Smelter workers in Quebec stay strong eight months into strike

Photo: Screenshot CEZinc website

After more than eight months on strike, workers at the CEZinc smelter in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Que., have refused to accept the company’s latest offer and return to work, by an overwhelming 97 per cent on Oct. 2. 

The 371 members of United Steelworkers (USW)/Syndicat des Métallos Local 6486 walked off the job on Feb. 12, after they couldn’t reach a new contract with their employer, Noranda Income Fund and Glencore.

The refinery, located in the town of nearly 41,000 people, just west of Montreal is managed by Glencore, and employs almost 600 workers.

Noranda’s website says the refinery contributes to 1,200 jobs in Quebec, and that CEZinc is the largest private employer in the Salaberry-de-Valleyfield region. The CEZinc refinery is the second-largest zinc refinery in North America, according to Glencore, producing around 265,000 tonnes of zinc a year.  

The company’s latest proposal wasn’t much different from its last offer, said Luc Julien, a staff representative for USW. The last contract expired in November 2016. The company presented this past offer on Sept. 26. 

Workers are concerned about the company’s proposals to slash pension plans, which the union says are already over-funded. They want to make sure these plans remain strong for younger workers, said Julien. 

“We fight for now, but we fight for the future, too,” he said. 

This strike is about more than pensions and guaranteeing wage increases, Julien said. Workers are fighting to maintain what they have. 

Noranda Income Fund president and CEO Eva Carissimi said in a statement after the vote, that the result was “disappointing.” She called the offer “fair.”

The release added the offer included pension and wage increases, as well as offers of early retirement to almost 100 workers during the next five years. The company says it is working to reduce costs in energy, supplies and services. It has proposed changes to the early retirement plans are another way to save money, says the release. The company is asking workers to preserve their defined pension plan for the same reason.

The company’s release says it is committed to a new contract with unionized staff. It also says it will continue to use “eligible employees” at the site.

The Quebec Ministry of Labour found the company used workers hired by sub-contractors to staff the refinery multiple times during the strike. Quebec is one of the very few provinces with anti-scab legislation on the books. 

This strike matters to people across Canada, said Julien. Glencore operates in seven Canadian provinces, and more than 50 countries. 

Glencore also operates other zinc mines in Canada: the Bracemac-McLeod mine, in Matagami, Que., and the Kidd Operation mine in Timmins, Ont. The Brunswick Lead Smelter in Belledune, N.B., processes zinc by-products.      

The CEZinc workers are ensuring high standards remain in place for workers regardless of where they are. 

“If we lose in Quebec,” he said, “we lose across the country.”

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca’s labour reporter.

Photo: Screenshot CEZinc website

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