Glencore Brunswick Smelter Workers Oppose Demands for Concessions
– Interview — Bart Dempsey, President, United Steelworkers Local 7085 –
Workers at the Glencore smelter in Belledune, New Brunswick are now in their sixth month of lockout. The company locked workers out on the morning of April 24, as they prepared to go on strike that evening to oppose Glencore’s dictate for concessions. The company obtained court orders severely limiting the ability of workers to hold effective picket lines. Since the beginning of the lockout, Glencore has been using scabs to run the plant. The workers, however, are maintaining their stand for negotiations, not dictate, and for the removal of Glencore’s demands for concessions. Posted below is an interview with Bart Dempsey, President of USW Local 7085, which represents the smelter workers.
Renewal Update: Can you tell us how many workers are at the plant and what they produce?
Bart Dempsey: There are 281 workers. They work in a lead smelter and deal with molten metals: lead, copper, zinc, and silver. They operate the entire plant on a continuous basis, which includes an acid plant, a blast furnace, a sinter plant and a refinery.
RU: Your workers have now been locked out since April 24. What are the issues and the most recent developments?
BD: The main issue is that the company is looking to eliminate two full-time union positions currently paid by the company. This is representation of our workers, their voice, and the company is looking to eliminate it. (See the article below detailing the concessions Glencore is demanding.)
We went to early bargaining at the company’s request in April of 2018. None of the concessions on early retirement, the two union positions and the pension plan were on the table at that time. After disagreeing with the company in 2018 on what they were offering us, they hit us with this. Basically, management wants to get rid of union representation. They say they are not looking at removing it, but that they just do not want to pay for the offices anymore. However, it is not possible to represent the workers without the office.
We went for early bargaining in 2018, but it did not work out. We resumed regular negotiations in January 2019. We bargained for about 30 days and when it came to monetary issues a mediator was appointed. Since then they have been trying to eliminate our paid offices; take away the early retirement; and to hit on seniority when it comes to vacations. They offered nothing to about 75 per cent of our work force, which now has the new pension plan. After that, we bargained for about 30 days and met with the mediator twice, but there was never any movement.
At the mediator’s request, we put forward another proposal to the company a couple of weeks ago. In our proposal we did withdraw some of our previous demands with regard to making headway on various aspects. But we kept all of what we are determined to keep.
On September 18, the company presented us with a new offer. The main thing is that they are still looking to take away the union’s offices and to limit union representation. The company has moved a bit on the pension plan and on early retirement, but they are doing this to make us accept their demands on the union offices and union representation. Our members are refusing to go for that. The employer wants us to do the union work on our own time. The main issue in the dispute is that management wants to break the union. We had a membership meeting on September 20. We have 281 members and a lot of them have left to find other work. At the meeting, 160 workers showed up, which is very good given the circumstances. We asked the members if they were ready to vote on the new offer. In a vote of 150 to 10, they decided not to even vote on the offer. In other words, we have basically voted on the the same offer three times and each time it has been strongly rejected.
Following that most recent vote, we have again put the proposal we made a month ago back on the table. And we are now waiting for the company to reply.
RU: The smelter workers and their allies have organized several actions in opposition to the Glencore lockout.
BD: Yes, we have organized at least three different information pickets at various companies whose scabs have been working at the plant since we have been locked out. We organized a rally and were very fortunate, as one local donated $10,000 so that we could supply all the children with school bags and gift cards to purchase their school supplies. We have received a lot of support, which we are very thankful for, and it’s ongoing. Every week we are receiving support from all the different locals.
RU: You are also receiving a lot of support from the community.
BD: Very much so. A lot of the stores in the community are putting up signs calling for an end to the lockout. They are voicing it out there. We had the radio stations coming to us and we have put ads on the radio stations explaining our situation. We have a tremendous amount of support and are very happy about it.
Belledune is a small community next to the Baie des Chaleurs. The Glencore smelter is more than likely the biggest employer in the region, together with New Brunswick Power.
It is a small community. Basically, we all pretty much know each other. We have workers all the way from the Acadian Peninsula right to Edmundston. Everybody knows what is going on.
It is like every labour dispute. You have some people on your side and some people are against what you are fighting for. We want to make it clear that this fight is not and has never been about money.
One of the main issues is the health and safety of the workers and of the community and union representation.
Right now, the company is trying to run the plant and it is just a mess. You can see the smog coming out of there. It is not the right people running the plant. There is a lot of needless pollution that should not be out there. The company should sort out the issue; resolve it, so that we go back to work.
RU: Do you want to say something in conclusion?
BD: When we went out, we knew ahead of time that they were going to be hard to deal with. We prepared ourselves for as long as it was going to take. We are hoping to go back to work, but we need a form of health and safety in place. We have to have representation for our workers. We have to keep things like early retirement. Whenever we speak out about the fact that they are trying to remove the safety offices, they keep saying that there is no other plant in New Brunswick that has them. There is no other plant in New Brunswick that is a lead smelter. In a lead smelter, you are dealing with carcinogens, chemicals, reagents on a constant basis. You need to have health and safety there.
I want to thank you for your support. I wish you luck with the elections, in the work you are doing there. We will keep in touch and keep you informed about what is going on.
RU: Thank you very much. We wish success in your fight, which is everyone’s fight.
For further information on the struggle of the workers at the Glencore smelter see the following articles in Workers’ Forum: cpcml.ca/WF2019/WO0616.HTM#5, cpcml.ca/WF2019/WO0617.HTM#1, cpcml.ca/WF2019/WO0618.HTM#4; and cpcml.ca/WF2019/WO0621.HTM#5.
(Photo: USW District 6)