About 100 locked-out workers from the ABI aluminum smelter in Quebec demonstrated outside Pittsburgh-based Alcoa’s annual shareholders meeting at the Westin Convention Center on Wednesday.
The United Steelworkers union organized the demonstration of the workers from the smelter in Bécancour, Quebec.
According to the union, ABI, a joint venture between majority owner Alcoa and Rio Tinto, locked out about 1,000 members of USW Local 9700 in January. The union planned to use the meeting to draw attention to the situation.
The 1,030 unionized workers were locked out at 3am on 11 January, when their collective agreement expired. This came after the employer unilaterally pulled out of contract negotiations and presented the union with a final offer that was rejected by 80 per cent of members.
The company tried to pre-empt negotiations by shutting down potlines – reduction pots used to smelt aluminium – even before a scheduled meeting between the union and management, convened by the government mediator, took place.
ABI is 75 per cent owned by US aluminium giant Alcoa, and 25 per cent Anglo-Australian mining multinational Rio Tinto.
The points of disagreement in the contract negotiation relate to changes to the pension scheme, and recognition of workers’ seniority. The company wants to move from a defined benefit pension scheme to a member-funded scheme where employees would cover the risk.
The Steelworkers have said that although they will defend their members’ right to a fair pension and to seniority, they are willing to resume negotiations.
“We are ready and willing to continue to negotiate in good faith and to maintain the smooth operation of this plant,” said Steelworkers Local 9700 president Clément Masse.
The union believes that the breakdown of negotiations might be a political tactic by the company, either as part of a strategy to demand cheaper electricity rates from the public utility, or as part of an attempt to lower excess stock of aluminium and therefore raise the price.
The order to lock out came from corporate headquarters, with the local manager saying he had “no mandate” to continue negotiations with the union.
“Why provoke a labour dispute that in the end will have a pricetag that exceeds the costs of all union proposals made at the bargaining table? There is something fishy here. Investors should demand answers from Alcoa”, said Masse.
IndustriALL Global Union has sent a letter of solidarity to the union local, and a letter of protest to Alcoa CEO Roy Harvey.
IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches wrote:
“IndustriALL Global Union fully supports the legitimate demands of USW Local 9700 concerning, inter alia, seniority on the job and decent retirement benefits. Therefore, we urge Alcoa to intervene at Aluminerie de Bécancour Inc (ABI) to end immediately the lockout, and guarantee the resumption of negotiations with the union, which should result in a fair contract.”
There is a global network of unions at Alcoa. IndustriALL will mobilize the network to build support for the struggle at Bécancour.