March 3, 2020

Quebec Industrial Workers Speak Up

Crane Operators and Their Allies
Persist in the Fight Against the Wrecking
of Training Programs

• The Concerns of ABI Workers as the Aluminum Smelter Restarts - Interview,
Éric Drolet, President, United Steelworkers, Local 9700 

Quebec Industrial Workers Speak Up

Crane Operators and Their Allies Persist in the Fight Against the Wrecking of Training Programs

Crane operators demonstrate in front of CNEEST offices in Montreal, May 5, 2018, demanding changes to regulations on training be rescinded.

It has been almost two years since the Government of Quebec and the Quebec Construction Commission (CCQ) seriously weakened the regulations governing the training of crane operators who do one of the most dangerous jobs in the entire construction industry. Crane operators in Quebec continue to reject the regulations and defend their training developed over many years.[1]

The previous Quebec Liberal government abolished the mandatory requirement that crane operators complete the Diploma of Vocational Studies (DEP) at the end of April 2018. This was done without the consent or input of crane operators, the construction unions or vocational teachers. The vocational course to become a crane operator included 870 hours of practical training in a professional educational setting. The government decree made the diploma optional. An on-site training program of only 150 hours was introduced, which the construction companies themselves provide and oversee. The government and CCQ also replaced the vocational course and diploma with an 80-hour course for the operation of boom trucks with a maximum capacity of 30 tonnes. This type of boom truck is precisely the crane that overturns most frequently and causes the most damage. Established in 1997, the DEP played a direct role in a 66 per cent decrease in the number of deaths in Quebec related to the use of cranes.

Our workers' security, not negotiable

Crane operators and their allies also object to the fact that the current Coalition Avenir Québec government has mandated the CCQ to implement the recommendations of the Committee of Experts it set up in September 2018 in the midst of the crane operators' fight. The Committee of Experts wrote in its report issued in March 2019, that the operation of a crane is one of the most dangerous operations in the industry and that mandatory vocational training remains the reference training, but it recommended that it should be optional, according to the dictate of the government and CCQ. It proposed as an alternative a period of three weeks of initial training in an educational institution followed by on-site training provided by construction companies. These recommendations are unacceptable and they are in complete opposition to what workers actually said at the hearings held by the committee itself in 2018.

Two years later the crane operators are still asking that the new regulations, now modified in the recommendations of the Committee of Experts, be withdrawn and that the compulsory vocational training of crane operators be maintained.

They continue to present their case to the government, in particular to the Minister of Labour, to demand compulsory vocational training. They have the support of several unions, in particular many FTQ-Construction locals and the teachers' union that represents the teachers of the courses leading to DEP. Crane operators report that they are also meeting with construction employers' associations to ask for their support in maintaining the mandatory nature of vocational training. They report that some employers' associations support this demand, not wanting safety to be decreased on construction sites and the number of deaths to increase to previous levels.

Above all, crane operators are constantly investigating what is happening on construction sites and where cranes are operated. They report that since June 2019 at least five accidents have occurred in Quebec involving the use of cranes, in which the operator had not received vocational training and where the accident was due to errors made by the operator due to lack of training. Crane operators are intervening so that the accident investigation is done in a professional manner by the inspectors of the CNESST (Labour Standards, Pay Equity, and Workplace Health and Safety Board) so as to identify the real causes of the accident. CNESST has recently admitted that there is an increase in accidents involving the operation of cranes and crane operators are urging the CNESST to take measures to defend and reinstate the training of the operators. We're talking here about reported accidents, not accidents that go unreported when they don't cause injury or loss of work time or when they're simply masked by pressure to silence workers.

Overturned crane, November 2018.

Meanwhile, the CCQ and the government continue their work in the service of large construction companies, against the training and safety of construction workers and against combative unions like the crane operators' union under the guise of dealing with a labour shortage and of increasing access to the construction trades. Construction workers have repeatedly demonstrated that one cannot speak of a labour shortage when, year after year, about 18 per cent of construction workers and salaried people leave the trade each year. The construction industry is not facing a labour shortage but a problem of worker retention, in particular because of increasingly unsafe working conditions. Regarding the opening of the trades to a larger number of construction workers, crane operators and construction workers argue that this requires that worker training be maintained and actually strengthened, not weakened and left in the hands of the companies.

The government and the CCQ organize for construction sites to be totally dominated by narrow private interests concerned only with their own profits, while workers having to fend for themselves, without strong collectives enabling them to speak out in their own name, defend themselves and exercise control over their training and working conditions. The government and the CCQ must render account for their actions that endanger the safety of workers and the public, and the CNEEST must fulfill its mandate, which is to protect the health and safety of workers, as a matter of principle without which production cannot take place.

Workers' Forum salutes the determined fight of the crane operators and construction workers in defence of their health and safety and the health and safety of the public and calls upon all workers to stand with them.


1. For more information on the fight of the crane operators, read:
"Stand with Quebec Crane Operators and Construction Workers Fighting for Their Rights
and the Rights of All!" - Pierre Chénier, Workers’ Forum, June 19, 2018

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The Concerns of ABI Workers as the
Aluminum smelter Restarts

5,000-strong solidarity march with locked-out ABI workers, Trois-Rivières, May 25, 2019

Workers at the ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour ratified their collective agreement on July 2, 2019, after 18 months of an intense fight against Alcoa/Rio Tinto which had locked them out. In this struggle, the ABI workers inspired workers across Quebec, Canada and in many countries, finding ways and means to fight the Alcoa/Rio Tinto cartel’s concessionary dictate and refusal to negotiate and Quebec government’ disgraceful role as ally and representative of this global cartel against the collective interests of workers and Quebec and its natural resources. Workers’ Forum wishes all the best to the ABI workers in their fight in defence of their rights and dignity as they are now back at work.[1] Workers' Forum met recently with Éric Drolet, the president of United Steelworkers Local 9700 about the situation facing workers as the the smelter is restarting.

Workers' Forum: Are all ABI workers back at work now and how do you characterize the situation they are facing?

Éric Drolet: Since mid-January, 100 per cent of our workers who were still on the recall lists have returned to work. Since January 11, 2018 we have had close to 200 retirements or resignations. These losses are beyond the job cuts made. So right now, to try to get through the summer ABI is hiring massively to make up for this shortage of workers. The first cohort of approximately 20 to 30 new workers came in on January 13, another group on February 3, and a third starting on February 17.

The employer has repeatedly confirmed to us that to meet the normal workforce requirement to operate the plant, the total number of workers must be approximately 975. However, where previously we had nearly 876 regular positions and the rest of the workers were casuals, currently we are at 796 regular positions, and the rest, nearly 200, will be casual.

In an aluminum smelter you need a minimum threshold to operate the plant. Our threshold at the aluminum smelter, given the size of the factory, is around 950 or more.

Regarding the restart of the tanks, we have three series of 240 tanks, for a total of 720. We restarted the first two series and we have reached about 50 restarted in the third series. At the end of the line, when we have restarted all the tanks that can be restarted, as some may be too damaged or at the end of their life, approximately 150 to 200 tanks must be replaced with new tanks.

ABI workers vote to ratify the collective agreement at general membership meeting in Bécancour, July 2, 2019 and return to work with their heads high. (Metallos)

WF: How does the reduction of the number of regular workers affect production?

ED: It affects it indirectly. This elimination of jobs, together with the retirements, has led to a restructuring of positions. It has caused almost 400 direct job transfers of people who have changed positions, or whose positions have been modified. In other words, the job description was changed, either by a new work organization or because of retirement, which created a domino effect. When a person retires, someone, probably from outside the department, comes to replace this person through a job posting, and this person also has to be replaced, and so on. At the end of the line, there are around 400 people who have changed positions and tasks.

These people have to be trained in their new tasks, and many job descriptions have been changed. In addition to that, we are going to have to train almost 200 new workers. It is a huge task. As the smelter is restarting, we find ourselves with deep holes in our structure everywhere. Where there were skilled people who were there for a long time and have now retired, they are now being replaced by people who have certain skills, but you cannot replace a worker with 33 years of service with a worker with five years of service and have the certainty that you will receive the same performance. In addition, we have about 100 workers who will be eligible for retirement in the next year. This will bring additional pressure.

There is a lot of pressure when it comes to training. For example, among the people who are going to be displaced, there may be some who are going to be moved from a task that requires 48 hours of training to a task that requires four, five or six months before being trained on all aspects of the job. In the case of the foundry, for example, with the casting of the metal, to get through all the stages of training we can say that a worker needs an entire year to master all the tasks.

For us this is a huge challenge, and as I speak to you, although we have presented the challenges we are facing to the employer many times, I must say that so far the employer has listened to us very little or not at all. The employer is very slow to respond.

We have to stay focused on health and safety in the restart. We have problems with the employer on this. Not that the employer is not concerned with health and safety but it has cut training hours. We have issues about where hours were cut to avoid having people who are not sufficiently trained, which can cause health and safety problems. On average, training hours have been cut by around 30 to 50 per cent, depending on the sector.

For us, health and safety has always been a priority -- we have no choice in an industry like ours. We have always said that we want to ensure healthy retirees and that when we pass through the gate after our shift we do it with all our limbs intact.

As for the new work organization, it is much more focused on the employer's management rights than before. This issue has always been important to United Steelworkers Local 9700. The work organization must be negotiated and be an integral part of our collective agreement. Now, this is no longer negotiated -- this is no longer part of the collective agreement but considered part of management rights. The employer's responsibility to our rights is now limited to notifying us 60 days in advance of the changes it wishes to make. We have a minimal right of representation, which is to send our comments and the modifications we would like to make but the employer is not required to take them into account. This is a huge change that concerns us a lot.

New work organization can include just about anything -- work schedules, task descriptions, and these are all left to the discretion of the employer. We do not yet know the impact that all this in going to have because in a restart situation the new work organizations that have been decided have not yet been implemented.

Regarding casuals, we also are in a learning situation. Previously, casual workers worked all the hours for which they were hired. They had their schedules set in advance and followed them. They had their vacation calendar and were part of a team. For older people who are going to be casuals, that same procedure is probably going to be followed. The worker should stay on the same task as it was before. But for others, with the new system that has been put in place, we are not sure. Will they end up in one, two or even three different sectors, treated a bit like mere job fillers? Will they work all their hours? It is not clear.

WF: Do you want to add something in conclusion?

ED: We have several concerns. We want to be sure that 35 years from now we will still be talking about ABI as an active plant -- that it is not going to become a wasteland. It seems to us that the owners are more interested in observing, setting up and redoing the working methods than in restarting the plant. The plan for restarting the plant has to be a comprehensive one. This means that it is not only a matter of restarting the tanks, but establishing trust between the parties, the employer and union on the basis of mutual respect, not just respect for the employer. We are also concerned about the training -- the sheer quantity of training we have to provide versus our ability to provide it and the time we have to do it, and the fact that the training plan has been modified.

That is about where we are at, at this time.


1. To read about the significance of the fight of the ABI workers, read:
"ABI Workers Return to Work with Their Heads High," Workers’ Forum, July 18, 2019.

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