Lockout at one of Canada’s largest smelters drags into 2nd year, with no end in sight


A Pass mini-bus, escorted by several security guards, edges toward the improvisation checkpoint that guards the lone road in and out of the sprawling ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour, Que.

The bus’s tow-path is blocked by a dozen picketers, who cup their hands to the tinted windows and try to connect the obscured figures inside.

“There were scabs in there, for unshakeable,” one locked-out worker says after they let the bus continue onto the primary road.

The workers repeat a similar routine several times a day, ethical as they have done ever since 3 a.m. on Jan. 11, 2018, when the smelter’s direction locked them out.

Without these 1,030 workers, the smelter 170 kilometres northeast of Montreal was phony to shut two of its potlines, the rows of electrolytic reduction pots used in the smelting of aluminum. A third has been retained running at reduced capacity by management and salaried employees.

The union, the 60,000-strong Syndicat des Métallos, believes command has also been using scabs, which is illegal in Quebec. The smelter’s more than half owner, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, denies the allegation.

Quebec’s labour bench held hearings on the matter last year and is expected to rule in the succeeding weeks.

Lockout at one of Canada's largest smelters drags into 2nd year, with no end in sight

Locked-out workers investigate vehicles that enter and outlet the plant. They suspect management of using scabs to keep the smelter sustained. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

On the picket line, workers have developed their own sure-fire method of detecting whether those entering the plant are managers or illegal replacements.

“If he’s got consent hands, it means he’s not a scab, because if he’s doing real work in quod, he have hard hands,” said Claude Dumas, who operated a implement that pours out liquid aluminum before the lockout.

The workers say the firm is sneaking in “scab” labour. The company accuses the union of using brutish tactics that put the safety of the plant in jeopardy. One year later, both sides are as dug-in as at all. 2:45

Digging in for long fight

The labour dispute enters its second year today, with no hope that the two sides will reach an agreement any time straightway.

A mediation process broke down just before Christmas, mystifying Quebec’s new labour minister, Jean Boulet.

“It’s more complex than I reasoning,” Boulet told a local newspaper last month.

At one level, the differ revolves around the retirement plan and seniority. Alcoa imposed the lockout after the Bund turned down a contract offer that proposed moving away from a defined-benefit old-age pension plan and sought more flexible hiring practices.

“ABI’s management has forever underscored the need to improve productivity and profitability at the smelter,” Alcoa contemplated in a statement to CBC News.

But some observers have suggested something larger is also at jeopardize. The collective agreement at the Alcoa smelter in Baie-Comeau​ is up this year, and they propose the company might be trying to use the tough stand it’s taken in the Bécancour brawl to set an example.

Lockout at one of Canada's largest smelters drags into 2nd year, with no end in sight

‘There are small tragedies. Divorces, bankruptcies, people be experiencing to give up their homes. It’s sad. It affects everyone,’ said Claude Dumas, 49. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

“The boss’s demands have increased since the beginning of the lockout. There is conceivable a ruse in some of those demands,” Jean-Claude Bernatchez, a labour ties expert at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, told Radio-Canada recently.

The uniting, the Quebec branch of the United Steelworkers, is girded for a long fight.

It has heaped a sizeable war chest, drawn in part from donations, loans and the Harmonious Steelworkers international strike fund. In exchange for regular eight-hour take care ofs on the picket line, locked-out workers receive around $600 weekly, tax for nothing.

That’s roughly half their regular pay, however. Some get taken on part-time work to supplement their income; others are upright making do with less.

“It creates uncertainty for our families,” said Dumas, 49, who has three toddlers in their early 20s.

“There are small tragedies. Divorces, bankruptcies, people entertaining to give up their homes. It’s sad. It affects everyone.”

Nightmares and bad blood

As the discord drags on, the mayor of Bécancour, Jean-Guy Dubois, says he worries more and more all over a disaster scenario: the smelter’s closure.

Alcoa is the largest employer in this village of 12,000 residents. The smelter’s property taxes account for 17 per cent of Bécancour’s annual gate. The smelter also supports several local suppliers.

“I don’t want to concoct about [a closure]…. All would change here,” Dubois rephrases.

For the moment, that possibility seems remote. The smelter is less than 40 years old and is currently the third-largest in Canada, in period of times of total capacity.

Lockout at one of Canada's largest smelters drags into 2nd year, with no end in sight

The union has amassed a sizeable war chest, drawn in instances partly from donations, loans and the United Steelworkers international strike support. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

But the absence of progress at the negotiating table alarms the Coalition Avenir Québec direction.

In opposition, the CAQ had criticized its Liberal predecessor for doing too little to resolve the lockout.

The longer the feud drags on, the more it is costing Quebec taxpayers: The Métallos claim provincially owned Hydro-Québec is shake off more than eight dollars for every second that the factory is operating at reduced capacity. A year into the lockout, that fathom is closing in on $220 million.

The CAQ promised during the fall election race to bring more high-paying jobs to Quebec’s heartland — the kind of difficulties that are at stake in Bécancour.

Earlier this week, Boulet designate a task force to determine what, if any, common ground could be set up between the two sides, hopefully to pave the way for a new round of talks.

“I am extremely swotting by the repercussions of this conflict,” he said.

“I live in [nearby] Trois-Rivières, and I appropriate on a daily basis people who speak to me about the human consequences, the cognitive distress and the impact on the economy.”

On the picket line, though, workers say it transfer take more than a settlement to get over the hard feelings that deceive been brewing for the past 365 days.

Lockout at one of Canada's largest smelters drags into 2nd year, with no end in sight

Bécancour Mayor Jean-Guy Dubois try to says if the smelter were to close because of the dispute, his town would be shocked. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

“When we go back in there, it’s going to take years and years to fix preoccupations,” says Dumas.

Behind him, his colleagues huddle around two steel drums that acquire been hollowed out and turned into a fire pit. A portable radio impose on behaves 1990s rock music as they wait for the next car to pull up to the checkpoint.

“We’ll not under any condition forget what happened to us,” Dumas says.

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