Last week we reported that ALCAN plans to close four, 60-year-old Soderberg potlines at its Jonquire aluminum smelter. That would put about 550 people out of work. But the union is fighting back. On Tuesday, Jan. 27, workers seized the facilities and are refusing to shut down the potlines. Instead, they are stepping up production and claiming operations are running better than ever. They said the smelter produced 1,500 tonnes of aluminum, which represents $2.25 million in sales for Alcan, in the week following the takeover.
This action is only one more round in a long-standing adversarial relationship between Alcan and its unionized workers.
Last Saturday, Jan. 31, about 5,000 people demonstrated against Alcan in the town of Saguenay, 250 km north of Quebec City. Among them was Henri Masse, president of the Quebec Labour Federation. "There are long-term agreements with the union (that) provide for preservation of employees and operations. Alcan is breaking its promises," Masse said. "The message is simple: that Alcan respect its promises."
The union, which is associated with the Canadian Auto Workers, believes Alcan has an obligation to provide secondary manufacturing in the Saguenay region.
"Go figure," union president Claude Patry remarked. "The unionized workers want to run their factory, and the bosses want to block production."
The Quebec Labour Relations Board is examining the situation. It has issued an opinion that some of the workers' actions are illegal and ordered them to return control of the plant back to Alcan. Still the union members refuse.
This is hardly a case of inmates controlling the asylum. Alcan employees are skilled and knowledgeable about their jobs. If it is true that the old potlines are running more efficiently than when management calls the shots, workers are to be commended.
No one is going to win this battle without compromise on both sides. The union must recognize that there are legitimate environmental and economic reasons to mothball these old potlines. Alcan must give its employees a say into the timing of the closure and accept their input on how to minimize the impact of lost jobs; secondary manufacturing may well provide the answer. Most of all, the company must negotiate in good faith and be perceived as acting honourably.
As long as the two sides continue to butt heads like stubborn billy goats, they will only succeed in producing headaches for everyone involved.