In the News June 9
Nunavik, Northern Quebec
Raglan Mine Workers Strike for Rights and Dignity
On May 26, the 630 production workers at the Raglan Mine in Nunavik went on an indefinite general strike against the deterioration of their working conditions and for respect from their employer, which they say is totally lacking. Nunavik is the area of Quebec north of the 55th parallel. The Raglan mine is owned by global mining/metallurgical giant Glencore. Workers’ Forum recently spoke with Éric Savard, President of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9449, which represents these workers and the mine’s entire 850 or so unionized workers.
Workers’ Forum: Can you first inform us about Raglan Mine’s operations?
Éric Savard: Raglan Mine began its operations in 1997, 25 years ago. It has had many owners, including Falconbridge, Xstrata and now Glencore. We mainly produce nickel, which represents about 70 per cent of the ore mined, and we also have copper, cobalt, palladium and other ores. There’s gold as well. The mine’s unionized workforce includes 630 production workers, currently on strike, plus workers with subcontractor Kiewit, the Katinniq Transport workers who move the ore to the ships at the port in Deception Bay, technicians, office staff, and security guards. The production workers work on a commuting fly-in, fly-out basis, often working for 21 consecutive days. They come from all over Quebec as well as from New Brunswick. When Glencore closed the Brunswick smelter in Belledune in northern New Brunswick at the end of 2019 some workers from the smelter came to work with us.
WF: In the Steelworkers’ press release, there’s an emphasis on the demand for respect that drove the workers to strike. Can you tell us more about that?
ES: Since Glencore took over Xstrata we have experienced many rollbacks. This includes an increase in our working hours, an increase in production with the same number of workers, cuts in work breaks. Some of these rollbacks affected conditions that have existed for 20 years. As well, health and safety meetings previously scheduled at the beginning of various work group shifts now take place on workers’ time, not company time. We have experienced a great loss in working conditions.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the security guards were fired about 15 months ago after rejecting the company’s offer. We are in court over this and are still awaiting a ruling. With Glencore, we are constantly filing grievances. Glencore disputes everything, and we have to fight in court over everything, – for our weeks of vacation, to be paid for the day we fly to the mine, etc. There’s a lot of accumulated frustration on these issues.
Glencore has also neglected health and safety conditions. For example, due to a big increase in production we realized that the access ramps had become unsafe. The workers pulled together and rebolted all the ramps. Instead of thanking them, Glencore claimed that production was behind schedule and began harassing the workers to work overtime and threatened to downgrade their work scale levels.
In addition, the company began dictating that for the lunch hour, workers’ transportation time would now be on their time, not company time. Transportation time had been paid by the company for 25 years and it worked well so there was no reason to change it. It can take a worker 15 to 20 minutes to get from the work site to the lunchroom. Now the time it takes to travel to the lunch room is counted as part of the lunch break so workers don’t get a full hour for rest and a meal when they really need it, given all the hours of work they’re required to put in. When you work 21 days in a row, the last thing you want to do is have a fight for your lunch hour. The workers were exasperated with all this.
WF: In your press release you say that subcontracting is a major problem at the mine. Can you explain?
ES: As we say in our release, we have a situation where there are often many more subcontract workers on the mine site than unionized workers. That doesn’t make sense. The people who are hired through subcontracting earn less and their conditions are worse. This means fewer economic benefits for the regions of Quebec where these workers are from.
In addition, this prevents young people from advancing to higher levels with better wages and conditions. Glencore hires a lot of subcontract workers in the middle levels which means that young people can no longer move up the ladder and get training to advance. We’re at a point where we have 30 to 40 per cent subcontract workers now.
Meanwhile, the overall conditions of subcontract workers are inferior to those of unionized workers. Accommodations are not as good, the quality of food is lower. Increasing the number of subcontract workers is not good for workers overall. How is it possible that a big multinational like Glencore is expanding the use of cheap labour and imposing bad working conditions within its facilities?
We are trying to improve everyone’s conditions, increase our hourly rates, improve the pension fund, increase the workers’ standard of living.
WF: Would you like to add something in conclusion?
ES: We have been observing for years that Glencore is regressing in terms of workers’ welfare and protection. We want to see the improvements we are seeking written clearly into the collective agreement. Maybe this is how we’ll stop the grievances and the unnecessary conflicts and improve everyone’s lot.
Workers’ Forum, posted June 9, 2022.