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Quebec Government Calls for Negotiated Settlement to ABI Smelter Lockout

QUEBEC CITY – The United Steelworkers welcomes today’s unanimous vote in the Quebec National Assembly calling for a resumption of collective bargaining to end a lockout of workers at the ABI aluminum smelter.

Hundreds of locked-out workers from the ABI smelter in Bécancour travelled to Quebec City to demonstrate outside the National Assembly this morning as legislators debated a motion that acknowledged the damaging impact of the lockout and called for a return to the bargaining table.

The workers were supported by Quebec labour leaders who noted how multinational aluminum producers have been abusing a “social contract” in which they enjoy beneficial electricity rates from publicly owned Quebec Hydro.

“There is a social contract between aluminum smelters and the people of Quebec. The smelters enjoy favourable electricity rates from Quebec in return for creating good jobs in our communities. This lockout has broken the social contract,” said Daniel Boyer, President of the Quebec Federation of Labour.

“This is not just about the families of 1,030 workers forced onto the street – it’s about all Quebecers. The government cannot simply sit back and watch while companies hold an entire region hostage,” Boyer said.

Management at the ABI smelter, which is co-owned by multinational aluminum giants Alcoa and Rio Tinto, locked out 1,030 employees without warning on Jan. 11, rejecting union appeals to continue bargaining. Over the last four weeks, the locked-out employees, members of United Steelworkers Local 9700, have repeatedly offered to resume negotiations.

“Some have said this is a private dispute, but electricity rebates are a very public issue – we pay for them collectively. I looked at my electricity bill this morning and I’m pretty sure I’m paying more per kilowatt-hour than these foreign corporations are paying. We believe the government has a moral obligation to intervene,” said Quebec Steelworkers Director Alain Croteau.

Following a noisy demonstration this morning outside the National Assembly, the locked-out workers welcomed the unanimous vote by legislators calling for a resumption of negotiations.

“It shows that this situation transcends party lines and political allegiances. A resolution is crucial not only for the 1,030 working families who are directly affected, but for the economy of an entire region and for all of Quebec,” said Steelworkers Local 9700 President Clément Masse.

“It means a lot to us that this dispute has prompted a debate and a vote at the National Assembly,” Croteau said.

“This sends a clear message to Alcoa’s corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh and to Rio Tinto’s headquarters in London. We hope they will now give a real mandate to their negotiators to reach a negotiated settlement,” he said.

The union has questioned the motives behind ABI’s lockout of its employees, noting that significant costs associated with the decision – including shutting down two of the smelter’s three potlines – far exceed the costs of resolving the outstanding issues in negotiations.

“Right before Rio Tinto and Alcoa made the decision to withdraw from the bargaining table, we had already made major progress,” Masse said.

“There had been discussions on the possibility of a resolution on the pension issue and we were beginning to look at the issue of seniority rights in employees transfers and turnover. We’ve made our position clear from the start: we want to resume negotiations with the individuals who have the mandate to reach a settlement.”

The motion passed today in the National Assembly was introduced by the Québec Solidaire party and states, in part:

“The National Assembly of Quebec recognizes that the lockout at the ABI smelter is having a negative impact on workers, on the economy of the Centre-du-Québec and Mauricie region and on the Quebec economy ... The National Assembly of Quebec requests that the parties resume negotiations.”

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For further information:

Clairandrée Cauchy, Syndicat des Métallos/USW Communications, 514-774-4001, ccauchy@metallos.ca

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