Cemetery union's split-shift: work, then strike

Montreal’s Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery seemed mostly deserted Monday, on the first day back for gravediggers and maintenance staff after a four-month lockout. Workers will be on the job four days a week, while going on strike every Friday until the dispute is settled.

"I haven't seen any work being done at all," said Erika Roseneder, 67, who walked from one end of the cemetery to another Monday. Roseneder was out of town since before the dispute began May 16 and was surprised to see the cemetery in such a sorry state.

The path she walked on was surrounded by overgrown yellow grass, felled trees and branches, as well as weeds and dandelions, some of which had grown almost a metre tall. "It's normally very tidy," she said.

The hangover from the dispute will last for several months, cemetery officials say. A call centre has been set up to contact the families who have been waiting to bury loved ones since the dispute began.

Monday, workers were said to be cleaning up the site and checking equipment to prepare the cemetery for its first burials Wednesday. But the cemetery seemed eerily quiet, with very few trucks driving through the grounds.

"I think there are more media here today than there are employees," said Yoland Tremblay, general manager of the Fabrique de la Paroisse Notre-Dame-de-Montreal, the corporation that manages the cemetery.

Tremblay said it will take about three months to clear the backlog of bodies waiting for burial, and to do so general maintenance work will be cut back. Don't expect the cemetery to be restored to its former glory until next spring, Tremblay said.

As of last week, there were 347 coffins and urns waiting to be buried, while the remaining 151 are to be stored in a new mausoleum to be built by October.

The cemetery performs burials right through the winter. However, 59 bodies must be buried in the next few weeks because their graves are in parts of the cemetery where the hilly terrain makes it impossible to dig when the ground is frozen, Tremblay said.

"The workers are happy to be back at work," said Daniel Maillet, president of the union representing workers at the cemetery. "But there is definitely some bitterness. People would prefer that the dispute be settled definitively."

Maillet said he's pleased the two sides were able to avoid a government-imposed settlement, saying it would have set a bad precedent for Quebec to get involved in what he called a private matter.

The 129 gravediggers and maintenance workers have been without a contract since Dec. 31, 2003. They earn $24 an hour, on average. Management says salaried employees make $49,000 a year; seasonal workers, $27,000.

The union has asked for a four-day work week, a guarantee of 36 weeks of work for seasonal employees, a supplementary retirement plan and sub-contracting of maintenance projects.


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