Québec Aluminum Workers Occupy Plant To Stop Closing
In recent years, workers and unions have found it harder and harder to resist plant closings. But when the world’s largest producer of aluminum, Alcan, announced it was shutting down the Jonquière Soderburg smelter in Arvida, Québec, the 550 affected workers decided that they would not only resist-but would seize and run the plant too.
Following the company’s January 22 announcement that it would close the plant ten years earlier than it had previously agreed upon with the 2,300-member Syndicat National des Employés(es) de l’Aluminium d’Arvida (the plant’s local union, a Canadian Auto Workers affiliate), workers discussed options at a packed January 26 union meeting..
“Someone suggested the plant occupation and the whole thing just snowballed from there,” remembers Jeannot Boivin, a union delegate.
The next morning workers reported to their shift as usual. What was different, however, was that the workers stopped following supervisors’ orders and started running the smelting operations themselves.
The local union virtually controls the plant’s whole production chain, from the arrival of bauxite on the waterfront down to the smelting operations. The chemical factory that converts the bauxite into alumina, the railroads, and the hydroelectric installations are also all run by the union.
On January 30 the Québec Labour Relations Board ruled that the union’s actions were illegal.
A few days into the occupation, the union released a statement that workers had increased the output of the plant.
President Claude Patry stated: “The quality of aluminum produced under the supervision of the union is of higher quality than the aluminum that was produced before.
And this has happened despite the fact that Alcan has been uncooperative and has even tried to sabotage production. What is there to understand? The union workers want to run the plant while the bosses are trying to block production.”
Boivin, who has become an informal leader of the occupation, confirmed that the union has respected all the orders for aluminum that Alcan had lined up prior to the occupation and has made the company about $15 million Cdn-without any accidents.
“We’ve shown the utmost discipline and are making sure that every worker is working safely, ” he said. The union has not barred the company supervisors from the plant, but the workers are not following their instructions.
Boivin explained that the union has often given Alcan suggestions on how to run the smelter operations more efficiently in the past. “We’re the workers and we know how to run this plant. The supervisors have never seen the smelter operations in such good shape,” he said.
The members met in closed meetings February 9 and 10 to discuss a tentative proposal the leadership had reached during five intense days of negotiations. Roland Poirer, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said that they had agreed to accept that the 550 jobs would disappear over a period of three months, through retirements and transfers. There would be no layoffs, and the company had agreed to invest $20 million Cdn towards economic development in Saguenay.
However, members were incensed about new information that pointed to Alcan’s real reason for wanting to shut the plant down-Alcan wanted the electricity used by the smelting operation to be made available for other aluminum plants in Québec where it has part ownership.
The union rejected the tentative proposal and the leadership was instructed to demand of Alcan that 200 megawatts of electricity remain in the region for a replacement plant or other new industry.
In a February 11 article in L’aut’journal sur le web, Pierre Dubuc wrote that the union has since also called for nationalization of the hydroelectric installations of Alcan in the Saguenay/Lac-St-Jean area. Alcan’s hydroelectric installations were not included in the 1962 nationalization of electricity in Québec.
When the union went back to Alcan with these demands on February 10, the company suggested that it might find another way to end the occupation. Workers in the plant have been listening to their radios constantly to stay abreast of any possible interventions.
However, Boivin claims the union is not worried because of the amount of solidarity within the union and from the community. “If the police intervened-that would be a provocation. We don’t want that. How can we be accused of doing something illegal when we’ve kept on working safely and in such a disciplined fashion?” Boivin asked.
Boivin said that he still had goosebumps because of Alcan’s announcement: “This plant closure will hurt the workers, it will hurt their families, and it will hurt the entire region.” Many members of the union have worked for Alcan for decades, and many of their parents did as well. The Soderburg plant has been in operation for over 60 years.
The Alcan closure follows several other recent closings in the region, such as the bankruptcy of a forest co-operative in May, affecting 650 jobs, and the shutdown of a paper mill a few days before Christmas, cutting another 600 jobs.
“The way it was announced is immoral. We’ve had strikes and we’ve had atrocious accidents under Alcan’s management. They are continuing to submit us to uncertainty when really they owe this whole region. They’re taking our natural resources and the region has a right to have a part of the proceeds,” Boivin explained.
Local sentiment is such that a few days after the occupation began, on January 31, over 5,000 marched through the streets of Arvida in support of the workers.
As Labor Notes went to press, the union announced that it would comply with the provincial labor board's order to return to work under company supervision. Union members will be meeting in to decide what, if any, actions they will undertake in the future.