The company aims to gain wide leeway to replace union workers as they retire with subcontractors paid half the wage. During the lockout, the Quebec government has been buying excess electricity generated by Rio Tinto’s privately owned dams, helping the company weather the lockout.
“This is a conflict that is going to continue for a while,” USW Local 9490 President Marc Maltais said in a phone interview.
Étienne Jacques, company chief operating officer in North America, told the Alma City Council May 14 that he wanted a settlement before the summer. Two days later mayors of Alma and Saguenay and other local officials in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region called on the union to “seize the opportunity to settle.”
The smelter here is one of six in Quebec owned by Rio Tinto Alcan, which owns an alumina refinery, six hydroelectric dams, and part of two other smelters. It also operates the Roberval-Saguenay Railway and a port facility at Port Alfred.
On May 30 and 31, government mediators met separately with the union and then the company.
“When we arrive to negotiate, they ask ‘Do you want to talk about guaranteed minimum number of union jobs?’ and they turn on their heel,” said picket Luc Côté. “It’s a pretext that the union’s stuck on unrealistic demands.”
The company is running production at one-third normal capacity, according to company press liaison Claudine Gagnon. Quebec’s so-called antiscab law allows only supervisory personnel hired before the conflict to cross picket lines. Yet Laval Larouche, who has 27 years in the plant, echoed comments by other pickets when he said, “I see a lot of unknown faces driving in.”
Radio-Canada reported April 7 on a government investigation confirming Rio Tinto’s use of strikebreakers. Maltais said the union is gathering information for a possible lawsuit.
According to locked-out Steelworker Suzy Fournier, organizer of the 200-strong “wife picket” on April 21, small businesses regularly donate items to the picket line. A caterer provides spaghetti for lunch every Wednesday and several cheese factories make donations.
On July 23, the contract of the 1,150 workers at the Rio Tinto aluminum smelter at Kitimat, British Columbia, expires. “A lot of jobs were specifically discussed in 2007—now the company wants to contract them out. It’s the same issue as in Alma,” Richard Belmont, president of the Canadian Autoworkers local that organizes the smelter, told the Militant.
To send solidarity messages and for more information, consult the union local’s website: www.solidaritealma.org.
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On the Picket Line
Construction workers protest in Iran
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