August 9, 2021 - No. 67

Rio Tinto Workers on Strike in Kitimat, BC

Workers Stand Up to Rio Tinto's
Anti-Social Offensive and

Albertans Mobilize Against Government's Irresponsible Actions
• Protect Health! Save Lives! - Peggy Askin and Peggy Morton

Rio Tinto Workers on Strike in Kitimat, BC

Workers Stand Up to Rio Tinto's
Anti-Social Offensive and Nation-Wrecking

Since July 25 at 12:01 am, the 950 workers at Rio Tinto's aluminum smelting plant in Kitimat and the Kemano Powerhouse which feeds the smelter with hydro power have been on strike for their demands and against the concessionary demands of Rio Tinto. Of the members of Unifor Local 2301 who took part in the strike vote 100 per cent were in favour.

The local reports on its website and a facebook page, Unifor Kitimat, that workers entered into negotiations with Rio Tinto for a new collective agreement with demands that they consider important for the integrity of the union as an organized collective that can effectively defend all workers, active and retired.

A July 27 post on their facebook page reads: "Unifor Local 2301 has been on strike at Rio Tinto Alcan since July 25, 2021. We are fighting for our Retirees, good jobs, pensions, benefits, health & safety, our future and our Community. We believe that Rio Tinto Alcan is taking unfair advantage of the resources that the citizens of BC provide them. This facility was built on the backs of our retirees and we will not agree to leave them out in the cold. Young workers from our communities deserve to earn the wages and benefits that our Union has negotiated, not this two tier contractor system of inferior wages that Rio has created. Come to the picket lines and support the local workers that support our community."

A few days before the strike began, Unifor issued a statement which says in part:

"In talks with the company, the union has proposed reasonable and long-overdue changes to workers' retirement income and benefit levels, all of which have remained unchanged for more than a decade. Notably, the union is seeking better retirement security for younger workers by moving newer employees from the company's Defined Contribution plan to a Defined Benefit plan.

"Negotiations are also focused on a backlog of more than 300 grievances, some dating back more than four years, created by the company's unfair and unsafe use of contractors to perform union members' work and its refusal to hire full-time workers leading to an over reliance on temporary employees. Rio Tinto has been unwilling to address their aggressive, expanding use of contractors, making the issue a focal point in negotiations."

Unifor also points out that "despite a global drop in aluminum prices from April to June of last year, 2020 was Rio Tinto's third most profitable year in two decades with net revenues exceeding $9.8 billion (USD)."

Workers report that Rio Tinto is running the smelter in a dangerously lean way, reluctant to hire full-time workers, pushing the current full-time workers to their limit, overloading them and exhausting them with overtime. It is also violating the current collective agreement in hiring more contract workers who work side by side with the workers who are members of the local, doing the same work for much lower wages and with working conditions inferior to those the union workers have negotiated over the decades.

When workers gave their negotiating committee a mandate to put forward their demands, Rio Tinto Alcan dismissed them out of hand. It presented its own with an emphasis on imposing two-tier conditions.

Following the start of the strike Rio Tinto's management launched a public attack on the union, accusing the local leadership of misinforming the workers and the public about the company's demands. Management claimed that they are not proposing a reduction in post-retirement or survivor benefits.

The union also went public and proved, with direct quotes from Rio Tinto's written offer, that this is precisely what the company is demanding. Among other things, Rio Tinto is demanding that, under the Vision Care Plan, no coverage for eye care be offered at retirement to employees hired on and after July 24 , 2021. Under the Dental Care Plan, no dental coverage would be offered in retirement for employees hired after July 24, 2021. If a retired worker dies before their 70th birthday, eye and dental care coverage for their surviving spouse would continue for an additional 48 months. According to the company's proposal this coverage would not be provided to spouses of workers hired after July 24, 2021. As well, according to the company's offer, temporary workers, who currently need to work 1,500 hours to get benefits, would now have to work 2,080 hours to qualify. It is also demanding that temporary workers who worked less than 1,040 straight time hours in a six-month period would lose their benefits for the next six months.

Workers are waging the fight for all current active and retired workers and for future generations of workers and the well-being of the communities.

Unions, local business and community organizations bring support to the Rio Tinto 
workers' picket line, August 3, 2021.

By pushing forward their demands in defence of the dignity and rights of all workers and their community, workers are challenging Rio Tinto's dictate. The company sees Kitimat and the region, its natural and human resources, as an outpost in its global empire in which it can command a global labour force which is disposable. Almost all the aluminum that is produced at the Kitimat smelter is shipped to foreign markets, mainly to the United States, Japan and south Korea.

Alcan, before it was purchased by Rio Tinto in 2007, made no bones about the fact that it built its plant in Kitimat to have access to the water resources of the region which it needed to produce electricity for its aluminum production. The BC government gave Alcan land and water rights so that it could build a dam and reservoir to divert the flow of the Nechako River to feed the plant with hydro power. These  were extended to Rio Tinto despite court challenges by First Nations and regional governments based on Indigenous title and rights and environmental concerns.

The Kemano Powerhouse generates continuous low-cost hydro power that is sent to the smelter via an 80-km transmission line. The Kemano Powerhouse is connected to the Nechako reservoir by a tunnel that is more than 65 years old. In 2017, Rio Tinto announced an investment of CAD$600 million for a second tunnel.

Both the federal and the BC governments signed agreements with Alcan, which were extended to Rio Tinto, which allow the company to divert water to produce what is called "excess power" that is then sold to BC Hydro. It was estimated that in 2015 alone Rio Tinto made $130 million on the sale of "excess power."

With their strike, the Rio Tinto workers in Kitimat are challenging the anti-worker, anti-social dictate of Rio Tinto as well as the refusal of BC and federal governments to uphold the Indigenous peoples' hereditary rights. The future of the workers and people of BC lies in the fight for the rights of all. Only they can change the direction of the economy so that it favours their interests, not those of an international financial oligarchy that could not care less about the people or the country.

Workers' Forum calls on all workers to firmly stand with the Kitimat workers and provide them with all the support they can.

(Photos: Unifor, J. Woods, L. Oke)

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Albertans Mobilize Against Government's Irresponsible Actions

Protect Health! Save Lives!

Albertans took immediate action following the announcement by the United Conservative Party (UCP) government that it was dismantling Alberta's public health measures adopted in response to COVID-19. Daily rallies have taken place since July 30 at the provincial legislature in Edmonton and the McDougall Centre in Calgary. The number of people participating grows every day, and rallies are now also taking place in Red Deer and Lethbridge. The rallies start at noon each day, and will carry on until at least August 16, the date the government has announced that it will no longer test for COVID-19 or require people who are positive to quarantine.

By mid-August, Alberta will remove virtually all public health measures, including contact tracing, masking on public transit, isolation for those who test positive, and testing for those who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. People with severe symptoms can only get tested through their physicians' office or clinics, but doctors have not even been informed how they will acquire the needed tests, not to mention that these arrangements violate every principle of infectious disease control and public health norms. Isolation hotels will be shut down and there will be no quarantine supports. In short, the government has responded to rising case numbers by no longer counting them. It is a shocking display of negligence and indifference to the well-being of the people.

The UCP government claims to be following "science," despite the fact that they provide no scientific evidence whatsoever for their actions. Physicians, public health and infection control experts are standing as one and speaking out as never before to demand that the government reverse course at once and stop putting lives and health in such danger. Health care workers and their unions, teachers, students and parents, workers from many sectors of the economy, seniors, and people from all walks of life are speaking out, attending rallies, writing and calling their MLAs and the Chief Medical Officer of Health and discussing in their unions and organizations what further measures to take.

At the rallies, everyone is encouraged to come forward and share their concerns, experience and knowledge. As a result, people are able to create an informed opinion about the dangers posed by the government's actions, and are taking responsibility to speak to others, share information and encourage friends, families, neighbours and co-workers to take action together.

People from all walks of life come forward to demand that the government reverse its decision. The rallies are calling for Jason Kenney to resign, and to Fire the UCP! Most importantly, people are addressing what everyone can do together in the face of the reckless and dangerous actions of the government. They speak about vulnerable people in their families who would be profoundly impacted by the end of testing and quarantine. They speak of the need to support and defend health care workers who are exhausted and without the energy reserves for another wave. They express concern for the children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated, for others who cannot be vaccinated or who are immuno-compromised. Workplace spread is also a great concern, with no testing available, no income for workers to quarantine, and employers free to exert pressure on workers to come to work even if they or a close contact are symptomatic. Most of all the concern is that no one will actually know whether someone is infected or not unless the person becomes seriously ill.

According to the Criminal Code, every one is criminally negligent who (a) in doing anything, or (b) in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do, shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons. There could be no clearer case than that of the Kenney government which is dismantling Alberta's public health response to COVID-19 even as the province enters its fourth wave, a significant section of the population remains unvaccinated, and the number of new and active cases continue to rise. The number of active cases of COVID-19 is rising rapidly in Alberta. As of August 5, Alberta has the highest number of active cases in Canada, and accounts for more than one in four active cases in Canada. New cases, positivity rates, and the R-factor (the number of people who will be infected by each new COVID-19 case) are all growing, with test positivity rates spiralling.

The Alberta government does not recognize that it has a social responsibility to the people. Its program is to satisfy the demands of the rich who also consider the people dispensable. It openly declares that everyone must fend for themselves. Even quarantine, a measure which has been understood and practiced since at least the 14th century, has been discarded. It is speaking about the "Hinshaw Policy" -- named after Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr Deena Hinshaw -- a crass move to deflect blame should the situation deteriorate further.

Amongst other demands, Albertans are saying testing must be fully restored and funded; everyone who needs to quarantine or self-isolate must be provided with all needed assistance and suffer no loss of income; teachers, parents and the students themselves know how to make schools safe and they must be the decisive voice in how the schools are made safe.

The fact that the government cannot be charged and held criminally responsible for failure to carry out its social responsibilities, amounting to criminal negligence, speaks volumes about the necessity for democratic renewal, and for new forms where the people can exercise control over their lives including such crucial decisions as these. It shows the urgent need for putting an end to the situation in which the rulers stand above the people and make laws where they can act with impunity. This has become the decisive question facing Canadians which demands a solution.



(Photos: WF, RCM)

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