February 28, 2019

Unacceptable Moves to Do Away with Collective Agreements

Alcoa's Unacceptable Demand to
Run the ABI Smelter Without a Union


Workers Demand Arbitration and Intervention by Quebec Premier
- Interview, Clément Masse, President, United Steelworkers Local 9700

The "Legal" Termination of Collective Agreements -- Australian
- Pierre Chénier

Railway Workers' Courageous Struggle to Affirm the Human Factor
Concerns of Railway Workers - Lyndon Isaak, President,
Teamsters Canada Rail Conference

Unacceptable Moves to Do Away with Collective Agreements

Alcoa's Unacceptable Demand to Run
the ABI Smelter Without a Union

At a general membership meeting held on February 23, workers at the ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour, Quebec launched the call for binding arbitration to reach a collective agreement that will put an end to their lockout. They demanded that Quebec Premier François Legault intervene to exert pressure on the Alcoa/Rio Tinto cartel to accept arbitration. The workers also insist the Premier reopen the Hydro-Québec energy agreement that declares the lockout a "force majeure" and frees the owners from their obligation to pay for a block of hydro power reserved for them at a preferential rate.

The owners of ABI have said the door to arbitration as a means to settle the dispute is closed. An ABI spokesperson in an email wrote, "Arbitration will not secure the future of ABI. Alternative processes are not the appropriate solutions to resolve the conflict."

Dominic Lemieux, Assistant to the United Steelworkers' Quebec Director gave this rebuke to Alcoa's position at the membership meeting: "If arbitration is not an option, if the 'alternative' processes are not a solution and the negotiations are canceled, what's left? The unilateral imposition of the employer's position. This is contrary to the very principle of good faith bargaining. Quebec citizens are being held hostage by a multinational, fattened up by our [cheap] electricity rates, acting in bad faith in a lockout financed through our taxes. The government must intervene. François Legault must intervene."

Labour Minister Jean Boulet declared he could not exert pressure on the owners to accept arbitration. He said he would propose a possible settlement to both parties in early March. The workers consider the minister's remarks on arbitration unacceptable and are not supportive of a possible settlement, as it would be drafted without them being able to present their concrete demands. Minister Boulet has already declared that his possible settlement will be based on neo-liberal positions put forward by the mediation council appointed by him and chaired by former Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, which states: "The objectives have been clearly identified [...]: operational flexibility, productivity, job stability, plant sustainability and a climate of working relations."

Aluminum workers in Alma, members of United Steelworkers Local 9490, stand in solidarity with locked-out workers at ABI.

These stock neo-liberal phrases are used to cover up the worst attacks on working conditions and the right of workers to wage an organized collective struggle in defence of their demands and a decisive say in determining their terms of employment and enforcing any collective agreement. Workers' Forum is publishing an article in this issue on the situation facing Alcoa workers in Western Australia. The struggle of Australian Alcoa workers reveals concretely where such neo-liberal nonsense spouted by Minister Boulet leads when the global monopolies impose it in practice in concert with the arbitrary powers of those states at their disposal.

Within the situation in Quebec where the Alcoa/Rio Tinto cartel completely refuses to negotiate with its smelter employees, the workers are requesting arbitration and the intervention of the government so that they can present their views and demands to an impartial arbitrator who would also listen to the owners and then decide upon a collective agreement. Workers' Forum calls upon all Quebeckers and Canadians to rally behind this just stand of the ABI workers to end the lockout.

(Photos: United Steelworkers)

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Workers Demand Arbitration and Intervention
by Quebec Premier

USW Local 9700 holds press conference to announce its demand for expedited arbitration to end the lockout at the Aluminerie de Bécancour, February 23, 2019 (D. Malette)

Workers' Forum: ABI workers held a general meeting on February 23 to assess the situation. Can you tell us how the meeting went and what decisions were taken?

Clément Masse: Nearly 700 workers participated. We explained what happened in the negotiations in the last few weeks. The workers could see that we want to negotiate but that the employer is maintaining its position and shows no intention of negotiating. We asked the workers to give us a mandate to request arbitration in the dispute. This was adopted unanimously. We are asking the government to put pressure on the employer to accept this process or to negotiate in good faith. We are also asking Quebec Premier François Legault to intervene on the issue of energy contracts as he promised to do during the election campaign. These are the latest developments.

In essence, the employer is maintaining its new demands for concessions despite the fact that these points were already settled in the final offer of December 2018. We agreed to review them. We accepted some of them but the employer refused to move on the most important concessions, even in a minimal way. All of the employer's demands are for concessions, and the company insists that for negotiations to move forward we have to accept them.

Negotiations are not stalled because our demands have been rejected by the employer, but because we are facing an employer that is constantly asking for concessions. A settlement, according to Alcoa, requires that we submit to all their demands. Instead of jobs with good wages and conditions, Alcoa wants to create jobs with lower wages and to send our jobs to subcontractors where workers will have no conditions [of work] worthy of the name. Essentially, what Alcoa wants is to run the plant without the union, to be able to do whatever it wants without constraints from the union at the workplace. This is unacceptable as far as we are concerned.

WF: Can you elaborate on the request for arbitration?

CM: We are asking for expedited arbitration, not something that will take a year. The government should establish a timetable for the parties to make their points and a deadline for the arbitrator to make a decision. At the end of the arbitration, the parties would be bound by the decision of the arbitrator. This is a real issue with this lockout, which has lasted too long.

If we go to arbitration, it will have to be very precise, and of course the parties can still reach an agreement while arbitration is underway. The Minister of Labour continually says that he wants to put pressure on the parties. If he is pushing for arbitration and the employer agrees, it will put pressure for a settlement. It is certain that the procedures for arbitration would have to be discussed. As well, there are points on which we will not ask the arbitrator to decide, those matters on which there is agreement.

The employer has to agree to the arbitration first, which so far they have refused even before our application, but we are still applying and we will put pressure on the government to ensure it happens.

WF: Can you explain your request for intervention by Premier François Legault?

CM: We are asking for a meeting with the Premier. He must intervene to correct the imbalance of forces. Hydro-Québec is financing the lockout of the U.S. multinational with $165 million in 2018 alone. We want the Premier to get involved, as he said he would during the election campaign. We want him to reopen the energy contract that allows the employer to cause a loss of $700,000 a day for Hydro-Québec. The employer is not obligated to pay for the block of energy that is reserved for it, yet still benefits from the contract. The company is still paying low rates in Baie-Comeau, in Deschambault, and even at ABI, because Alcoa is still paying a special rate for the hydro it uses in the section of the plant that is still in operation during the lockout. It does not make sense that the government has negotiated a contract like this. It hurts the workers and it is up to the government to correct this situation.

Alcoa talks about "culture change." We talked about this at the meeting. What culture? The culture the employer wants to change is that it no longer wants to operate with a union. That is its culture. Do we live in a dictatorship where the employers decide everything? Is the government going to assist Alcoa or the 1,000 families who are locked out? We are asking the Premier if that is the Quebec we want? The Premier says that his first concern is the "economy." He says he wants a Quebec that creates quality jobs, but what the employer wants to do is create exactly the opposite. If the Premier wants to create quality jobs he has to prove it by intervening in this dispute.

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The "Legal" Termination of Collective Agreements -- Australian Example

Alcoa workers protest outside the Western Australia Parliament in Perth, August 22, 2018.

The Australian Workers' Union (AWU) announced in January an appeal of the decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) granting Alcoa's application for the termination of the collective agreement of more than 1,500 workers.[1] The workers are employed at six Alcoa facilities in the state of Western Australia: three alumina refineries, two bauxite mines and a port. The workers waged a 52-day strike in 2018 to oppose Alcoa's demands for concessions on job security and its threat to terminate the collective agreement, which expired on March 31, 2017. The workers tried to negotiate without success a renewed collective agreement, called an enterprise bargaining agreement in Australia.

The global giant Alcoa applied for termination of the expired agreement in December 2018. The FWC granted the termination, to be effective in January. This means the Alcoa workers no longer have a collective agreement and are working under the minimum standards established under the Fair Work Act 2009 and other labour legislation or any minimum Alcoa may dictate. The Australian Labour Party government of the day passed this retrogressive national labour legislation.

According to the Alcoa workers, working under the Fair Work Act rather than their collective agreement would result in an effective cut of 50 per cent or more of their current wages and huge losses of benefits and pensions.

Alcoa announced in January that it would maintain current rates of pay, leave and pension provisions of the collective agreement for six months. This implies the complete power of Alcoa to dictate terms of employment without the consent of workers. This state-imposed power means that when a new collective agreement comes to a vote during the year, the oligarchs expect the workers to submit to whatever anti-worker concessions they demand.

In the most blatant anti-worker way, the Fair Work Act 2009 and the state power of the FWC allows enterprises to eliminate workers' collective agreements and their collective defence organizations and force employees to work under minimal work standards over which they have no control and have not given their consent. The Act says:

"225 Application for termination of an enterprise (collective) agreement after its nominal expiry date

"If an enterprise agreement has passed its nominal expiry date, any of the following may apply to the FWC for the termination of the agreement:

"(a) one or more of the employers covered by the agreement;

"(b) an employee covered by the agreement;

"(c) an employee organisation covered by the agreement."

The Act says it has an underlying purpose to promote "national economic prosperity" by assisting monopolies operating in Australia to enhance their performance and success in the competition of the global market. To achieve this "prosperity" and success of the monopolies, workers must agree to "flexibility" in the operation of the facilities and submit to "cooperative and productive workplace relations" over which workers have no input, say or control.

The Act emanates from the outlook that workers do not produce the value, which the company and economy require for their existence but are a debilitating cost. According to this outlook, the value workers reproduce for their own existence must be constrained so Alcoa can expropriate more profit for itself and in doing so compete with other global companies. Driving down the living and working conditions of the working class is equated with increasing "national economic prosperity." Such is the backward view of the global financial oligarchy.

Under the arbitrary power and anti-worker logic of the Act, the Deputy President of the FWC Abbey Beaumont granted Alcoa's application to deprive workers of their collective agreement declaring, "The Agreement was outdated and imposed restrictions, inefficiencies, and unnecessary and unreasonable costs on Alcoa's operations. Accordingly, the terms of the Agreement did not afford Alcoa the flexibility to adjust its operations quickly and efficiently in order to maximise its ability to extract advantage from prevailing economic and operational requirements, or to respond to changes in market conditions as and when they arise."

The FWC mandate accords with Alcoa's arguments that terminating the enterprise agreement would not harm the "public interest" because the public interest is synonymous with the private interests of the ruling elite. This is an indication of how far the usurpation of public authority by global private interests has gone.

The situation in Australia strikes a chord with Quebec ABI workers who are facing similar demands of flexibility and efficiency at the expense of their rights, working conditions and organized collective strength, compounded by Alcoa/Rio Tinto's total refusal to negotiate with them, all of which is taking place with the approval of the Quebec government.

To give some examples, the FWC in its 366-page judgement ruled that the collective agreement had to be declared null and void because it has provisions prescribing minimum levels of personnel. The FWC says these provisions prevent Alcoa from determining the level of staffing according to what it deems convenient to its "particular operational requirements, or changed operational requirements, as and when they arise."

According to the FWC's Deputy President, "Maintaining minimum manning levels limits Alcoa's ability to contract with third parties or labour hire providers to perform work when it is operationally efficient and cost effective to do so. In late 2015, it was apparent that Alcoa remained under financial pressure partly because of an approximate 40 per cent drop in the alumina price."

The FWC inadvertently spills the beans that the global market price for alumina had fallen 40 per cent and workers must pay with a loss of rights. Instead of serious investigation as to what is wrong with imperialist globalization, which causes these recurring crises and requires a new direction, the working class becomes the target of the fury of the financial oligarchy.

The complaint that the collective agreement "limits Alcoa's ability to contract with third parties or labour hire providers to perform work when it is operationally efficient and cost effective" refers to "rates for labour hire personnel." This clause restricts the subcontracting of unionized jobs, which is also a major issue in the ABI dispute in Quebec.

Alcoa pleads globally that it must not be deprived wherever it operates of the economic advantage of outsourcing the hiring of workers to temp agencies and international human traffickers. The Australian agreement prescribes what it can pay these outsourced workers at 78 per cent to 100 per cent of the hourly base pay for the relevant job grade of an Alcoa employee, as well as maintaining the same shift arrangements. According to the FWC, these safeguards for the entire working class imposed a penalty on Alcoa "that was greater than market rates." The market being the labour market, which the global oligarchs have now extended worldwide with millions of oppressed people desperate to make a living and becoming prey of human traffickers.

When the AWU pointed out that from Alcoa's own calculations it recorded net profits totalling around $2.2 billion globally during the operation of the enterprise agreement, the FWC Deputy President replied:

"Alcoa's current profitability does not weigh against the termination of the Agreement; particularly where it has a rational basis for pursuing the changes in respect of restraints of the nature covered in this decision. This is an important point. Detailed evidence shows that there have been practical and operational impacts arising out of the operation of the Agreement. These have included marked delays in making operational changes or being able to act upon decisions, the expenditure of management and member time, and disharmony within the workplace."

So, in "liberal democratic Australia," as in other countries around the world, the ruling oligarchs can negate legally binding negotiated agreements in favour of their narrow private interests. Company profits must become even greater profits at the expense of the living and working conditions and rights of the working class. Workers rights count for nothing in this imperialist world and are sacrificed in the reckless adventures and fierce competition of the global oligopolies and the recurring economic crises and wars. The necessity for change is staring workers in the face as a challenge they must accept to build the new.

The Australian Workers' Union and its members who work for Alcoa are rightfully resisting the negation of their collective agreement and the right to discuss, decide and give their consent or not to their wages and working conditions. Their fight merges as one with the struggle of Alcoa workers all over the world and deserves the firm support of all. The fight of the Australian workers has clearly brought to light what governments are up to in the name of an alleged duty to guarantee "economic prosperity." While the pretence is to serve the society, it merely refers to the profits of the financial oligarchy and oligopolies. In Quebec also, the Legault government repeats the mantra that Quebec is "Open for Business" to justify new arrangements which destroy social programs, destroy unions and good faith bargaining, destroy health and safety standards on job sites and in places of work and attack immigrants in favour of human trafficking. It must not pass!

Perth, August 22, 2018


1. The Fair Work Commission is Australia's labour relations tribunal.

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Railway Workers' Courageous Struggle
to Affirm the Human Factor

Railway workers are facing huge challenges in the fight for their rights and the rights of all, including the important battle for their own safety and that of the public. They have been waging a courageous struggle for many years to affirm their rights in the face of anti-social concepts and practices of all kinds put forward by the rail monopolies and successive federal Liberal and Conservative governments. The outlook of the ruling elite negates the human factor and social consciousness putting maximum profit for private interests as the deciding factor on all issues.

Railway workers face industry deregulation allowing the rail monopolies to determine their own policies with the government rubber stamping them. This includes safety programs that are private and privileged and not open to scrutiny by anyone outside the railway companies themselves.

Workers face what is called risk management rather than having an all-out effort to eliminate all risks and hazards as much as possible as a matter of principle for those who work and the public. These risks include worker fatigue caused by management putting workers on-call 24/7, amongst other things. The openly-avowed goal of the rail monopolies is to run the railways without the presence and input of human beings and any norms or prescriptions of social responsibility. This has resulted in workforce downsizing, disciplining workers under various pretexts, including those who raise issues of operation safety, spying on workers through recording devices etc resulting in denial of rights and constant rail accidents.

Rail workers are fighting to affirm the human factor, the role played by socially conscious human beings, particularly those who actually operate and maintain the trains and who seek to uphold their own safety and that of the public. Workers are organized into collective defence organizations, which become the collective force to back their individual efforts to defend themselves and the public. They are fighting to have a decisive say over how railways are operated so as to bring them into the modern realm of social responsibility. Their fight deserves the full support of all Canadian workers and the broad public.

Workers' Forum is reproducing below an article written by Lyndon Isaak, newly elected President of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, which highlights some of the railway workers' concerns at this time.

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Concerns of Railway Workers

My name is Lyndon Isaak and I am the President of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC). I was elected to this position on January 11 by the membership of the TCRC and we, as a union, represent over 10,000 members in Canada.

I have worked for CN Rail since 1987 in the positions of brakeman, conductor and locomotive engineer. I have been involved in the legislative side of our union since 2007. This involves health and safety as well as regulatory affairs from the worker's perspective.

Three of the major concerns that the TCRC currently faces are:

1. Training of New Employees

The training of new employees is governed by the Railway Employee Qualification Standards Regulations, a document which came into force in 1987. This document makes reference to a body named the Canadian Transport Commission as the government agency that the railroad companies would report any changes in their training standards to. In 1988 the Canadian Transport Commission was renamed the National Transportation Agency, which no longer holds the same purview as its predecessor. As a result, training standards have been left to the discretion of the railroad companies. The railroad's recent history of accidents, injuries and fatalities is a testament to our grave concerns.

2. Fatigue

In December 2018 a ministerial order under Section 19 of the Railway Safety Act was announced regarding the work/rest rules for operating employees (engineers, conductors, etc.). The railroad industry is required to update the current work/rest rules which were originally established in 2002. This order specifically requires the railroad companies to incorporate modern and established fatigue science in revising the existing rules. A large majority of our members currently work on call 24 hours a day with no designated days off, other than annual vacation. The concern of fatigue and its effect on our members has been an ongoing issue as far back as I can remember; I'm hopeful that at least some of our problems will be addressed in this revision.

3. Discipline

The preferred methods of discipline that the railroad companies utilize against our members are either the Brown system (demerits) or unpaid suspensions. Our concerns stem from a pattern of lower degrees of discipline when the railroad companies are busy and manpower is in high demand as opposed to when rail traffic is diminished and discipline is what we perceive as excessive for the transgression committed. The railroads seem to strive to keep the manpower numbers optimal which means that it may be preferable to suspend or dismiss employees instead of instituting layoffs. A good example of unjustified discipline has to do with our members being off sick or unfit for work. There have been cases where our members received demerits or an unpaid suspension simply because the member was ill. Some of the railroad companies state that they no longer accept or consider sick notes as justification for absence. Although any discipline for sickness is contrary to Section 239 Part 3 of the Canada Labour Code, some of the railroad companies persist in this policy.

Lastly, I've often wondered about the logic in the method which the Rules are created for the railroad industry in Canada. Currently Section 19 of the Railway Safety Act states that the Minister may order a railroad company to formulate or revise a rule for a particular matter. The role of the TCRC is to provide commentary on the rule submitted by the companies or their lobbyist. I question why any government would task a group of corporate executives or their paid lobbyist to formulate or revise a rule. The focus should be safety, for the employees and the public, and who better than the people who actually work on the railroad through the union which represents them in consultation with Transport Canada to create or revise a rule? If you think about it, the union provides the perfect balance: a focus on health and safety yet cognizant of the fact that the employers need to turn a profit to ensure the viability of their companies.

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