Rio Tinto workers return to work; union claims victory

Workers at the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelter in Alma, Quebec on July 5 voted to accept a tentative agreement negotiated by the United Steelworkers and the company. The vote ends a six-month lockout.

Rio Tinto, the world’s third largest mining and metals processing company, locked out 780 members of USW Local 9490 in December when the workers rejected a new contract offer that would have allowed the company to replace retiring workers with temporary contract labor paid about half the pay of full-time workers with no benefits or pensions.

The workers’ rejection of the company’s demand, which would have lowered living standards of future workers and imperiled the economic health of the surrounding community, was an act of inter-generational and class solidarity.

“These workers are fighting to provide our youth with the same working and living conditions that they have,” said Daniel Roy, director of USW in Quebec at a rally shortly after the lockout began. “They decided not to take the money and run and forsake the future of others. They don’t want this employer to slowly suffocate the region’s economy by steadily replacing quality jobs with contracted-out work that pays up to 50 percent less.”

According to Leo Gerard, president of USW, the new contract that the Alma workers approved rejects the company’s demand that jobs of retired workers be converted to temporary work and limits the company’s ability to contract out work.

USW leaders are calling the new agreement “a great victory for the workers and their supporters.”

The key to victory was solidarity both locally and globally. “Our members and their families suffered for six long months but never wavered,” said Local 9490 President Marc Maltais.

“The enormous solidarity shown by our members in Quebec inspired trade unions across the globe to support them,” Roy said. “After union members around the world learned that our members were selflessly fighting to protect their community and future generations of workers, support funds came pouring in.”

After the lockout began, USW started building an international support campaign for the Alma workers. In March, 8,000 people including striking Canadian college students and union members from the US, Mexico, the Netherlands, Turkey, South Africa, and other countries came to Alma to demonstrate their solidarity with the locked out workers.

USW and their international allies also launched an Off the Podium campaign to raise public awareness of the lockout and to call into question Rio Tinto’s corporate behaviour around the globe. The campaign demanded that the organizers of the London Olympic games find another vendor to replace Rio Tinto, an international company based in Australia, which was to supply the metal used in making Olympic medals.

According to Off the Podium’s website, Rio Tinto’s behaviour in Alma was part of a pattern showing that the company’s action “fails to live up to the Olympic principle of fair play and to the London Games’ commitment to sustainability.”

In addition to the Alma lockout, Rio Tinto in 2010 locked out ILWU members in Boron, California when they refused to accept similar concessionary demands by the company.

In Papua, New Guinea, the company’s giant Grasberg mining complex, which Rio Tinto co-owns with Freeport McMoRan, has been accused of dumping toxic waste into nearby rivers and threatening the delicate eco-system crucial to the survival of indigenous people. The mine owners have also been accused of conspiring with police to suppress the human rights and labor rights of mine workers who have been fighting preserve the local environment and achieve a decent standard of living.

Ken Neuman, USW Canadian national director, said after the Alma workers ratified the new contract that USW will continue to work with others to demand that Rio Tinto respect human and labor rights and the environment wherever it operates. “We know there will be new attacks by Rio Tinto on trade unions and communities,” Neuman said. “The Steelworkers will be there to help them resist Rio Tinto’s assaults.”

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