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Resilience and solidarity in labour's summer victory against Rio Tinto

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In the heat of an Eastern Canadian summer there is a blast of fresh air for the trade union movement with the decisive win by the United Steelworkers in the six month lockout at the hands of global mining giant Rio Tinto in Alma Quebec.

Last week the 780 USW members at the Rio Tinto aluminum smelter in Alma ratified a deal to end the lockout imposed by the company at New Year's. The lockout was an attempt to force workers to accept the company's main demand that future employees would be contractors earning as little as half the regular workforce with few or no benefits. After a six month struggle, that demand was dropped. The company got the right to contract a handful of jobs while agreeing to live with continuing strict restrictions on contracting out.

There will be relatively little commentary in the business pages on this result because it runs entirely contrary to the popular narrative of labour on the ropes, unable to cope with the all-powerful forces of global capitalism. This result tells a different story of how strong Canadian labour can be when it takes a principled stand, organizes locally and globally, and has community support and labour solidarity at its back. 

The Alma story comes at an opportune time for labour which has been battered by five interventions to stop or break strikes in the federal jurisdiction in just two years, along with Conservative Bill C377 targeting union finances still making its way through Parliament.  Tied into the Conservative attack, Brad Wall in Saskatchewan has put unions on notice that far reaching anti-labour legislation can be expected this fall, and Ontario Opposition leader Tim Hudak has now picked up the anti-labour ball to kick around Ontario.

Then there was the other New Year’s lockout at Caterpillar’s ElectroMotive plant in London Ontario where the company also sought to cut wages and benefits in half.  That ended after six weeks with the company closing the plant, stripping the technology and moving to a non union plant in the US.

The expectation was that conditions were ripe for a $134 Billion company like Rio Tinto to impose new, game changing labour standards on workers in a small community in rural Quebec.  But it didn’t happen.

Like most successful labour struggles, community support and labour solidarity were key factors in shifting the balance to the side of workers.  In Quebec, Metallos, as the USW is known in that province, consistently made the point that the dispute was not over the jobs or conditions of the existing workers but rather over the quality of jobs that future workers will have. In March, when the union organized a march and rally of 8,000 people through this community of only 30,000 it was more than apparent that the message resonated with Quebecers. 

Public support for USW in Quebec was also important because the company was relying on a power agreement with the province that allowed them to continue selling electricity into the Quebec Hydro grid even though it had triggered a lockout and curtailed production. Pressure on the Quebec government to end this preferential arrangement for the company was obviously a factor in forcing a settlement.

There was also support for the Alma workers across the Canadian labour movement and abroad, particularly in Australia and England. In the UK, USW’s international partner, UNITE, helped organize a campaign around the London Olympics that focused on Rio Tinto’s role in forging the gold medals for the games. The Olympic campaign was part of a strategic decision to make the lockout an issue throughout Rio Tinto’s global corporate empire.

Labour solidarity across the company’s Canadian operations, particularly at its aluminum smelter in Kitimat, BC, added another context bringing this dispute to a conclusion.  Although more than 3000 miles away, the Kitimat workers, members of CAW,  had responded immediately to the lockout in Alma workers by raising their union dues and sending hundreds of thousands of dollars in support.  This summer the CAW local opened bargaining and were presented with the same demands as at Alma.  However, instead of the Alma lockout softening up Kitimat, all indications were that the company faced the opening of a second major battle on its Western front amid a major construction project to rebuild and expand the smelter. 

But the fundamental difference at Alma that made for a union victory was the union’s resilience and its ability to organize solidarity and resources to maintain strong picket lines and endure a lengthy dispute.

Unlike Air Canada, CP Rail or Canada Post, Rio Tinto was outside the reach of the Harper government to intervene on the side of the employer. This fight played out in the streets and on picket lines instead of in Parliament or before labour boards, courts and arbitrators.

And unlike Caterpillar, the company could not just move an aluminum smelter and its power dams to a “right to work” state.  But neither was CAT successful in imposing new labour standards in London.  In that case, community support and strong picket lines made scabbing not a viable strategy for the company and it simply abandoned Canada.

Alma should be a cautionary tale for anti-labour hawks in business and in the Conservative Party before they pick the next big fight.  When labour decides to step up to crucial tests over standards and rights, it can hold its own and more, and there can be large economic and political costs for the aggressors.  

In spite of that, it would be a delusion for labour to take Alma as a turning point in the labour war that is heating up.  It was a warm up for other political and economic showdowns coming soon.  But for labour activists feeling the heat, Alma is a summer breeze of encouragement.

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