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CNE opens Friday amid labour dispute, picket lines

Last Updated Aug 17, 2018 at 4:49 pm EDT

Thousands descended on the Exhibition grounds for the opening of the 140th Canadian National Exhibition on Friday.

And along with the smell of popcorn and donuts and the sounds of the midway, visitors were greeted by picket lines.

This year’s event is taking place as some 400 stagehands and technical employees of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 58 remain involved in a dispute with Exhibition Place’s board of governors that saw the workers locked out on July 20.

The union representing the workers said the employees have been without a contract since Dec. 2017. IATSE Local 58 president Justin Antheunis said the outstanding issue is management’s ability to contract out their work.

“We only got into this business because we love it,” he said. “And now, to just be tossed aside because they want to find ways to do everything cheaper, and to have no loyalty for those workers who have been doing this for a long time, it is disheartening for all of us.”

The Exhibition Place board said, however, that the locked-out employees were offered multiple opportunities to work during the CNE but turned them down.

“Ultimately the event had to go on,” said Coun. Justin Di Ciano, vice-chair of the Exhibition Place board of governors.

The board said it wants to update the workers’ contract to reflect the “highly competitive” marketplace and that it thinks the dispute should be settled at the bargaining table rather than in arbitration like the union has suggested.

“They need to understand that we need to become competitive in a very different market that existed when we signed our labour contract in the 1920s,” said Di Ciano. “Our hope is they see it from our side and they understand that if we become more competitive, we will be able to bring more events and that is jobs for them.”

Antheunis said the union is ready to engage in discussions with the board at any time.

Out-of-province workers were brought in to help set up a number of venues, including stages for the CNE bandshell concerts.

Premier Doug Ford and Mayor John Tory both attended the official opening ceremony. Tory said ensuring that visitors to the CNE can enjoy the event is a priority.

“I think the union would agree with me that we all want to make sure that the 140 CNE is very successful and everybody feels comfortable coming down here,” he said.

The event, founded in 1879, is one of the largest fairs in North America and will run until Sept. 3.

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