By Michelle Robidoux
On Thursday, July 5, workers at Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) in Alma, Quebec signed a new collective agreement after six months locked out by the employer. RTA had demanded huge concessions from United Steelworkers local 9490, which represents the 780 workers at its Alma operations. When they refused these concessions, the company brutally locked them out of the plant on New Year’s Eve and forced them onto the street.
Now, after a battle that built solidarity across the country and internationally, the workers have held the line against the bulk of these concessions.
RTA wanted all retiring employees to be replaced by non-union contract workers earning half the wages and no pensions or benefits. It also wanted to contract out existing jobs in some of the trades. After six months of determined struggle, the workers managed to push back RTA, and have won a ceiling on contracting out that limits the number of hours of work that the company can contract out to ten per cent relative to the hours worked by unionized workers.
According to local 9490 President Marc Maltais, it will now be impossible for the employer to reduce the number of unionized workers without affecting, in a directly proportional way, its ability to contract out.
As Maltais stated, “It’s a victory. I wouldn’t say it’s a resounding, crushing victory… But, it’s still a union victory in relation to the goals we had stated in terms of job protection and limiting contracting out.”
Unfortunately, the contract includes a major concession for the 56 workers in the pot-lining section of RTA’s operations. The current jobs will be phased out through attrition and replaced with contract workers. None of the current workers face lay-off and they will have first option on any job openings in RTA’s operations in Alma or elsewhere.
RTA, the world’s third largest mining company, deployed a huge arsenal against the Alma workers. With the help of a secret agreement it had signed with the Quebec government and Hydro-Québec, RTA was able to finance its lockout through public money to the tune of $15 million a month because Hydro-Québec purchased unused electricity during the lockout at a gold-plated tariff. This led to the rebranding of RTA as “Hydro-Tinto”.
Despite the huge forces lined up against them, the Alma workers launched an international solidarity campaign, travelling to California and Utah, then Australia and New Zealand.
They connected with other locals throughout the region, both within the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec and beyond. Very importantly, early on they received the support of Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) members at Rio Tinto’s local port installations who donated $50,000 to the lockout fund. They travelled to Sorel, Quebec where they held a rally outside RTA’s titanium and iron plant, whose workers are organized by a different union, and received strong support of $5 per worker per week for the duration of the lockout.
In Alma, the electricity and energy workers’ union, the Syndicat des émployés d’énergie électrique Québec, manned the picket lines while locked-out workers held mass meetings. The president of the local, Pierre Simard, was given a gag order by RTA who didn’t want him to talk about the sweetheart deal between RTA and Hydro-Québec.
RTA workers in Kitimat, BC, members of CAW local 2301, donated over $60,000 per month to the Alma workers over the course of the lockout. They are currently in negotiations with Rio Tinto, with a July 23 strike or lockout deadline.
Eight weeks into the lockout, 50 Toronto steelworkers who are part of the Steelworkers’ Toronto Area Council travelled 26 hours round-trip by bus to bring solidarity to Alma workers. They made the trip again on March 31 to join a mass rally that drew 8,000 people to this town of 30,000.
International delegations also attended the rally, including representatives of the Maritime Union of Australia, the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Hundreds of students, including the leader of CLASSE, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, bussed to Alma on that day to show their solidarity.
This intra-union and inter-union solidarity, on a pan-Canadian and international level, is a break with the pattern of recent years. Not since the strike by Inco miners in Sudbury in 1978 has there been such a cross-Canada movement of solidarity. That solidarity has been a two-way street. In February, Alma workers joined striking students in the streets of Montreal. In March, Marc Maltais joined CEGEP students in Alma in a solidarity protest, and on April 22, RTA workers joined the mass Earth Day demonstration in Montreal.
One of the hallmarks of this historic fight was the degree of creativity of rank-and-file workers:
- To mark International Women’s Day, women (workers and spouses of workers) organized a special solidarity event for spouses. They then organized “Wife Picketage” in response to CEO Etienne Jacques saying that the ‘wife factor’ (spouses putting pressure on their husbands to settle) would soon put an end to the lockout.
- A superhero helped spread the word of the strike.
- A locked-out worker wrote an anthem for the strike.
- Workers packed out local hockey games, wearing their trademark orange t-shirts and sweatshirts.
- In May, workers walked across the Parc des Laurentides to deliver petitions bearing 12,000 signatures to the Quebec National Assembly, demanding the secret deal with RTA and Hydro be repealed.
This display of energy and creativity had ripple effects. Toronto steelworkers videotaped their superhero counterpart to build for the March 31 rally.
Whether the fight could have resisted all the concessions is a difficult question. The campaign to get Rio Tinto off the Olympics podium was starting to bite, and there is no doubt the multinational did not want the negative attention the campaign was bringing.
But considering similar battles of the past few years, they achieved a lot, against incredible odds. Alma workers faced a huge multinational, a bosses’ strike, injunctions against picketing, a deal between RTA and the Quebec government that allowed RTA to ride out the lockout at taxpayers’ expense, and a barrage of negative media coverage.
They knew about the recent bitter, long lockouts and strikes at US Steel and Vale Inco, which ended with huge concessions. They saw the brutal shutdown of Electro-Motive Diesel by Caterpillar in London, putting 460 people out of work.
The fight in Alma points to the possibilities that exist in what has been a very grim context, and what it takes to even begin to challenge the agenda of austerity that the ruling class is pursuing at every level. In the context of the massive student struggle currently underway in Quebec, it showed that the mood of resistance extends beyond the campuses into communities across Quebec.
The question of what it will take to change the relation of forces is a huge one. Everywhere, employers are locking out workers or forcing long strikes, and then starving people back. In the bitter battles of the 1930s, it was the use of the sit-down strike – of factory occupations – that turned the tide and tilted the balance back towards workers. This is a key question for the workers’ movement today.
The Alma struggle holds lessons that are vital to the renewal of workers’ ability to resist austerity in Canada and around the world. Now let’s prepare to roll out those lessons in support of Rio Tinto workers in Kitimat.
Michelle Robidoux is a leading member of the International Socialists and a trade union activist who helped organize solidarity with Alma workers. Follow her on Twitter: @banjolene.