TROIS-RIVIÈRES, Que. – More than 1,000 employees of the ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour, Que., are marking a sombre anniversary today – the one-year mark of being locked out of their jobs.
While union representatives were expecting to meet with management on Jan. 11, 2018, to discuss next steps in the collective bargaining process, the company suddenly locked out workers at 3 a.m. Employees working the graveyard shift at the time were abruptly forced out of the smelter by security, prevented even from showering to cleanse themselves of their exposure to toxic contaminants in the plant.
One year later, negotiations remain at an impasse, with the company now demanding new concessions after reneging on previously agreed issues in contract talks.
Quebec Premier François Legault, who during last fall’s election campaign promised that a resolution of the ABI dispute would be one of his “priorities,” is now proving to be incapable or unwilling to help as the lockout drags on.
“François Legault promised to make it a real priority once in power. He talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk. It’s time for the Premier to take meaningful action,” Quebec Federation of Labour President Daniel Boyer said today while attending a rally in support of the locked-out workers. The rally was held outside the constituency office of Donald Martel, the local Member of the National Assembly and a member of François Legault’s government.
The lockout has not only had a devastating impact on ABI workers and the region’s entire economy, it has also cost the Quebec government and its public utility, Hydro-Québec, nearly $220 million in lost revenues.
By letting ABI off the hook for its hydro commitments during the lockout, the government has made it easier for the company to drag out the labour dispute and try to force concessions on workers, Boyer said.
“The electricity contracts between the government, Hydro-Québec and the aluminum multinationals create an imbalance of power in negotiations,” he said, referring to ABI’s ownership group which consists of global giants Alcoa and Rio Tinto.
Hundreds of locked-out workers and their supporters attended today’s rally.
“If ABI had to pay for its hydro commitments, it would probably have to adopt a different attitude,” said Alain Croteau, Quebec Director of the United Steelworkers (Syndicat des Métallos), which represents the 1,030 locked out-ABI employees.
“The government must review these unfair contracts that allow these companies to take workers hostage while passing the bill on to taxpayers,” Croteau said.
Several attempts at mediation to resolve the dispute have failed, with the company rejecting compromise proposals while making new demands for concessions.
“There was little separation between the parties last January when the dispute broke out,” noted Clément Masse, President of Steelworkers Local 9700 at the ABI smelter.
“The gap has widened since then and more than 1,000 families have suffered for an entire year due to the greed of multinational corporations,” Masse said.
“We need the government to get out of its pseudo-neutrality and restore some balance to this process. ABI is abusing the process and keeping hundreds of families in a state of insecurity, with the complicit silence of the Quebec government.”
Workers were shocked by ABI’s decision to lock them out last January, given that a negotiated settlement appeared within reach, with only two key issues to be resolved – pension plan financing and seniority rights in personnel transfers.
The United Steelworkers/Syndicat des Métallos is the largest private-sector union in Quebec, representing more than 60,000 workers from all economic sectors. It is a member of the Quebec Federation of Labour, the largest labour organization in Quebec, representing more than 600,000 workers.