January 18, 2018

Our Security Lies in the Fight for the Rights of All!

Workers Stand as One to
Defend Their Rights 


Our Security Lies in the Fight for the Rights of All!
Workers Stand as One to Defend Their Rights

The Canadian Trade Union Movement Unravels

How Will Unifor Splitting from the CLC Help Workers Defend Their Rights?

Lockout at the ABI Smelter in Bécancour, Quebec

Stand with Locked Out Aluminum Smelter Workers!
Interview with Clément Masse, President of Steelworkers Local 9700
Let's All Get Behind ABI Steelworkers Fighting for Their Dignity
and Unity!
- Letter to the Editor

Our Security Lies in the Fight for the Rights of All!

Workers Stand as One to Defend Their Rights

Many workers across Canada are facing  intransigent private or public employers unwilling to discuss and negotiate terms of employment. Instead, they are using lockouts, legislation, court orders and diversion to impose their will.

Such is the case with public service workers in Nova Scotia, teachers and education workers in Ontario and others who have faced government anti-worker legislation imposing terms of employment on them rather than hashing out an acceptable collective agreement.

In Hamilton, members of  Local 1005 USW, at one of the Stelco mills taken over by by German monopoly  Max Aicher North America (MANA) in 2010, have faced lies and extortion. After promising the moon when it purchased the mill from U.S. Steel receiving financial incentives from the Ontario government, MANA bared its fangs in 2013 demanding unacceptable concessions from Local 1005 steelworkers and locked them out in an attempt to enforce its "final offer." The lockout was immediately followed by a court injunction preventing effective picketing by Local 1005. MANA hired scab replacement workers including students sent from Mohawk College, a publicly-funded institution. Members of Local 1005 and their supporters have intervened to stop the flow of scabs from Mohawk and vowed not to give in. They are militantly defending their right to employment at the mill on terms acceptable to themselves.

In Sault Ste. Marie, steelworkers and salaried employees at the Algoma Steel plant have been under emergency court order of the anti-worker Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) three times in the last 25 years. The latest bout in CCAA has now entered its third year. Those in control of the mill and the court process are trying to force steelworkers and salaried employees to give in to pressure to work without collective agreements and accept unilaterally imposed terms of employment under court order. The 2,235 hourly steelworkers of USW Local 2251 and the 470 salaried employees of USW Local 2724 have refused to do so and demand negotiations under Ontario's Labour Relations Act without the interference, constraints and dictate of the CCAA.

Workers' Forum calls on all Quebec and Canadian workers to stand as one with the ABI smelter workers in Quebec, who we report on in this issue, and all other workers actively engaged in class struggle in defence of their rights. The organized working class is taking up the social responsibility to itself and society to find a way to deprive the global monopolies of their power to deprive workers of their rights. It can be done through determined collective struggle! It must be done!

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The Canadian Trade Union Movement Unravels

How Will Unifor Splitting from the CLC Help
Workers Defend Their Rights?

In an incredibly destructive move, the largest private-sector union in the country, Unifor, has decided to split from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Such a move can only help the Liberal government's anti-social neo-liberal agenda by creating diversionary issues. Those issues become yet more obstacles hindering workers from uniting against the attacks on their rights and developing a movement to resolve the crisis in their favour. In this regard, how does the Unifor decision unite workers to take stands that favour them as concerns the anti-worker bills on pensions and other matters the Liberal government is presently pushing through Parliament?

Amongst other things, Unifor's President has just been in the U.S. speaking to Trump's Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Ross is directly known to steelworkers as the incredibly rich American who engineered the destruction of Canadian steelmaking. We hope that Unifor's complaints of "American unions" interfering in Canadian elections does not have in mind Unifor's main rival, the United Steel Workers better known as USW or "Les Metallos." USW is an international union, not American per se. Whatever the Unifor President means, the fact remains that the federal Liberal government is also promoting security legislation that targets foreign interference in elections. Electoral reform making foreign cyber attacks during elections a main issue, de facto seeks to deprive Canadians of their right to speak and to organize themselves politically. All this chatter of "foreign interference in elections" both in the U.S. and Canada is done in the name of protecting national security and democracy without challenging the status quo and electoral process that actually disempowers the people and blocks them from exercising their democratic right to elect and be elected.

So too for years, first the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and now its successor Unifor, have sought to cover up their own striving for hegemony in the trade union movement by saying all they are doing is defending democracy. However, similar to the Liberals in power in Ottawa and elsewhere, they never engage workers in discussing what democracy means to them and how they think it can be defended and renewed. Unifor has long been vying for control of the CLC's agenda by having it submit to Liberal power politics, not those of the NDP championed by its main rival. Rank and file workers in the forefront of struggle against the anti-social offensive have been held hostage to this sectarian warfare.

A serious problem is that this sectarian warfare for power in the CLC in no way renovates the trade unions, national or international, to make them more effective and capable of coping with the neo-liberal anti-social offensive. The offensive of the ruling elite has savaged social programs, driven down the standard of living of most working people and smashed the social contract. Workers' unions are now routinely blocked with legislation, court injunctions and the global power of monopolies from even negotiating wages, working conditions and pensions in good faith. A dictate or "final offer" is thrown at them and they are told to take it voluntarily or face penalties including jail, job loss, etc..

In most cases, the sectarian warfare has left trade unions weakened as they are supposed to line up behind one side or the other. This is a time the trade unions need to mobilize their members and fellow workers across the country to unite in action to defend their rights and the rights of all, not engage in this kind of diversionary sectarian warfare.

Unifor seems to have taken up the Liberals' bankrupt propaganda that the problem with elections in Canada for government is foreign interference, and now we are to believe this is also the case for elections for union leadership. This ignores the workers' experience on many fronts. It does however highlight that what the workers need is to mobilize the working people to fight for their own empowerment and build their own organizations independently of the influence of the ruling imperialist elite and their thinking which is always self-serving. Regarding government power, the current electoral system of representation to establish the legitimacy of a mandate for governments is broken. The reasons for this need to be discussed and analyzed by the workers if they are to provide a remedy, which they must because the ruling class clearly cannot.

To split the CLC does not provide a nation-building alternative to a CLC clearly mired in its own refusal to renovate itself to meet the requirements of the times. What remedies are either the CLC or Unifor offering to the problem of governments or trade unions which no longer represent what Canadians want? Unifor may be a "national union" but what are its politics? To declare that the problem is "interference by American unions" begs the question of what both "national" and "international" unions are doing in practice to uphold the rights of workers under the current conditions and to mobilize them in their millions to defend those rights.

Unifor seems to be blaming others to divert attention from its own positions in support of the Liberals whose narrow interests are not served by uniting working people to defend the rights of all regardless of their union affiliation. The truth of the matter is in the reality that Unifor and others including the CLC and USW have been incapable of uniting the workers' movement in a genuine nation-building project. If they were capable of this, Canadian workers would not be in such a retreat in the face of the anti-social offensive of the ruling elite.

In the face of great difficulties, workers engaged in struggles across the country are taking their own initiatives to defend themselves and are doing what they can to unite everyone to affirm their rights and speak out in defence of what belongs to them by right. This latest move by Unifor does not favour the efforts of workers to unite in action to defend their rights. It looks like yet another act of neo-liberal wrecking to dishearten, not renew, the working class movement.

Workers have no reason either to be disheartened or elated by Unifor's move. It is what it is, over which workers have little control at this time. They can respond to this sectarian wrecking by sticking to their own agenda, which they themselves establish, an agenda that responds to their needs as they see them from the vantage point of their own front of struggle. In this way they can defend their movement for their rights and the rights of all, and ensure their struggles are not diverted and smashed.

See full statement by Unifor and CLC, and the report by Canadian Press.

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Lockout at the ABI Smelter in Bécancour, Quebec

Stand with Locked Out Aluminum
Smelter Workers!

January 12, 2018, steelworkers rally outside smelter following the lockout the previous day.

The Rio Tinto Group and Alcoa global monopolies locked out 1,030 workers at the ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour, Quebec on January 11. The smelter workers' union, USW Local 9700, immediately denounced the lockout as an odious measure with a hidden agenda.

The Bécancour plant is owned 25.1 per cent by Rio Tinto and 74.9 per cent by Alcoa. Worldwide, these two monopolies control the production of aluminum and other commodities produced by more than 100,000 workers. Through their overwhelming control, the monopolies routinely manipulate the supply and price of aluminum to serve their narrow private interests. This is not the first time they have used a lockout to reduce aluminum production to put upward pressure on market prices while at the same time putting pressure on workers in a particular plant to accept concessions. The main concessions the monopolies demand at ABI are destruction of the workers' defined-benefit pension plan and changes to the long-established seniority system.

The global control of production of particular commodities by one or two monopolies has become a problem for workers worldwide. This control becomes a weapon against workers, as production and sales can be shifted from one facility to another to attack the working class and even economies worldwide.

Workers at the ABI smelter rejected the company's demands for concessions less than 24 hours before the lockout. The immediate lockout and shutting down of certain potlines indicated that the company was already preparing for a lockout. Reducing aluminum supply on the market while at the same time pressuring workers to accept concessions and the Quebec government to lower electricity prices appears as a premeditated scheme.

ABI workers have denounced the lockout and the company's refusal to negotiate. This anti-social behaviour is unacceptable anywhere in Quebec and Canada. They have called on all Quebec and Canadian workers to denounce the actions of Rio Tinto/Alcoa and demand an end to the lockout and a return to negotiations.

Comments by Union Leaders

Rally January 12, 2018, the day after steelworkers were locked out.

Alain Croteau, head of the Quebec section of the United Steelworkers (USW) said, "We think that financial interests are behind (the lockout). When a big smelter such as Alcoa here in Bécancour doesn't produce, it takes aluminum off the market and drives up prices. We think the lockout will last two or three months, minimum. It could go to six, seven, eight months, maybe more, we don't know. It's sad for the population. It's sad for the families and the workers here."

ABI Local 9700 President Clément  Masse denounced the lost production and value because of the shutdown of the potlines which he pointed out will be greater than the monetary amount that separated the two parties before negotiations were abruptly suspended. That reality alone exposes a hidden agenda regarding aluminum prices, lowering the price of electricity and imposing a new anti-worker pension and seniority regime on workers throughout their plants in Quebec.

Regarding the duration of the lockout President Masse said, "Just stopping the tanks and restarting them, we're talking about many millions of dollars. If the employer took the decision to close two series of tanks, it's because they don't think they are going to settle this next week."

What Are the Issues Behind ABI's Odious Lockout?

USW issued a press release on January 12 to denounce the lockout of the ABI aluminum smelter workers. USW points out that the lockout will cause suffering throughout the entire Mauricie region, in addition to the direct hardships for the 1,030 workers at the plant, their families and the many suppliers and others connected with the plant.

USW says the company's foreign owners have refused to give local plant officials a mandate to settle at the bargaining table. Exposing the premeditated scheme, Local 9700 President Masse notes, "We realized yesterday that a series of potlines was being shut down even before a meeting between the parties, convened by the government mediator, had begun." He added, "The company's Human Resources Director indicated very clearly that he 'did not have a mandate to negotiate.' It makes you wonder whether the real issues in this dispute were actually at the bargaining table or in the commercial interests of these two aluminum sector giants."

The paralysis of the company's local representatives goes beyond this past week's events, Masse adds, "In December, when negotiations were going well and important steps had been taken on the pension plan, the company preferred to break off negotiations and file a final offer rather than closing the loop with a negotiated settlement."

USW says the two monopolies want to destroy the workers' defined benefit pension plan and the long-standing arrangements dealing with seniority, just as the plant is experiencing a large influx of new workers.

Steelworkers Quebec Director Croteau notes that the steelworkers at the Rio Tinto smelter in Alma, Quebec went through a similar lockout in 2012. He states in the press release, "This company doesn't think twice about making hundreds of families suffer and impoverishing an entire region if their commercial interests are at stake. But today we know that they will be able to cause the price of several aluminum products to increase and maybe the American Midwest premium as well, while continuing to supply the market out of plants that they own 100 per cent, rather than a 25 per cent stake."

In 2012, as Rio Tinto was planning to lock out the Alma workers, there was surplus production in the global aluminum market and stopping production at the Alma plant contributed to lowering aluminum stocks, thereby driving up market prices.

Also of concern are the constant demands from Alcoa for the Quebec government and its public hydro utility to lower electricity rates for its plants. Manipulating prices in favour of certain powerful private interests is a factor in recurring economic crises. Electricity is a major already-produced value required to produce aluminum. "Should we be reading into this lockout a tactic for spreading uncertainty and bringing about lower electricity rates?" Croteau asks.

Local 9700 says it is ready to resume negotiations but needs the global monopolies to respond in kind. "Several of the outstanding issues in the negotiations concern labour turnover. These are work organization issues that don't necessarily have an important monetary impact, but they do require a spirit of openness on the part of the company. A settlement is certainly possible, but only if the company wants it," Local 9700 President Masse emphasizes.

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Interview with Clément Masse,
President of Steelworkers Local 9700

Workers' Forum: What were the circumstances surrounding the lockout of the 1,030 ABI aluminum smelter workers?

Clément Masse (right) speaks to press during January 12, 2018 rally.

Clément Masse: On the night of Wednesday to Thursday, January 11, at three o'clock in the morning, the employer representative informed us that he was decreeing a lockout. Previously, on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 9 and 10, workers rejected, by a vote of 80 per cent and a turnout of 85 per cent, the "final and comprehensive" offer of the employer.

Following the rejection of the offer, we were not able to meet with the employer. We informed him of the workers' vote. We expected that there would be a meeting with the mediator who has been assigned to the negotiations. Instead of meeting with us, discussing the differences that remain between the two parties, the employer locked us out and immediately began shutting down two sets of potlines in the plant. The employer made no attempt to try to find a compromise.

WF: What was the content of the latest offer from the company?

CM: The offer was different from the one rejected by a vote of 97 per cent with the participation of 90 per cent of the members on November 22. The present offer was not as bad as the previous one, but not really much better. In terms of the pension plan, there have been some changes in the employer's offer, but we still have questions. This is a major piece in this negotiation and we may not have been far from an agreement, but we needed more discussion and the employer simply refused to discuss. On the other hand, with regard to job mobility, on the question of seniority, and particularly on job postings, the employer's offer was totally unacceptable. Our demand is that seniority remains as far as job mobility is concerned. These are the two main points on which the employer's final offer was rejected.

WF: What are the latest developments since the beginning of the lockout?

CM: Our workers are angry and are asking that the employer come back to the table to negotiate with us. We set up our picket lines as soon as the lockout began. We are now under an injunction that limits the number of picketers to 15 per trailer in each of four trailers around the plant. The injunction prohibits us from entering company property, from blocking trucks that take the subcontractors into the plant and from "intimidating" management people. The injunction orders us not to come closer than five feet from management people. There is also a private security agency that has been hired and is there to watch us 24 hours a day seven days a week.

WF: In a recent statement you say that the conflict goes beyond a local conflict between the company and the ABI workers. Can you tell us more about this?

CM: Given the cost of shutting down these two sets of potlines, which far exceeds the cost of a settlement of this dispute, it can be said that employers surely have other goals than just negotiating our terms.

If the employers wanted a settlement, they would have come back to the table. One has the impression with the lockout that the employers have other elements they want to sort out. Among other things, there is the price they are paying for hydro. To modernize the plant, the employer needs another hydro line to be set up in the industrial park, and the question of who will pay the costs for the line is a big issue for Alcoa. We know that there have been discussions between Alcoa and Hydro-Québec. Alcoa is always looking to lower its hydro prices and it is possible that the lockout is a lever to force a reduction in what they pay for electricity.

One also wonders with the pension plan whether they want to make it a model for their other plants in Quebec. The same thing with regard to seniority. We have no evidence of this but we are not the only ones who think this.

The fact remains that the employer left the table while we were negotiating on December 21. There was a mediator taking part in the negotiations. The demand for a mediator actually came from the company. The mediator himself said that there was some headway in the negotiations. So why did the employer suddenly decide to stop bargaining on December 21? It just presented its "final and comprehensive" offer and made no attempt to resume the discussions. Then, after the holidays, we held our meetings. During all that time, it appears the employer was just waiting to lock us out.

As well, during that time and since the beginning, our proposal was not to go on strike. We said in a press briefing that our goal was not to exercise our right to strike at this time but to bring the employer back to the bargaining table. This is still our goal today.

WF: We understand support from other steelworker locals has started to come in.

ABI smelter workers, Steelworkers Local 9700, at support rally for striking Rio Tinto workers in Alma, February 9, 2012.

CM: Yes, the local of the Rio Tinto workers in Alma has publicly expressed its support. The local President Alexandre Fréchette gave interviews to say they are with us and other locals have begun to express their support. USW Quebec Director Alain Croteau has called on all locals to consider what help they can give us, including financial support. Of course, we have our strike relief payments that we give to workers but any help is greatly appreciated. It must also be said that our local is known for its generosity to other workers engaged in a conflict, so we appreciate the support that other locals give us now when we are in a labour dispute.

WF: Do you want to say something in conclusion?

CM: I remember the words of the Rio Tinto worker in Alma, who wrote a song during the lockout in 2012 that said, "I prefer standing on the lines to being on my knees in the plant." This sums up very well how we feel right now.

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Let's All Get Behind ABI Steelworkers Fighting
for Their Dignity and Unity!

In the middle of the night of January 4, the owners of the ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour, Quebec locked out the 1,030 workers at the plant, one of the largest employers in Mauricie-Centre-du-Québec. The issues at stake revolve around the workers' opposition to two-tier working and retirement conditions. Workers oppose two-tier working conditions as a matter of principle and from the point of view of the dignity of labour and their unity, which are intrinsically linked.

To produce a large quantity of quality aluminum for the economy, which is of great value, is a dignified act deserving respect. The dignity of labour, the dignity of those who are producing aluminum value for the economy is a fundamental aspect of modern life. Whenever this dignity of labour is disrespected, the working class must respond with unity and a collective organized struggle for the rights of those abused.

To allow the owners of the ABI smelter to impose conditions that go against the principle of one working class with undivided rights, is to disrespect the aluminum workers who produce such great quantities of value for Quebec. This is unacceptable to the workers of the plant and to all workers throughout Quebec and Canada.

The lowering of conditions at the plant with respect to pensions would also cause harm to the general standard of living in the region that depends a lot on the reproduced-value workers claim from the value they produce both while working and in retirement.

ABI workers say they suspect that the Alcoa and Rio Tinto monopolies that jointly own the plant, with Alcoa having 75 per cent ownership and Rio Tinto 25 per cent, are using the lockout to obtain concessions from the government of Quebec, particularly with respect to the price they pay for hydroelectricity, which they are constantly seeking to lower. This would not be the first time that Alcoa tried to force lower prices for electricity. In 2014, this U.S. monopoly even threatened to close its three aluminum smelters in Quebec if the Quebec government did not lower the price for hydroelectricity. To lower the price for Alcoa means others in Quebec have to pay more for their electricity or have Hydro-Québec go further into debt. This is unacceptable to all.

Other workers say the lockout may also be a ploy to lower production of aluminum in Québec to put some upward pressure on the market price of aluminum globally. Alcoa and Rio Tinto are by far the major suppliers of aluminum worldwide and are in position to control the supply and pass the burden of shutdowns onto the backs of workers and even use them as a means to force concessions.

Time will tell what the extent of the various plots may be. The fact remains that those who own and control the plant from outside Quebec unilaterally broke off negotiations with the workers last December, when workers say an agreement they could accept was within grasp. The owners walked away from further talks with the workers and issued an unacceptable "final and comprehensive" offer, which workers rejected. The following day those in control declared a lockout that was obviously planned in advance.

Workers say they are bracing for a lengthy conflict, as the global owners seem determined to make it so, but remain willing to negotiate and finalize a contract immediately that is acceptable to them and does not disrespect and trample on their rights and dignity. All Quebec and Canadian workers should provide the ABI workers with whatever assistance they can in this struggle in defence of their rights.

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