6 February, 2012
The European Works Council (EWC) of Rio Tinto last week condemned the global minerals and metal producer for its unwarranted lockout of 780 Canadian members of Syndicat des Métallos d’Alma, an affiliate of the United Steelworkers (USW) in Alma, Québec.
The intervention made by Rio’s EWC Secretary Véronique Roche from Paris comes at a time when the USW along with the ICEM and the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF) are ramping up a campaign. Actions have been launched to bring attention and pressure on the multinational in support of aluminium smelter workers of Rio Tinto subsidiary Alcan, who were unjustly locked off their jobs on 1 January in the Saguenay-lac-Saint-Jean region of Québec.
A mass protest of Canadian and global trade unionists will take place in Alma – some 380 kilometres north of Alcan’s headquarters in Montréal – on 31 March. That will come a day after the ICEM North America Region holds its committee meeting in the region as a show of support for the victimised members of Syndicat des Métallos d’Alma, USW Local 9490.
An initial thrust 11 days ago by ICEM and IMF global affiliates in the form of protest letters to Rio Tinto’s President and CEO Tom Albanese saw a company response a day into the action: the company turned off its fax machines to avoid a deluge of written protests.
The EWC intervention, however, is sure to resonate. Roche said the EWC has found that Rio Tinto Alcan management failed to even consider proposals made by the union, a “destructive and socially irresponsible position.”
The 2 February letter added to Albanese: “Please know that our European forum will stand alongside the United Steelworkers in all organised efforts in Europe and elsewhere, and we will participate in actions deemed necessary by the USW to repel this anti-social attack.”
The EWC then demanded that Rio Tinto end the lockout and order local management back to the bargaining table to negotiate a fair, equitable and acceptable labour agreement with workers that does not decimate the economic well-being of the community. (The full letter can be read here.)
The chief issue behind the lockout is Rio Tinto Alcan’s desire to have unlimited outsourcing rights, something that would eventually half the wage base of the Saguenay-lac-Saint-Jean region. Since Rio Tinto purchased Alcan in 2007 for US$39 billion, Alma management has replaced each worker taking retirement, or in other reductions in force, by outsourcing to sub-contractors who use low-wage staff without full social benefits.
Syndicat des Métallos d’Alma tried to set a floor on full-time, direct employees in collective negotiations. Alcan refused and immediately locked out the unionised workforce on expiration of a prior five-year agreement. There is mounting proof that Rio Tinto Alcan is partially operating the 438,000-tonne facility with the use of scabs during the lockout, a prohibition under provincial Québec labour statute and something the USW is pursuing through the legal system.