Workers staged a walkout at the Irving-owned Halifax Shipyard to protest against what they say is management harassment after a colleague who had been suspended without pay for 30 days shot himself and died.
"We're not happy; enough was enough," said Ryan LaPointe, who was among about 200 workers at the shipyard who walked off the job at around 9 a.m. on Thursday and blocked traffic on one of Halifax's main streets.
Irving would not comment, but issued a statement saying the "Irving Shipbuilding family was devastated by the news of the death of Peter MacKenzie. …" It went on to say that it is "not appropriate to speak about the details regarding individual employees."
Mr. MacKenzie worked at the shipyard for more than 30 years, and his job was to put up scaffolding. It is not clear why he was suspended on Wednesday. RCMP confirmed on Thursday that he apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The afternoon shift was on the job later Thursday and union officials and management were planning to meet to discuss how to resolve issues at the shipyard. Kevin McCoy, the president of Irving Shipbuilding, flew back from Boston on Thursday afternoon.
"In some corners of senior management, there is a desire to find a way to do things better," Rick Rose, the national representative of Unifor, the union representing the shipyard workers, told The Globe and Mail. "There's some support there for finding a better way."
Mr. Rose could not confirm complaints from workers about firings, disciplinary actions and harassment by management. He said, however, there seems to be "an increased number and, by extension, a slower response of getting issues resolved and dealt with and that's what's creating the frustration."
He called the walkout a spontaneous reaction to the death of a colleague. At one point, the men took off their hard hats for a moment of silence in response to Mr. MacKenzie's death.
"He had a heart so big you wouldn't have imagined it," pipefitter Bob Couture said of his deceased colleague. "He deserved a lot more. He would be proud to see us today standing up for him."
Mr. Couture, who said he has been at the shipyard for about seven years, noted a change in the culture of work since new management took over about a year ago. He said firings increased and everyone is "scared."
"This is the first secure job we have had in, how many years? We want to keep our jobs, hang on to them with both hands," he said.
The shipyard is undergoing a $300-million modernization to build new vessels for the federal government. Irving Shipbuilding was awarded a $25-billion contract in 2011 for 21 combat ships.
The shipbuilding contract was considered a huge boost for Nova Scotia with then-premier Darrell Dexter comparing it to playing host to the Olympics every year. It meant steady jobs for certain trades for a generation.