Locked out Quebec workers urge Olympics to say no to Rio Tinto’s tarnished gold

Locked out workers at the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelter in Alma, Quebec traveled to London on April 16 to urge organizers of this summer’s Olympic games to sever their relationship with Rio Tinto, a multinational, multi-billion dollar mining company. The company is supposed to provide 99 percent of the metal used in the 4,700 gold, silver, and bronze medals that will be presented to winners of this summer’s Olympic games.

“Locking out its workers in Quebec is a violation of Rio Tinto’s obligation to play fair under the Olympic Charter,” said Daniel Roy, director of District 5 of the United Steelworkers (USW), which represents the Alcan workers. Roy called the company’s attempt to drive down wages even though it made $14 billion in profits last year “a dangerous precedent for industrial workers and local families everywhere.”

Rio Tinto on December 31, 2001 locked out 780 members of USW after 88 percent of them rejected the company’s’ new contract proposal, which called for replacing good paying-union jobs with low-paying temporary and precarious jobs.

In London USW, Unite, the largest union in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and Workers Uniting, a global union,  announced a global corporate campaign to convince the International Olympic Committee to drop Rio Tinto as its supplier of metal for its medals.

Among other things the campaign features a website, Off the Podium, where supporters can send a letter urging the International Olympics Committee to reject Rio Tinto as the Olympic’s metal supplier.

USW will also work with its international partners including the International Metalworkers Federation and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers’ Unions to hold solidarity actions around the world. Alcan workers have already begun a tour of the US to build solidarity among unions here.

The third leg of the campaign will be a public information effort to highlight some of Rio Tinto’s other abuses. For example, in 2010, the company locked out 500 workers at its Boron, California borax mine in an attempt to impose union-busting concessions.  The company wanted to eliminate seniority, assume the prerogative to cut pay at any time, and convert many full-time, good-paying union jobs into part-time, low paying temporary work.

The lockout lasted 107 days. The company was finally forced to retreat from its original demands by a national solidarity action organized by the workers’ union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

In addition, the company has faced legal action for environmental, human rights abuses, and criminal wrongdoing in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and China.

“Our campaign will detail just how badly Rio Tinto is in violation of its obligations under the Olympic Charter,” Roy said. “It’s time to get Rio Tinto off the Olympic podium.”

In Quebec, Rio Tinto wants the workers to accept a new contract that will allow the company to convert full-time jobs to part-time temporary jobs as union workers retire or as their jobs are vacated. The temporary jobs would be provided through subcontractors and would pay about half of what union workers make with no benefits.

“Our union opposes the practice of hiring subcontracted workers to replace unionized workers, and paying them at half the wage rate,” Roy said. “There must be equal pay for equal work. We need to make sure that our future generations will have access to quality jobs.”

Roy said that Rio Tinto has received government subsidies that allow it to prosper but still wants to eliminate union jobs and reduce payroll, which will affect not just its workers but the larger community. According to Roy, every Alcan union job indirectly creates 3.5 jobs in the surrounding community.

Furthermore, the company is using the subsidies to help it ride out the lockout. Le Devoir, a French language newspaper, recently revealed that as a result of a secret deal, the provincial government of Quebec in January bought $10 million worth of surplus electricity generated at the Alcan plant even though the provincial electrical system didn’t need it.

“The government should negotiate with companies as equals and protect workers and the local economy,” said Roy. “This secret agreement is being used right now to starve a region and keep 780 workers, who have families to feed, on the street.”

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