewart said. “Unfortunately it has to come to this to make a better situation.”
Earlier in the day, Adam Herse, a third-generation shipyard worker, said MacKenzie had spent 35 years on the job.
“They harassed him, they were after him,” Herse said as a light rain fell down on the workers. “The man couldn’t even have a cigarette without them getting in his business.”
Herse said he was prepared to stay there as long as it took for management to change the way he said workers are being treated.
“For his wife, I’ll stay here the rest of the year,” he said, in reference to MacKenzie. “We have to shed light on what goes on behind that fence.”
Pickrem and national union rep Rick Rose came from negotiations just before noon and said Irving’s president was flying to Halifax. They told the crowd management understood their frustration, but were asking everyone to continue working.
Many shouted “no way” and left the property, saying they would return Friday. Some went inside.
“We’re going to have conversations we haven’t had for quite some time to reset things, and make sure everybody feels confident that we can do the work we need to do,” said Rose.
Irving spokesperson Deborah Page said in a statement they are “working extremely hard to create a positive, effective and productive work environment at Halifax Shipyard – and for that we need employees to be at work, and the union and company to work together.”
“Our thoughts and hearts go out to Peter’s family and friends, and to all here at the shipyard who worked with him,” a statement released Thursday from Irving read.
– with files from Philip Croucher