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REPORTING · 22nd October 2014
Walter McFarlane
On October 7th, the Local Unifor 2301 Union gathered in Centennial Park as a part of a global protest against Rio Tinto. The union marched to mall parking lot where they protested outside the Rio Tinto Offices. The movement was held on the World Day of Decent Work.

“Rio Tinto seems to cause labour problems wherever they go. They have problems in the states, then they come into Canada,” said Unifor President, Rick Belmont. “They pick fights with unions, they hate unions.”

He told the crowd about a 6 month lock out in Alma Quebec. When it came to bargaining locally, the union struggled for two weeks to exchange demands. One of these demands was 300 less jobs in Kitimat then what they had talked about during the last negotiations.

“You know what 300 jobs does to a small community like this?” asked Belmont. “300 [jobs] in one whack and all the spin off jobs that go with it? Sure the towns booming now with the project and everything, but at some point in time, the projects are going to be gone and we’re back to the normal size and these full-time, well-paying jobs are important to this community. We not only fight for our members, we fight for this community as well.”

He explained the union negotiated to ensure they had enough people to run the plant properly and safely.

“We took years developing a joint health and safety program with Alcan. We traveled, benchmarking trips to find out the best things, where plants had turned their safety around, we incorporated that into a hell of a program. There wasn’t anything that couldn’t be handled there. Rio Tinto comes in, […] they come in and they unilaterally change aspects of that program and they think they don’t even have to talk to us,” said Belmont.

Belmont gave a number of examples about how the joint health and safety program has been mitigated locally, how mandatory overtime became enforced and how discipline has been increased, up to 60 working day suspensions.

“We had three accommodated workers, workers with disabilities that went on light duty, cleaning a courtyard and within two weeks, all three of those people were given discipline for not achieving an acceptable level of work. These people are injured, I’ve never heard of that. It’s criminal,” said Belmont. He stated they should have been taken back to medical to find out what the problem was.

He expressed there is a record number of grievances, over 400, waiting to go before arbitration. They do one arbitration a month. He expressed they expect it to be 4-5 years before issues go before an arbitrator. They’ve maxed out government 104’s and they are booked up to March of next year. Appeals have been put before the labour board and there is a judicial review coming up. They are also in the process of organizing a government intervention concerning labour unrest in the plant which was created by Rio Tinto.

“We have numerous members being sent home, just voicing their opinion on safety or if they disagree, they seem to be the enemy, they’ll send you home on an indefinite suspension,” said Belmont. He explained a safety rep was sent home on indefinite suspension for raising safety concerns at a meeting.

“They are doing things that they know are wrong and yet they do them anyway. Its intimidation, it’s bullying, it’s union busting, you call it, you name it,” said Belmont.

Gavin McGarrigle from Vancouver was also there to talk about Rio Tinto. He expressed they are there for justice for the people who make the goods and the profits for the corporation and solidarity with all the Rio Tinto workers around the world.

“Solidarity with the 40 people who were killed in 2013 by Rio Tinto’s shameful approach to safety. Think about those families,” said McGarrigle.

He congratulated the members for voting to doubling their union dues to help fight the arbitration war. He shared a conversation he had locally with an RTA executive earlier this year which lead him to the conclusion that Rio Tinto Alcan treats their employees as numbers.

He looked into the higher levels of Rio Tinto to find they hate unions and keep workers under their thumb using ‘direct engagement’ which circumvents the union, vilifies the union reps and scares people in manners so they do not report accidents.

McGarrigle stated they were fighting Alcan in the legal process and the workers need to stand united around the world to protect their rights.

Richard Paquin flew in from Sudbury to talk about Rio Tinto around the world. He expressed Rio Tinto is in 40 different countries and there are 52 major union groups who were protesting the Rio Tinto that day. He stated there are many different countries who do not have the same laws which Canada does.

He talked about people losing their jobs, their lives on the job site and their homes. Paquin told one story how Rio Tinto interfered with a public demonstration in Cape Town by going to the Cape Town City Council and having them revoke the permit for the demonstration.

“They may seem, in Canada, to be not as bad as world-wide, but the big start is at the top end. And we all say that big corporations should be good, they keep telling us that all the time, but at the end of the day, the bigger you are, the harder you fall,” said Paquin. “We want our justice back, we want our respect back, we want our dignity back.”