Showdown in Alma: To Win, Mobilize the Power
of the Entire Workers Movement
Quebec: Lockout at Rio Tinto Alcan
Hundreds of locked-out workers of Rio Tinto Alcan rally in front of the offices of Énergie éléctrique,
January 4. Real solidarity in deeds would be to strike the RTA's hydroelectric plants.
(Photo: Gimmy Desbiens/Le Quotidien)
MONTRÉAL – Shortly after midnight on January 1, the management of the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum plant in Alma, off Lake St. John in northeastern Quebec, imposed a lockout. Their aim was to mercilessly crush the fighting spirit of the 787 workers of the factory, affiliated with the Métallos (United Steelworkers) union. At the heart of the conflict is bosses’ intention to radically increase subcontracting. This world leader of aluminum production wants to raise its profit rate to 40% a year by reducing the wages of hundreds of workers to less than half of what they presently earn.
What’s at stake is the future of jobs making possible a barely acceptable standard of living in this northern region. If RTA succeeds at Alma, you can be sure that they will soon attempt the same blackmail operation at the Arvida plant in nearby Jonquière and elsewhere. The bosses had been brandishing the threat of a lockout for more than a year, then abruptly cut off negotiations when the old contract ran out. The workers voted by 88% to reject management’s last “offer” – in reality a diktat – which refused to agree to a minimum number of jobs at the Alma factory. “RTA declared war on us,” said Marc Maltais, president of Local 9490 of the Métallos.
The Alma plant is the fourth largest of the multinational mining and metals corporation, with an annual production of 46,000 tons of aluminum, making it a crucial company for the Lake St. John region. It is also key for RTA. The fact that it would decree a lockout at the most modern of its aluminum manufacturing plants shows the seriousness of its attack no the workers. Management is in no hurry to reopen talks with the union. A labour conflict “takes a certain amount of time,” said the RTA head of North American primary metals Jean Simon, speaking to the Quebec Chamber of Commerce (Le Devoir, 7 February).
The Quebec aluminum bosses are increasingly resorting to subcontracting, claiming it is necessary in order to maintain “competitiveness.” RTA already subcontracted out 60 computing jobs in the Lake St. John plant. Yet with eight smelters in Canada following its 2007 purchase of Alcan, Rio Tinto is the principal producer of primary aluminum in the world. Moreover, its main competitor, Alcoa, has the bulk of its production in the United States, where wages are at the same level as in Canada. The argument about “competitiveness” is blackmail pure and simple.
The employers would like to hire non-union temp employees with substandard working conditions and far lower wages (in the case of the Alma plant, $15 an hour instead of $35). They can also thereby “free” themselves of charges for health insurance and pension funds. By creating two categories of workers they are using the hoary tactic of divide and rule, hoping to prevent any possibility of working-class unity. The effect of the present struggle, however, is the opposite, having awakened deepfelt shows of solidarity.
The use of subcontracting by large companies in Quebec was greatly furthered by the Liberal government of Jean Charest, which in 2004 eliminated from Article 45 of the Quebec Labour Code any obstacles to the widespread use of outsourcing. In December 2003, hundreds of workers from the Saguenay region blocked Highway 175 to protest against Charest’s anti-labour laws. But the union chiefs were finally able to demobilize the ranks in order to put a stop to a struggle that was heading toward a general strike. A month later, Alcan workers occupied the Arvida plant in the face of management threats to close the vat room.
Currently, Charest is circling the globe trying to sell his “Plan Nord,” to open up the resources of Quebec’s far north to exploitation by foreign mining companies, who will certainly demand “flexibility” in hiring. This is linked to Rio Tinto Alcan’s Alma II project. When in 2005 the SNEAA union at Arvida objected to subcontracting out jobs, Jean Simon threatened, “Alcan won’t expand any further in Quebec” (from the presentation by SNEAA president Alain Gagnon, January 24). Yet RTA just took delivery at Arvida of the first AP60 vat, using a new technology which will raise productivity by 40% and involve investments of more than $1 billion.
The lockout at Alma is also part of the anti-working-class offensive unleashed (or rather, intensified) by the world economic crisis. The union at Alma is calling for hiring of new workers in proportion to the increased production. The bosses are refusing any such commitment. They want to increase even more the workload of the employees and multiply the number of temporary, low-wage jobs. Throughout the world, the bourgeoisie is trying to use increased unemployment in order to rip up our social gains won through hard struggle. They want to make us pay for the costs of the capitalist crisis.
Imposing the Law of the Workers in Struggle
Security guards cross the
picket lines at the Rio Tinto Alcan
plant at Alma at the beginning of
the lockout. What’s needed is to
occupy the factory in order to drive
out the scabs and rent-a-cops.
In the face of RTA’s hard line, the locked-out workers reacted quickly. More than 200 of them showed up at the entrance gate to the plant on the night of December 31/January 1 to demand their right to go to work. They were received by dozens of new security guards. The next morning, the workers blocked the railroad near the plant with a tow truck and blocks of wood. Many trucks had to turn around, to the great dismay of Rio Tinto Alcan management. The bosses immediately demanded an injunction that would let them prevent the workers from establishing a blockade.
The workers of “aluminum valley” have a long history of class struggle, and in the days that followed they went all out to show their determination not to let the bosses have their way. On January 4, some 500 workers rallied in front of the Énergie Électricité Québec division to denounce RTA’s sale of electricity to Hydro-Québec. Then on February 8, 500 metal workers paid a visit to the municipal council to complain about the “pseudo-neutrality” of the mayor. But despite the tremendous combativeness of the workers, the company has managed to keep up production of about one-third of normal levels, according to management.
The bosses seek to ensure that they don’t lose too much money during the lockout, and hope to thereby overcome the workers’ resistance. How exactly? With the use of strikebreakers, obviously. RTA insists that they are just supervisors. Two hundred of them for 800 workers? Unlikely, but no matter, they are all scabs.
What can be done to stop them? The New Democratic Party (NDP) federal deputy for Jonquière-Alma, Claude Patry, who is the former president of the Arvida workers’ union, along with the local Parti Québécois deputies in the Quebec National Assembly have asked for the intervention of the government of Jean Charest – the same one who negotiated the sale of Alcan to Rio Tinto, and whose chief of staff was the former vice-president of the aluminum company!
The lockout at Rio Tinto Alcan is one more in a long string of company attacks. There was, first of all, the lockout at the Journal de Montréal which lasted two years, from 2009 to 2011, and ended in defeat. The Québécor empire, headed by former Maoist Pierre-Karl Péladeau, used freelancers as strikebreakers: they sent their articles in by Internet. The labour federations, for their part, led by the CSN (Confederation of National Trade Unions), want to “modernize” Quebec’s anti-scab law, which is clearly worthless today. Both the union bureaucrats and bourgeois politicians are counting on the bourgeois state, and certainly not on workers’ action.
But what’s needed to defeat this capitalist anti-union offensive is precisely a combative mobilization of the strength of the workers movement. The RTA bosses are pulling out all the stops to keep up production, even bringing in scabs by snowmobile and helicopter? A court injunction limits the number of picketers to 20, at a distance of 500 meters from the factory? Instead of bowing and scraping before the all-powerful multinational company and the bosses’ laws, it’s necessary to impose the law of the workers, with a union occupation of the plant. It should have been done from the outset, but is still possible.
Gestures of solidarity with the Alma workers are multiplying, including a group of 30 non-unionized workers from the Rio Tinto plant at Grande Baie. Since the beginning of the conflict, hundreds of workers from RTA Alma have rallied in front of Énergie électrique Québec to protest the sales of electricity by the RTA to Hydro-Québec. NPD deputy Patry appeals for calm and to avoid bickering. The president of the SEEEQ representing workers at RTA’s Île-Maligne hydroelectric plant, Pierre Simard, says he is frustrated and “deplores” the “difficult situation” while reiterating his support for the workers in the aluminum plant (Agence QMI, 4 January).
Yet no one can miss that what would bring real aid to the locked-out workers is a sit-down strike at the Île-Maligne plant and the Shipshaw dam, both RTA-owned. With one blow this would shut down sales of surplus energy and the production of aluminum by scabs. For its part, the SNEAA union representing workers at RTA’s Arvida plant, which like the SEEQ belongs to TCA-Québec (Canadian Auto Workers), has given a million-dollar loan to Métallos (USW) Local 9490 at Alma. Yet what’s needed is a strike to stop production at Arvida and all RTA plants.
The lockout at Alma is clearly a highly political event. In addition to the bourgeois politicians of the PQ and the right-wing social democrats of the NDP who have shown up at support demos for RTA employees, the National Assembly deputy and spokesman for Québec Solidaire (QS), the party of the petty-bourgeois nationalist left, Amir Khadir, paid a visit to the picket line at Alma on January 24. Like the other deputies, Khadir presented himself as a friend of the workers. However, despite its episodic pretensions of overcoming capitalism, in actual deeds QS does not stand with the working class against the bosses.
In recent months there has been a wave of propaganda against the construction workers unions, with accusations of all sorts of corruption and ties with organized crime. True or not, these accusations have served as a pretext for an initiative by the Liberal government to eliminate the union hiring hall in this sector. Union control of hiring is a gain which must be defended. The campaign against it is pure hypocrisy. Charest is accusing the unions of corruption. Just recall the “Sponsorgate” scandal involving the Liberal Party, in which Rio Tinto Alcan was among the top sponsors!
Who would benefit from Bill 33, the law presented by the Charest government to replace union hiring for construction sites with an agency of the capitalist government? First in line to profit from this would be the construction bosses, the very same ones who are behind the bribes. When Bill 33 was approved by the National Assembly, “All the deputies, including the PQ, voted in favour” reported Le Soleil (3 December 2011). And QS deputy Khadir? He was intentionally absent in order to avoid voting against this attack by the employers. It all shows that Québec Solidaire does not defend the workers movement against capital. It’s just a second-string PQ.
of RTA, or Socialist Revolution?
In the face of the company’s refusal to agree to maintaining employment levels, what's posed is a
fight for the expropriation of mining and metal monoplies like RTA through socialist revolution.
Photo: Gimmy Desbiens/Le Quotidien)
In his speech to the locked-out workers at Alma, Amir Khadir raised the possibility of nationalizing companies like RTA (le Quotidien [Chicoutimi], 31 January). A seductive measure, but one which hides the class nature of the capitalist state and has nothing to do with expropriation of the means of production of the bourgeoisie. You only have to look at the state-owned company Hydro-Québec, which functions just like privately owned companies at the level of competition. Moreover, the aluminum factories of the Saguenay-Lake St. John region are only one link in a chain. Quebec’s main advantage (aside from skilled labor) is hydroelectricity, which the mining and metal monopolies like RTA can easily find elsewhere, as they are constantly threatening.
Consider the question raised by Alain Proulx in l’Aut’hebdo (13 January): “what would René Lévesque have thought?” Proulx would like to believe that the founder and hero of the Parti Québécois would not have approved of a multinational company trying to “starve out the workers with a lockout.” Yet it was Lévesque himself, then minister of natural resources in the Liberal government of Jean Lesage during the “quiet revolution” of the ’60s, who in 1962 spared the Alcan dams from electricity nationalisation due to the profitability of that multinational company. Both when he was in the PLQ and later with the PQ, this bourgeois politician defended the interests of Quebec capital, not those of working men and women.
Nationalising companies under capitalism does not in itself represent a step toward socialism, contrary to the nostrums of reformists of all stripes, and does not put into question the power of the capitalist class. Rio Tinto Alcan has already profited greatly from the generosity of the Quebec state, with a no-interest loan of $400 million and $500 million in electrical subsidies yearly. Nationalisation of the company could turn out to be one more subsidy, this time enabling the owners of the aluminum plants to find an even more profitable sector. Recall that the great expansion of Hydro-Québec in the 1960s was only possible because of financing by the money men of Wall Street, who extracted huge profits from the business.
The League for the Fourth International (LFI) stands for independence for Quebec, at the same as we underline that the emancipation of the working class and all the oppressed can only be the result of an international struggle for socialist revolution. In contrast, would-be Marxist collectives such as Gauche Socialiste (followers of the late Ernest Mandel) or the International Marxist Tendency (led by Alan Woods) are tendencies within Québec Solidaire, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the struggle for socialism. They all yearn to return to the golden years of the welfare state, when the bourgeoisie could throw some crumbs to the workers. Unfortunately for them, today this reformist utopia is an impossible dream.
What is to be done, then? Since RTA and the Quebec government act in tandem as ruling-class partners, in order to defeat the employers’ offensive it is necessary to bring together the aluminum workers’ struggle with that of the entire working class and other layers oppressed by capital. The regional section of the FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labour) has suggested calling a “monster demo” in the Saguenay-Lake St. John area on May Day (le Quotidien, 10 February). But that is already very late, it should be called now. Currently there is the struggle to unionize the Couche-Tard convenience stores, to which the owners have responded by shutting the stores. There are also the revolving strikes of the 360 CPEs (daycare centers) throughout Quebec. And above all there is the struggle of hundreds of thousands of students against a tuition hike, which has already led to a “sleep-in” at the Jonquière Cégep (community college).
From the aluminum factories of Rio Tinto Alcan to the Couche-Tard convenience stores, the trade-union leaders have refused to defy court injunctions and other arbitrary judicial orders. Big mistake. To avoid defeat it is necessary to go beyond the framework of bourgeois legality, whose whole purpose is to strangle workers’ struggles. In order to drive out the scabs it is necessary, in addition to occupying the plants, to strengthen the picket lines with workers self-defence groups. In the face of a rising unemployment rate and the loss of 70,000 jobs in Quebec during the last quarter of 2011, the worst drop in 30 years, the struggle to maintain employment levels at RTA must be part of a broader struggle for a radical reduction in the workweek with no loss in pay.
Just as in the struggles of the nickel workers of Vale Inco at Sudbury and of the steel workers at US Steel at Hamillton, Ontario (see the articles in The Internationalist No. 33, Summer 2011), the key is working-class solidarity in common struggles. But for these daily struggles, and even those for transitional demands pointing toward socialism, to be turned into lasting victories, it is above all necessary to build the nucleus of a revolutionary workers party like the Bolshevik party led by Lenin and Trotsky which led the proletarian masses of Russia to the victory of the October Revolution of 1917. An old task, but still vital today. The LFI seeks to reforge the fourth International, founded by the revolutionary Marxist leader Leon Trotsky, as the world party of socialist revolution. ■
To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: email@example.com