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ABI Lockout Ends

TROIS-RIVIÈRES, Que. – At a general membership meeting today in Trois-Rivières, workers at Aluminerie de Bécancour Inc. (ABI) voted by a 79.8% majority to ratify the employer’s latest contract offer, bringing an end to one of the longest private-sector labour disputes in Quebec history.

“I am proud of each and every one of the workers, of the struggle they have waged – with the support of more than 500 union organizations across Quebec – to preserve jobs and to defend basic principles such as seniority and their working conditions,” said Clément Masse, President of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9700.

“The resistance and the resilience of our members and the solidarity of union members across Quebec made it possible to regain ground compared to the company’s last offer in March and compared to the proposed settlement put forward by Labour Minister Jean Boulet which in some respects was worse than the company offer,” Masse noted.

“Seniority rights are respected in this agreement and the employer will no longer be able to offer positions to people outside the plant without first offering them to union members,” he said.

Improvements also were made to a return-to-work protocol, allowing all union members to return to their jobs within an eight-month period, compared to the company’s previous proposal which could have extended the return period to several years, during which union rights would have been suspended. An employer grievance demanding a $19-million settlement from the union also has been dropped.

The 1,030 workers at the ABI aluminum smelter were locked out of their jobs in January 2018. ABI is co-owned by multinational giants Alcoa, which holds a 75% stake and Rio Tinto, which holds the remaining 25%.

Union leaders condemned the company's resistance to engage in meaningful, constructive negotiations throughout the 18-month lockout.

“Certainly, we would have preferred a negotiated settlement, which would have created a better working environment as workers return to their jobs. One thing is certain, if Alcoa was trying to break the union and its members, it failed. The employer will see workers returning to the plant with their rights, dignity and solidarity intact,” Masse said.

Low aluminum prices, which made the smelter’s restart less attractive, were among several factors linked to ABI’s willingness to prolong the lockout, the union says.

Above all, however, was the hydroelectricity contract between ABI and the Quebec government’s public utility, Hydro-Québec, that allowed ABI to classify its lockout of employees as a ‘force majeure,’ or Act of God. The force majeure clause absolved ABI of its electricity-purchasing commitments with Hydro-Québec while also depriving Quebecers of huge hydro revenues.

“If Alcoa and Rio Tinto had to pay for the entire block of electricity in the contract, there might not even have been a lockout. Certainly, the dispute would not have lasted this long,” said USW Quebec Director Alain Croteau, who noted there were only two key unresolved issues between the parties when ABI opted to lock out its employees in 2018

Croteau also denounced Quebec Premier François Legault’s blatant bias and interference in the negotiations, which emboldened the company in its agenda of refusing to engage in meaningful negotiations.

“The role played by the Premier is disappointing. While he pledged support for workers during the last election campaign, his statements in recent months reinforced the company’s refusal to negotiate and contributed to prolonging this dispute. He is aware of the loss of good jobs in the region,” Croteau said.

“We will have to review these infamous electricity contracts – which the Premier once derided as ‘junior stuff’ – to ensure that Quebecers receive better economic benefits in exchange for the favourable hydro rates that are given to aluminum smelters. Quebecers must never again have to pay the bill when multinationals decide to lock out their workers.”

Dominic Lemieux, Assistant to the Steelworkers’ Quebec Director, praised the extraordinary solidarity shown by workers and unions of all stripes across Quebec.

“The union members at ABI will be moving forward from this long and difficult dispute with their heads held high. You can’t win every battle you fight, but you certainly will lose the battles that you don’t fight. In this case, the workers stood shoulder to shoulder and fought long and hard. The result is not what they would have liked, but it is better than what the employer tried to force down their throats. Employers will think twice in the future about imposing lockouts and depriving themselves of income,” Lemieux said.

The United Steelworkers/Syndicat des Métallos, affiliated with the FTQ, is the largest private-sector union in Quebec, representing more than 60,000 workers from all economic sectors.

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For further information:

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

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