BÉCANCOUR, Quebec — In a move that surprised both workers and United Steelworkers Local 9700 union officials, ABI aluminum smelter bosses here locked out over 1,000 workers at 3 a.m. Jan. 11. The workers had overwhelmingly voted down the bosses’ concession-contract demands only a few hours earlier. The unionists objected to ABI’s demand to transform all pensions from a defined benefit plan to one that would leave retired workers at the mercy of unstable stock market investments.
Quebec smelters produce 90 percent of Canada’s 3.2 million tons of aluminum, 90 percent of which is exported to the United States. The ABI Bécancour smelter, the second largest in North America, is 75 percent owned by Alcoa and the rest by Rio Tinto Alcan.
“The bosses have their own kind of solidarity, but we have workers’ solidarity,” machine operator René Normandin, with 24 years’ seniority, told Communist League members from Montreal when they visited the picket line Jan. 25.
Two days earlier unionists from a number of USW locals from the region participated in a solidarity rally outside the smelter. Yves Rolland, president of USW Local 6951 at the ArcelorMittal steel foundry in Contrecoeur, presented the locked-out workers with a check for $10,000. Another local announced it is going to donate $1,100 a week for the duration of the lockout. Other USW local representatives said their members would be voting on similar weekly contributions.
ABI management personnel are running production on one of the smelter’s three production lines. The locked-out workers picket 24 hours a day. Many told League members that they expect the lockout to last a long time. While we were there, a huge truckload of firewood was delivered to feed the burn barrel, much needed in the -16°C (3°F) weather.
“Another issue is the company’s violation of seniority rights in the contract,” James Maloney, Local 9700 health and safety representative, told us at the union hall. “They try to divide younger, recently hired workers from the older workers by disregarding the seniority list.”
“We’ve given solidarity for years to other struggles,” Maloney said, “and now we are getting it back in return.”
The locked-out workers also have to contend with the reactionary anti-labor Social Equality Party, whose members showed up at the solidarity rally to urge workers to break with their union.