The past year has been particularly difficult for thousands of workers across Quebec and the rest of Canada. Workers have had to deal with back-to-work legislation, the closing down of various factories, and defeats at the negotiating table. The examples are many. Through anti-union and anti-democratic laws passed by the federal government, Canada Post workers have been robbed of the right to defend their interests. The threat of similar legislation pressured Air Canada workers to concede to management, as well. After being locked-out for two years, the employees of the Journal de Montréal were forced to sign a new contract which saw most of their jobs eliminated. Workers at Couche-tard have been fighting to unionize, but have faced firings and the threat to close down their workplaces by the boss. More recently in December, workers at the White Birch paper company have seen the plants at Masson-Anger and Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec temporarily shut down because the bosses are demanding that the workers give up 20% of their salary and up to 40% of their retirement fund. And, we also have the example of Electro-Motive Diesel in London, Ontario, which has locked-out more than 400 workers.
On New Year’s Eve, Rio Tinto Alcan managers met to discuss the rejection of the proposed collective agreement of the three union units at the plant in Alma, Quebec. Overnight, the bosses sent security guards into the factory to remove the workers there — a lockout was declared. The plant employs close to 800 workers and is one of the largest aluminum producers in North America.
The Rio Tinto Alcan bosses and workers have been in negotiation on a new contract since 4th October. The main sticking points, so far, have mainly been centred around the escalating use of contracting-out to other firms during the production process. In 2011, Rio Tinto Alcan outsourced 125,000 hours worth of labour and the company wanted to more than double this amount, up to 305,000 hours. The aluminum workers at Alma want the company to put in clear measures that halts the increase in outsourcing to preserve their jobs at decent salaries.
Outsourced manufacturing is used by companies who are looking to lower their cost of production by employing lower-paid workers who are not protected by the same collective agreements as the majority of full-time employees of a factory. In many respects, these outsourced workers can be seen as a modern form of cheap labour. The locked-out workers in Alma want to guarantee acceptable working conditions for everyone working at Rio Tinto Alcan, not just the union members. It is absurd that a company that generates millions of dollars of profit refuses to give its hired workers acceptable living conditions, just so that they can produce even more profit. This must be stopped! Rio Tinto Alcan already receives all sorts of benefits that help out its bottom line; for instance, the Quebec government provides free green electricity to the company (which is really paid by all of us). Despite assistance by the state, Rio Tinto Alcan still demands lower wages in order to increase its profits.
The lockout at Alma is very representative of the current labour climate where the very right to strike has been put into question. Workers at Canada Post had their right to strike taken away, while at the Journal de Montréal striking workers have had to deal with scabs who submitted articles to the newspaper via the Internet. Workers at Couche-Tard who voted to unionize were fired. At Rio Tinto Alcan, an injunction has been imposed that prevents the union from blocking the entrances and exits of the factory. The managers of Rio Tinto Alcan have claimed that they can continue production with existing managerial staff but according to the workers, it is unimaginable that they will be able to continue to run the company without the use of strikebreakers. Thanks to the judicial injunction, the ability of the workers to exercise their power of shutting down production has been threatened.
It is more evident than ever that the Quebec and Canadian governments march hand-in-hand with the bosses. It is time for workers to realize their power and that it is themselves that produce all of the wealth in society. Workers should take inspiration from their counterparts in South America and occupy their workplaces to defend their rights and livelihoods. There is not much that we can expect from the bosses’ parties. The right to organize was not always legal — our fathers and mothers had to fight for this right. If this organ of workers’ defence is going to be threatened by the state and by the bosses, let us struggle and change this system!
[The original French article was published on our sister-site, La Riposte.]