MAC: Mines and Communities

Striking stories - from Canada & Australia

Published by MAC on 2012-02-14
Source: Reuters, Business Week

Thousands of workers continue striking at operations controlled by two of the world's three biggest mining companies.

In Canada, the United Steelworkers accused Rio Tinto of "major assault on workers and communities" as the UK-based giant planned for more contract labourers, allegedly at half the unionised rate. See: Canadian Rio Tinto lockout nears one month

In Australia, around 3,500 workers at BHP Billiton's coal mines in Queensland's Bowen Basin announced a strike for better pay and conditions, starting this week.

Rio Tinto's lockout of Alma workers looks set to drag on


7 February 2012

TORONTO - Rio Tinto's lockout of workers at its Alcan division's big Alma aluminum smelter in northern Quebec looks set to drag on, and the company said on Monday that no talks were scheduled.

"I wouldn't put a timeline to (talks) right now because nothing is scheduled," said Rio Tinto Alcan spokesman Bryan Tucker.

Rio Tinto Alcan locked unionized workers out at the 438,000 tonne smelter, in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec, on Jan. 1, after talks on a new contract failed. The old contract expired on Dec. 31 and the two sides had been talking since October.

Rio has been operating the plant with non-unionized workers at about one-third of capacity since early January.

The Anglo-Australian miner said on Friday it will restart two suspended lines of production at its Shawinigan smelter in Quebec, bringing that plant back to full production, although Tucker said the plant will only be back at full capacity in May.

Rio closed the lines, two of four at the 100,000 tonne plant, in late December after a major power problem.

The company has earmarked the smelter, which was commissioned in the early 1940s, for permanent shutdown in December 2014.

Lockout Criticized

The United Steelworkers union, which represents the more than 750 unionized workers at Alma, has sharply criticized Rio for the lockout and accused the mining giant of beginning "a major assault on workers and communities".

One sticking point is Rio's plan to increase the proportion of contract employees at the plant to 27 percent from 10.7 percent. The union says the contract workers would be paid half the wages currently earned by unionized employees.

"Accepting this demand would cause a dramatic downward economic spiral not only for the workers but for members of the community, which would see income, local business sales and tax revenues drop precipitously," said Daniel Roy, Quebec director of United Steelworkers.

The union is organizing a global campaign against Rio Tinto's and has letters of support from unions in Canada and beyond, said USW official Guy Farrell.

"This is a fight we are having for future generations. This is not a fight for those that are working at Alma right now," Farrell said.

Rio Tinto acquired the bulk of its Canadian operations through its $38 billion takeover of Canadian aluminum producer Alcan in November 2007.

Merger Backlash

The USW and other unions have roundly criticized the federal government's approval of several foreign acquisitions of major Canadian companies, as acrimonious labor disputes have often erupted following the close of some of these deals.

Roughly 3,000 Ontario workers of Vale went on strike for nearly a year in 2009, while a separate strike at Vale's Voisey's Bay facility in Atlantic Canada lasted for about 17 months.

Vale acquired most of its Canadian operations when it bought Inco for C$19.2 billion in 2007.

In December, Canada and U.S. Steel settled a court case that started in 2009, when Ottawa sought to fine the company for breaking job-protection promises made when it bought Canadian steelmaker Stelco in 2007.

Last week, Caterpillar Inc said it would close its Electro-Motive locomotive plant in London, Ontario, and lay off at least 450 workers, after months of unsuccessful talks with the Canadian Auto Workers union.

Caterpillar acquired Electo-Motive for $820 million in 2010 and it was a part of its Alabama-based Progress Rail Services unit, which competes with General Electric Co and Bombardier Inc. Workers at the London plant have been locked out since the beginning of 2012.


BHP Australian Coal Miners to Strike for 7 Days, Union Says

By Elisabeth Behrmann

Business Week

9 February 2012

Bloomberg - Workers at BHP Billiton Ltd.'s coking coal mines in Australia, the world's largest exporter, will strike for seven days from Feb. 15 after rejecting the company's latest offer.

Union representatives informed BHP of the industrial action today after workers voted to resume strikes that were first started last year, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union said today in a statement.

"BHP is making enormous profits out of its coking coal operations in central Queensland, but it doesn't want to listen to its workforce," Stephen Smyth, district president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, said today in an e-mailed statement. "We need to make sure this mining boom doesn't come at the expense of workers' safety and the interests of our mining communities."

About 3,500 workers at BHP's mines in Queensland's Bowen Basin have held rolling strikes since June over pay and conditions, before suspending industrial action in December to resume contract talks. Labor unions globally are stepping up demands for higher wages and improved conditions as record commodity prices swell profits at mining companies.

Workers at BHP's Goonyella Riverside, Broadmeadow, Peak Downs, Saraji, Norwich Park, Gregory Crinum, and Blackwater mines will be involved in the strikes starting next week, according to the statement.

"We are extremely disappointed as we have consistently demonstrated our commitment to negotiating constructively with the unions," BHP said today in an e-mailed statement. BHP "cannot, and will not, diminish our rights and obligations to manage our business, nor will we accept productivity-destroying arrangements as currently proposed by the unions."

The BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance, which controls the mines in Queensland, is the world's largest exporter of steelmaking coal and equally owned by BHP and Mitsubishi Development Pty. Almost all the coal mined at the BMA sites, with an annual capacity of 58 million metric tons, is shipped overseas for steel production, according to its website.

--Editors: Andrew Hobbs, Indranil Ghosh

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