Moral authority invoked in cemetary impasse

Saying "enough is enough," on Monday Montreal's Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte asked both sides in the three-month-old strike at Canada's largest cemetery to set aside their differences and bury the dead. Turcotte wants the corporation that runs Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery on Mount Royal to lift its lockout, and at at the same time he asked the union to suspend its strike action.

Monday's press conference was called at the last minute after Turcotte met privately with Debora De Thomasis, head of a group calling itself Rights for the Families of the Dead in Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges cemetery. The cardinal initiated the meeting after De Thomasis threatened to stage protest demonstrations outside the chancery office of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Montreal.

It was the first time Turcotte met reporters since the cemetery's 129 unionized employees were locked out May 16. Since then about 60 bodies a week have been piling up in refrigerated units. A class-action lawsuit asking for $500,000 a day in moral and punitive damages on behalf of the families of 600 unburied dead was filed July 16.

"We can't keep dead people in Frigidaires," Turcotte said Monday. "I am well aware of the pain of the families in mourning. The families who want to see their dead buried are the real victims in all of this."

"I am asking everyone to go back to work on the short term, and I am counting on an eventual resolution based on the the good faith of both sides," he said. "Let's settle the immediate problem of burying the dead on the short run, and settle the labour problems in the long run."

At the same time diocese officials stressed that the cardinal has no legal power to resolve the labour dispute.

"The public seems to have the impression that a bishop can push a button and fix things," Turcotte said. "I have no legal or political authority to intervene." he said.

The law governing the corporate entities of the church (fabriques) recognizes that the cemetery is under the administration and management of the corporation that owns the property.

"I have no right to impose anything on anyone. My profound conviction is that the only way we will be able to resolve this is through negotiation," Turcotte said.

De Thomasis, whose grandmother has been in cold storage at the cemetery since mid-May, said the cardinal's statement exceeded her expectations.

Neither the union nor management returned phone calls Monday, but workers on the picket line outside the cemetery gates welcomed the cardinal's tough talk. "We're very satisfied with his point of view," said one of them, "Now it's up to management to respond."

In the past union president Daniel Maillet said his sympathies are with the families, and blamed the employer for locking gravediggers out.

At issue are four key points: the union’s demand for a four-day work week, a guarantee of 36 weeks’ work for seasonal employees, a supplementary retirement plan, and the issue of subcontracting large scale maintenance projects which the union says its employees are capable of handling on overtime. Cemetery workers earn on average $24 an hour.


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