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Vol. 76/No. 9      March 5, 2012

Locked-out Rio Tinto
workers ‘fighting for future’
ALMA, Quebec—“The day really charged us up,” said Serge Harvey, a member of United Steelworkers Local 9490 and one of 750 locked out by Rio Tinto Alcan at its aluminum smelter here since Jan. 1. Harvey was referring to a six-hour trip 220 aluminum workers made Feb. 17 to Montreal where they marched through downtown and rallied outside a conference being addressed by a company spokesperson.

A couple hundred students fighting tuition fee hikes and other steelworkers from nearby towns joined them in solidarity.

Local 9490 voted Dec. 30 by 88 percent to reject the company’s contract demands. The central issue, according to the union, is Rio Tinto’s plan to increase the work performed by nonunion subcontractors, with lower wages and no benefits or union protection.

“There are certain peripheral positions we would like to be able to contract out such as janitors and security,” company spokesperson Bryan Tucker told the Militant. “We are not looking to subcontract core operation jobs.” Tucker said the company also doesn’t agree with the union’s demand for a minimum level of union employment because “it doesn’t take into account technological advancements” or provide “enough flexibility to adjust the business model.”

“They offered us 350 protected jobs out of 800, but we didn’t accept that,” Alexandre Fréchette, Local 9490 executive board member, told the Militant. “They say the core workers are the pot room and some cast house workers. If we accept their offer it would legitimize the other 450 jobs—like shipping the ingots, carbon manufacturing, handling, jobs that supply the pot room—as not core jobs.

“What we are doing today, we want to keep doing tomorrow. If a worker retires, we want a unionized worker to replace them,” he said.

The foundry has been running at about one-third capacity during the lockout, according to Tucker.

Before heading home from the Feb. 17 rally, the Steelworkers stopped off at Rio Tinto’s iron and titanium plant in Sorel, setting up a mobile stage for a brief rally as workers streamed out during shift change.

Locked-out unionists are buoyed by the solidarity flowing in. “This is going to take a long time,” Michael Duchesne said on the picket line Feb. 18. “But with support, we can settle it in the end.” Picket lines are up around the clock at Rio Tinto’s three locations here.

On Feb. 18 six members of Steelworkers Local 1005 who work for U.S. Steel drove in from Hamilton, Ontario. Local 1005 President Rolf Gerstenberger addressed a rally at the union office where he presented checks and announced a Canada-wide campaign among unions to raise $100 a month for each locked-out worker.

A few weeks prior, nonunion workers at Rio Tinto’s plant in Grande-Baie, Quebec, collected $2,000 and delivered it to the picket lines.

“If we were just thinking of ourselves, we’d have signed,” said locked-out worker Vincent Gaudreault. “We’re fighting for the future. My job’s safe, it’s for the guys who come after me.”

Local 9490 members have handed out some 10,000 leaflets on their fight at local shopping centers and other locations, local President Marc Maltais told the Militant.

Steelworkers have announced an international rally for the locked-out unionists in Alma on March 31.
Related articles:
Calif. foundry workers fight immigrant firings
Workers’ unity steeled in previous strike battle
On the Picket Line
Strike reflects changing working class in Israel  
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