What Are the Real Issues Behind ABI’s Odious Lockout?

BÉCANCOUR, Que. – Locked-out workers at the ABI aluminum smelter and the entire Mauricie region of Quebec stand to suffer from an odious lockout that might have been prevented had the company’s foreign owners given local plant officials a mandate to settle at the bargaining table.

“We realized yesterday that a series of potlines was being shut down even before a meeting between the parties, convened by the government mediator, had begun,” noted Clément Masse, President of United Steelworkers Local 9700, which represents 1,030 ABI employees.

“The company’s Human Resources Director indicated very clearly that he ‘did not have a mandate to negotiate.’ It makes you wonder whether the real issues in this dispute were actually at the bargaining table or in the commercial interests of these two aluminum sector giants.” 

A two-headed creature

The Bécancour smelter is owned 25.1% by Rio Tinto and 74.9% by Alcoa. To end a labour dispute, both corporate parties have to agree.

“It’s obvious that this complicates negotiations, and even more so during a labour dispute,” Masse said.

This paralysis on the part of company representatives goes beyond this past week’s events, he added.

“In December, when negotiations were going well and important steps had been taken on the issue of the pension plan, the company preferred to break off negotiations and file a final offer rather than closing the loop with a negotiated settlement,” Masse said.

Negotiations foundered on the issues of the pension plan and respect for seniority in labour turnover, just as the plant prepares to hire a large wave of new employees. It should be noted that the cost of a lockout, with the shutdown of the potlines, is far greater than the dollar value separating the parties.

“It makes no sense. A lockout costs them much more than it would have cost them to settle,” Masse said.

The Steelworkers Quebec Director, Alain Croteau, notes that the Steelworkers went through a similar lockout situation with Rio Tinto in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region in 2012.

“This company doesn’t think twice about making hundreds of families suffer and impoverishing an entire region if their commercial interests are at stake. But today we know that they will be able to cause the price of several aluminum products to increase and maybe the American Midwest premium as well, while continuing to supply the market out of plants that they own 100%, rather than a 25% stake. You sometimes have to wonder who actually benefits from these tactics,” Croteau stated.

In 2012, as Rio Tinto was set to lock out workers at its smelter in Alma, Que., there was a surplus on aluminum markets, and stopping production at the Alma plant contributed to lowering stocks, thereby leading to higher prices.

For its part, Alcoa regularly asks the Quebec government and its public hydro utility for cheaper electricity rates.

“Should we be reading into this lockout a tactic for spreading uncertainty and bringing about lower electricity rates?” Croteau asked. 

Steelworkers Local 9700 today reiterated its willingness to resume negotiations.

“Several of the outstanding issues in the negotiations concern labour turnover. These are work organization issues that don’t necessarily have an important monetary impact, but they do require a spirit of openness on the part of the company. A settlement is certainly possible, but only if the company wants it,” said Masse.


For further information:

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

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