|Jan. 2 picket line by locked-out Steelworkers at Rio Tinto smelter in Alma, Quebec.|
“Given that raw materials to produce aluminum are getting more expensive, the company wants to maintain its profits on the backs of the workers and future generations,” Dominic Lemieux, spokesperson for the union negotiating committee, told the Militant. The central issue in the contract rejection is Rio Tinto’s plan to more than double the percentage of work performed by mostly nonunion subcontractors—in essence temporary workers who get half the wages of other employees and no benefits.
Locked-out worker and picket captain Hugues Boivin described the operation the company carried out to evict 160 workers from the plant on his shift at 1 a.m. Dec 31. “The security guards were big guys who spoke only English,” he said, although most workers’ first language is French. “They gave us each a garbage bag for our clean clothes, consulted lists naming each employee in each department and made us get out right away.”
Even workers who are usually required to shower and change to eliminate toxic materials were forced to leave immediately in their work clothes.
This move came at the end of months of rising tensions in the plant, fed by arbitrary company disciplinary actions and a media campaign by Rio Tinto to paint union members as saboteurs, say workers.
Union members immediately gathered at the four plant gates and stayed there in force for the next two days, stopping vehicles and materials from going in or out.
The Jan. 1 picket line visited by Militant reporters was bolstered by spouses of union members and other supporters dropping off food or wood. Fires kept picketers warm in subzero weather.
“It’s magic when you’re here with people who are fighting back because you can feel the energy,” said Marie-Christine Guay, a nurse there in support of her spouse.
Rio Tinto plans to maintain one-third of production for the duration of the lockout with more than 200 management personnel.
Aluminum prices have dropped by 16 percent over the last year, as demand decreases in response to the worldwide slowdown in industrial production. Rio Tinto has announced plans to sell off 13 of its less profitable plants outside Canada.
On Jan. 3 the company obtained an injunction limiting workers to 20 pickets, 500 feet from the main entrance, allowing free access to the plant. Union members are respecting the injunctions.
The next day 500 workers and their supporters rallied at 6 a.m. and marched to Rio Tinto’s hydroelectric plant. They were protesting the possible sale of surplus electricity freed up by the drop in production to Hydro-Quebec, the government’s electrical company. Unions representing workers at Rio Tinto’s electrical plant and Hydro-Quebec, the Canadian Auto Workers, and local, provincial, and federal politicians joined the march.
The town of Alma is in the Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean region, two hours’ drive north of Quebec City, where the pulp and paper industry is in steep decline.
Many workers on the picket line told the Militant they expect a long fight.
“The government-appointed conciliator hasn’t given any sign of life,” Boivin said by phone Jan. 6. “The main thing happening now is lots of support. Small businesses, people bringing food, hot meals. And not just during the day, in the night, too.”
Messages of support can be sent to: Métallos local 9490, 830 rue des Pins ouest, Alma, Quebec G8B 7R3. Tel.: (418) 662-7055. Fax: (418) 662-7354. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katy LeRougetel contributed to this article.
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