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REPORTING · 9th May 2012
Merv Ritchie
The new President of CAW Local 2301 has very little time to get comfortable or relax with his new job as the contract work begins today. The new head of the Union representing the Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) hourly employees will take today, May 9th, to formulate the contract negotiating position with his new executive. Later in the evening they will meet with the new steering committee to go over the details and on Thursday they will take it to the membership. They may even have it ready for the Company by Friday.

“We’re going to have to roll up our sleeves,” began Rick Belmont as he spoke about his win yesterday after the election. “I’m pretty happy, I’m excited about it. I like doing the job; it’s a challenge I like doing.”

Belmont is not new to contract negotiating with Alcan though he acknowledges the new owner of the plant, Rio Tinto, is a different type of Company. This is his seventh set of bargaining negotiations and he reflected on his predecessors who were tough negotiators while talking about his job ahead.

“We’ve been in tough situations before. There wasn’t anything tougher than ’99 when we cracked the pension plan wide open. That was something they told us for 30 years wasn’t negotiable. Well they don’t say that anymore.”

Belmont was at the table when the Union agreed to a five year contract in 2007. They agreed to reductions in the workforce as well as other concessions. The length of the contract was the high point as they had never before agreed to such a long term.

“We did that in good faith to build a smelter. I don’t see a smelter out there. I see a building, a few piles of dirt and some footings.” Belmont explained how he described this to his RTA counterpart, who he negotiated against in 2007, “Those principles are still alive and well and we’re holding you to them.”

“We can’t allow them to slam 300 jobs right off the top, especially jobs that are right in the middle of the process […] we’re going to have to deal with it.

“It’s not hardball, it’s calling them on what they said when the new smelter is in. It’s not re-inventing the wheel. We have the wheel already built to roll right through into the transition. Our position is sound.”

There has been concerns regarding the number of employees at the Quebec Alma Smelter and Belmont takes issue with these comparisons. He states, referring to Alma, they do not have a company owned power line and power generation plant (referring to Kemano), their own private wharf, a rail crew and at Alma they do not freeze and package the product for shipping.

Although Alma is currently shut down, as RTA has had the workers locked out since January 1, 2012, at full production they were running a staff of 840. Belmont explained that 800 were full time hourly and 40 were Employment Insurance subsidized workers who gathered the skills required to be able to transition into the regular workforce. He states if they are claiming they only have 700 now then he worries about the young subsidized workforce, “are they being left out now too?” But again he reiterated, the comparison doesn’t wash.

What Belmont expects to see is the Company understand the terms including the number of employees agreed to in the previous contract. This was an agreement on how these would be applied to the new smelter. The Union more than fulfilled their side of the contract and the conditions today are no different than when the contract was negotiated in 2007, the Kitimat Modernization Program (KMP) is still just beginning.

Speaking to the prospect of a downsized workforce Belmont stated they need to get RTA to look, “into another direction where we can get something workable. We’ve got to mould it. “

“I can negotiate, my old batteries are charged and I’m dying to get back into it. I’ve got lots of energy. I’m not going anywhere.”