Locked out Sherwin Alumina workers receive international support

Representatives from unions all over the world on December 10 gathered in the streets of London outside the annual investors’ day meeting of Glencore to protest the lockout of 450 workers at the Glencore-owned Sherwin Alumina refinery near Corpus Christi, Texas.

Glencore is a multinational mining, manufacturing, and trading corporation based in Switzerland and the UK. It’s Sherwin Alumina operation refines bauxite into alumina, a key ingredient in the manufacturing of aluminum.

“This is a company that makes huge profits off the backs of its workers and tries to bully those workers into accepting less and less,” said Jessie Green of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 235A, who attended the London demonstration as a representative of the locked out workers. “It’s corporate greed – pure and simple – and unless we stand up to it, it will only get worse.”

Local 235A is the locked out workers’ union and Green is a member of the local’s negotiating team.

The workers were locked out in October after they rejected the company’s contract proposal that if accepted would have reduced take home pay by changing the way overtime is defined, increased worker health care costs, and taken the first step toward eliminating the workers’ pension.

The London demonstration was organized by the Glencore global network, an international coalition of unions representing Glencore workers.

The demonstration was also protesting Glencore’s disregard for worker safety and other abusive practices toward its workers.

“We are especially alarmed about safety issues. In the United States, the Sherwin Alumina plant already had an injury rate twice the national average, and now inexperienced replacement workers operate the facility. It is a reckless approach which could have catastrophic consequences for the workers,” said Glen Mpufane, director of mining for IndustriALL, an international confederation of unions in the mining and manufacturing industries. “We are calling on Glencore to resolve labor and community conflicts extending around the world, including Africa, Asia, Australia, Latin America and North America.”

Glencore professes to be a good corporate citizen that respects its workers, but at a November meeting of the Glencore global network, union members from the company’s mines said that worker abuse at these mines is common.

“In Peru and Colombia, the safety and health situation of workers was particularly disturbing, with reports of how injuries to workers are commonplace with Glencore refusing to work with trade unions to address these issues,” reads a report from the meeting. “In addition, it was found that the wholesale use of sub-contracting and precarious employment by Glencore at its global operations was a major contributing factor to the alarming statistics on safety and health.”

Workers also reported other problems such as Glencore’s refusal to pay standard severance payments to South African miners about to lose their jobs at the company’s Koornfotein coal mine in Mpumalanga and the eviction of miners from company housing in Collinsville, Australia after the company refused to re-hire the miners.

In Columbia, Glencore allowed a  paramilitary group to bivouac and train on its property. The group was linked to the murder of some trade unionists.

At Glencore’s Sherwin Alumina plant in Texas, the locked out workers and their families are facing some hard times, especially now that the holidays season is here and the workers haven’t received a paycheck since October.

But unlike its locked out workers, a cash shortage is not one of Glencore’s problems.

In fact, the opposite is true. It’s biggest problem appears to be figuring out what to do with is excess cash.

In August, Glencore announced that it would use some of its excess cash to repurchase stock from its shareholders.

The buy back will be quite to boon to its shareholders because Glencore plans to repurchase $1 billion worth of outstanding stock. So far, according to Bloomberg, the buy back is 65 percent complete.

Glencore is also looking for other ways to spend its bountiful surplus of cash. Bloomberg reports that Glencore is interested in buying its chief rival Rio Tinto, an Australia-based mining corporation that also does business all over the world.

Such a merger would create a $150 billion international corporate behemoth that extracts raw materials from the earth, manufactures some of the raw materials into commodities, and uses some items that it mines and manufactures to speculate in the global commodities market.

Glencore, however, doesn’t appear to be interested in sharing any of its excess cash with its Sherwin Alumina workers.

Earlier this month, the two sides resumed negotiations, but they broke off because as one USW official put it, the company insisted on retaining its “unreasonable and unnecessary demands for deep cuts in pay and benefits.”

“This is a highly profitable company, and the market for its product is improving,” said Ben Lilienfeld, USW District 13 sub-director. “There is simply no reason – other than greed – for Sherwin (and its parent Glencore) to continue to keep its doors locked on these workers. It is bad for the workers, their families, and our entire community.”

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