Union President Reflects on
What the Workers Achieved
- Interview, Marc Maltais, President,
Syndicat des travailleurs de l’aluminium d’Alma -
TML: On July 5, at three different membership meetings, the Alma Rio Tinto Alcan workers voted in favour of the tentative agreement reached between the union and RTA. The hourly workers voted 82.8 per cent in favour, the office workers, 83.3 per cent in favour, and 92.5 per cent of the Potlines Maintenance Centre workers who met also endorsed the agreement. How did the membership meetings go?
Marc Maltais: We don’t have a precise record of attendance but I can say that almost all the workers who are members of the three bargaining units participated in the meetings. Attendance was definitely more than 99 per cent.
The union executive recommended the tentative agreement be adopted, but for us the most important thing was to make sure there would be real debate in the meetings. We said right at the beginning that we wanted the workers to speak out and ask questions, no matter what their opinions were about the agreement. We told them there is no dogma in the union, that the debates have to take place and the issues at stake have to be well understood. We presented the whole tentative agreement, the entire back-to-work protocol and summed up past debates where the workers put forward their demands for this negotiation. The meeting of the hourly workers lasted seven hours without a break. It was very lively. People had the opportunity to speak their minds and raise the questions they wanted. Our main aim was to ensure the quality of the debates, rather than swaying the membership. We did not want any surprises for the workers. We do not control how people vote. Our duty is to ensure the quality of the information provided.
TML: You have characterized the agreement as a victory overall, but one that included painful concessions. Can you elaborate?
“For our jobs, our children, our resources; for our quality of life, pride and the region — defend our gains for future generations!”
MM: It is a victory because our main goal was to protect existing jobs and those for the coming generations. We obtained a guarantee in terms of the percentage of work the company is allowed to subcontract. It is only allowed to subcontract 10 per cent of the hours being worked. For example, if a total of 200,000 hours are worked in a year including overtime, the company will be allowed to subcontract 20,000 hours. This means that if RTA wants to increase the number of jobs it subcontracts, it must hire more regular unionized workers to maintain this ratio.
We also won the point that the positions that the agreement says can be subcontracted, will count toward the total 10 per cent of subcontracted work hours. This limits the company’s ability to subcontract more jobs and gives us a good idea of what the workforce will look like during the life of the contract. As well, if the company goes over the 10 per cent limit in any year of the contract, the agreement states that the allowance for subcontracted work hours will automatically be reduced correspondingly in the following year. That means that if one year RTA subcontracts 12 per cent of the work hours, the next year it can only subcontract eight per cent.
As you know, we demanded that a minimum level of employment be guaranteed, meaning that we keep the jobs we already have. We were successful in winning this as there will be no layoffs for the life of the contract and if RTA wants to keep subcontracting it has to guarantee a certain number of unionized workers based on the percentage limit.
We were also able to fend off the company’s plan to lay off 80 permanent production workers over the life of the collective agreement. It is now in the contract that there shall not be any lay off of production workers for the duration of the collective agreement.
We also won another major gain, the kind not written as a clause in a contract. We said many times that, according to RTA, the union is nothing more than 30 rabble rousers. They had no respect for us. Today, after a six-month long dispute, they know we are able to stand up to them and make gains. They won’t be able to ignore us and say we are not representative. Respect is priceless. We won it and we are very proud of that.
TML: The major concession you referred to is on the Potlines Maintenance Centre.
MM: Yes, it is a major concession and a very difficult one as far as the union is concerned. All the jobs at the Maintenance Centre will be subcontracted. That is 56 workers. But we won the provision that none of the workers who currently work there will be laid off. Fifteen will immediately join the hourly workers at the plant and the others will be moved, either within the Alma plant or to the Arvida and Laterriere smelters in Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean. As well, every time there are job openings in Alma, these workers will have first choice according to their seniority. This means much higher wages for them, at least $8 an hour more than they were making at the Maintenance Centre. It is a major gain for these workers not only in wages but also in terms of getting permanent jobs because the positions at the Maintenance Centre are quite precarious. We also won the provision that any of these workers who didn’t finish high school and never passed the general aptitude test (BGTA) would still be allowed to work on the production shop floor. It was difficult for the union to accept losing a unit, but for those workers it means better working conditions.
With respect to the office workers, we have also made a gain. These workers expected their jobs to be subcontracted as soon as they retired. Subcontracting these jobs is often more costly than keeping them inside the company because many of them are technical positions. We put in the contract that the company will have to prove to the union that subcontracting these jobs will be cheaper and more efficient than keeping them as part of the regular workforce.
TML: One of the union negotiators told the press that this is the first time workers at any Rio Tinto facility have been able to get language limiting subcontracting in a labour contract.
MM: Yes, this is true. No other Rio Tinto facility has this. What we have done is build on what workers before us have achieved. We have made new gains. Now other unions must try to go even further than us. This is what we wanted to do — open new doors, go forward — so that other workers try to obtain, with the assistance of all workers, at least what we have, and then we in turn will try to gain what they are able to win. We have done our share. This gain is very important for all Rio Tinto workers.
We have done something else previously unheard of, either at Alcan or at Rio Tinto Alcan. We put the issue of discipline in the contract. Before this, Alcan and then RTA could do basically whatever they wanted to discipline workers as part of their administrative policy. We established a process that is part of the collective agreement. They have to inform the union ahead of time and follow rules that are spelled out in the contact.
We have proven that yes, workers’ solidarity works. Life shows you can be attacked by a mining giant that is assisted by the government, but with the assistance of all of the workers, you can nonetheless stand up to them and make gains.
TML: In one of your statements to the press after the tentative agreement was endorsed, you said the union will carry on opposing the secret deal between the Charest government, Hydro-Québec and RTA, especially the provision that says that during a lockout Hydro-Québec must buy all of RTA’s unused hydro.
MM: Unless this agreement is changed, when the collective agreement expires at the end of 2015, RTA could once again lock out the workers and sell its electricity to Hydro-Québec. We are not going to wait until 2015 to have that debate with the politicians. Our union will continue to be very active on this issue. The war is not over. We have learned that to face Rio Tinto you have to be more than just ready. In preparation for the next negotiations, we are working with other unions to deprive Rio Tinto of its ability to sell its hydro during a dispute. We will keep putting pressure on the political parties.
“The government is in the service of the multinationals and the employers”; “RTA finances its lockout with money from all Quebeckers — stand up! No to Rio Tinto!”; “No to secret deals!”
TML: How important is the support of other workers in what you have been able to achieve?
MM: The conflict in Alma was not sorted out by the 800 Alma workers alone, but by workers across the globe. Without the support of our brothers and sisters in Quebec, Canada and around the world, especially their financial support, we would not have been able to carry on a six-month struggle, we would not have been able to make gains and probably would not have taken up the fight. We knew what RTA was up to.
We owe our success to the solidarity of all the unions, the political parties that supported us, the people of the communities and many small businesses. The support of small businesses was tremendous. A lot of them supported us because they understood the dire consequences for their businesses if workers lose their wages. We also had a lot of support from subcontractors, including from the unions representing those who work for subcontractors. We did good work to provide information for the people about the issues at stake and people responded. In this, financial support from the unions was very important. We involved ourselves and others in something that gave rise to precious support including financial support. Something was built and we are not going to let it go. As well, our own ranks showed a lot of discipline during the whole conflict and I think it inspired many people.
We want the corporations to know we will be there to support any workers under attack. The fact that we settled does not mean that we will sit idle. There are other disputes in the making and we know Rio Tinto is a very aggressive and anti-union employer. We are sending a very strong message of solidarity that our success in the struggle belongs to all the unions that supported us. We are going to share what we have learned with others and we want the other unions to know that whenever they are under attack, they will find us by their side.
TML: Today, market prices for aluminum are low and we see anti-labour restructuring being done by aluminum monopolies, including Alcoa and Rio Tinto. What is your take on that?
MM: Corporations like Rio Tinto Alcan are making the same mistakes as those made in the forestry industry. Rio Tinto produces a lot in terms of tons of aluminum per year, but look at what they are doing, for example, in St-Jean-de-Maurienne, France where they are preparing to close the smelter. St-Jean-de-Maurienne used to be a world class research centre. The technology we use in Alma was developed in St-Jean-de-Maurienne. But according to Rio Tinto Alcan, research and development is just an expense. They are doing the same thing the forestry companies did 30 years ago when they refused to diversify their production. If they had diversified, developed new products and so on, the Canadian forestry industry would not be in the sorry state it is today. It is the same thing with aluminum. Pechiney and then Alcan used to develop new technologies and products but RTA is not interested. It is just going for short-term profit with the least effort possible and without any consideration for what it takes to keep the industry in good shape. This does not bode well.
In Alma we have our problems but we also have our strong points. When the price of aluminum dropped to $1,400 a ton, there were only five smelters in the world that posted profits and we were first on the list. We are a smelter with lower production costs. At the same time, despite being the most profitable, look at how severely Rio Tinto attacked us.
TML: What would like to say in conclusion?
MM: In my opinion, the world of labour is changing. In this struggle, we have been able to put aside our different affiliations to work together and we have achieved concrete results. Meanwhile, the corporations are also becoming harder to deal with, but we have shown that workers’ solidarity is something that works and enables us to stand up to them. We have shown this in practice.
Once again, on behalf of the union I want to thank all those who have supported us and tell them that when they face difficulties we’ll be right beside them too.