Thousands March To Defend Rio Tinto Alcan Jobs!

Unite members in London protest in support of Rio Tinto workers in Boron, USA during their lock-out in April 2010
Unite members in London protest in support of Rio Tinto workers in Boron, USA during their lock-out in April 2010

THOUSANDS of people marched through the streets of Alma in Lac Saint-Jean in Quebec province on Saturday to demand an end to the lock out and to fight for the preservation of jobs at the Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) smelter.

Three months and one day after the multinational corporation’s reprehensible lock out of its workers, largely subsidised by public funds, citizens from the region, families, workers and unionists from all over the world have their eyes set on RTA.

The General Secretary of the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), Jyrki Raina, said an international movement of resistance against this global corporation is imperative.

‘Companies such as Rio Tinto need to remember that they are making their profits thanks to the communities in which they are operating.

‘They need to show respect for current and future workers and stop callously cutting labour costs and decent jobs without any regard for the local economy,’ Raina said.

‘If Rio Tinto wants to prosper, it cannot break the delicate balance that connects it to the community.

‘This is true not only in Africa, Europe or Australia, but also in Quebec,’ said Raina, who also participated Friday in a joint meeting of the IMF and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mines and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) in Alma.

Combined, the IMF and ICEM represent 50 millions workers worldwide.

Rio Tinto Alcan’s lockout is all the more reprehensible in that it is funded by public money as the result of a secret agreement between the Quebec government, Hydro-Québec and RTA.

‘In addition to no-interest loans over 30 years, subsidies and electricity at an extremely discounted rate, the government is paying this company $15 million each month to buy surplus electricity that Quebeckers don’t even need. What a travesty!’ said Daniel Roy, the United Steelworkers’ Quebec Director.

‘The Premier tells us he placed a call to Rio Tinto Alcan’s CEO.

‘That’s all well and good, but there must have been a disruption on the line somewhere between Québec and London, because the message never reached its destination,’ said Roy.

‘Quebeckers deserve greater respect from a multinational corporation that is making its money using our electricity.’

The Steelworkers’ Quebec Director said he was thrilled at the sight of so many flags over the streets of Alma, which he characterised as a sign that the incredible solidarity of Alma’s locked-out workers is inspiring so many others.

United Steelworkers Canadian Director, Ken Neumann said pressure also is being applied on the federal government to act.

‘Stephen Harper clearly fell short of his task by failing to impose conditions on the sale of Alcan to Rio Tinto in 2007 and to protect jobs,’ Neumann said.

‘For someone who is so bent on involving himself in labour relations, why doesn’t he intervene with Rio Tinto to put an end to this abhorrent lockout?’

Having just completed two days of negotiations, Local Union 9490 President Marc Maltais was moved by this wave of solidarity that washed over his community.

‘It’s one thing to go meet our brothers on their own turf to explain the conflict, but it’s even more rewarding to see supporters from all over the world come out to support us and march in our streets, after 10, 15, or 20 hours of travel.

‘Everyone understands that this battle is much more than just our own story, that we are fighting for our future, to ensure that those who will follow in our footsteps will also have decent jobs,’ Maltais said.

The thousands of demonstrators at Saturday’s rally came from across the Lac Saint-Jean region and Quebec, as well as communities outside the province, including Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area.

Supporters who came to Alma also included union representatives from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, Mexico and several other countries.

The 780 workers at RTA’s smelter in Alma were thrown onto the street during the night of December 30, 24 hours before the company had acquired the legal right to lock out its workers.

The conflict centres on RTA’s plan to replace regular workers with sub-contractors paid at half the wage rate.

The United Steelworkers, which is affiliated with the FTQ, is the largest private sector union in Quebec, representing over 60,000 workers in all sectors of the economy (mining, metallurgy, aluminum, industrial manufacturing, security, hotels, restaurants, trucking, taxi, etc.).

l Meanwhile Indonesia’s largest coal producer, PT Kaltim Prima Coal (KPC), through its mine services contractor Thiess Pty. Ltd. of Australia, has brutally attacked members of two ICEM-affiliated mine unions through police and military force. The dispute dates to the fourth quarter of 2011 when miners working for KPC, part of Indonesia’s Bumi Resources, first took strike action when it became obvious that neither Thiess nor KPC intended to grant a renewal collective agreement.

But the dispute at KPC’s Sangatta mine in Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo turned violent on 24 March when 400 striking workers gathered at the coal company’s office in East Kutai district on the counsel of a local citizens group to offer themselves back to work following a second strike dating to last November.

They were immediately attacked by a regional military brigade serving the interests of Thiess and KPC. Twenty miners were severely beaten and hospitalised. Another 12 were immediately detained and throughout the night of 24 March and into the next day, police and military rounded up another four union leaders and jailed them.

By this weekend, most of the unionists had been released but police and regional military are still holding two union leaders, the Vice President of the local branch of ICEM affiliate Chemical, Energy, Mines, Oil & Gas Workers’ Union of FSP-KEP, Sumardi, and the Secretary, Maxi.

The leader of FSP-KEP, D. Patombong Sjaiful, called the situation now ‘critical’ and pleaded that global trade union attention is given this grievous repression by brute force. In the second time in a fortnight, the Jakarta-based FSP-KEP has dispatched a mission to east Kalimantan province, this time to win the freedom of the two remaining unionists.

The other ICEM-affiliated organisation with membership at KPC is the regional mining and energy union FPE, part of the Indonesian confederation SBSI. Some 2,200 miners work at KPC’s two open-cast thermal coal mines of Sangatta. FSP-KEP has some 1,400 members, while FPE has 200. KPC also consists of five smaller mines at the nearby Bengalon mine.

The dispute began following the expiration of a two-year agreement on 5 October 2011. Thiess Indonesia management foretold its strategy to eliminate the collective agreement by telling the unions a new agreement would not be valid until after negotiations were complete. And then the stalling began.

The mineworkers’ only choice was to strike and the first work stoppage occurred from 10 November to 27 December, from which six union leaders were sacked. When the two sides finally did return to bargaining on 28 January 2012, union leaders were summoned to police offices in East Kutai district where they were surprised to see that the police commander representing the company in talks.

Two days earlier, KPC sent a letter that the status of the six union leaders would not be on the agenda. Miners began a work slowdown resulting in 264 workers getting the sack that, in turn, caused a second strike.

When Sjaiful and other FSP-KEP leaders visited in mid-March, an agreement was sorted out between the police, a local parliamentarian, and the citizens’ group calling for the strike to cease, recall of the dismissed workers, and a return to negotiations.

But Thiesse and KPC rejected that. When strikers came to the company’s offices then on 24 March, they were met by police and the mobile brigade wielding batons and other instruments of force.

The ICEM condemns Thiess, part of Australian Leighton Holdings Ltd. (LEI), whose ultimate parent is the German global construction giant Hochtief AG, for utilising police and military intervention to avert legitimate collective negotiations. It also holds Bumi Resources accountable for this contemptible display of anti-social conduct in its home country.