Workers strike in Belledune over safety position

Written by Abram Lutes on May 15, 2019

Members of local 7085 of the United Steelworkers (USW) are on strike at the Belledune smelter in northern New Brunswick. Photo courtesy Workers Forum.

Almost 300 workers, members of local 7085 of the United Steelworkers (USW), at the Belledune lead and zinc smelter in northern New Brunswick, have been on strike since April 24 — management also locked them out.

The union has a strike mandate from more than 90% of members. The union called the strike in response to management’s refusal to withdraw conditions from their final offer, conditions which a press release from the USW, described as unacceptable.

“We had a strike mandate and within 24 hours, they were saying they were going to lock us out. Instead of trying to find a way through the issues, they locked us out,” said Marty Warren, staff director for USW in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, speaking to the NB Media Co-op.

The Belledune management wants the union to accept that the company will no longer pay the salaries of two full-time union employees: the union president and a safety representative, positions which have existed since 1979 and 1991.  The company’s offer is to require the president and safety representative to return to full-time work at the facility and to only compensate them for union work performed on top of full-time duties.

USW local president Bart Dempsey says this would defeat the purpose of the two positions, and not allow the union president and safety rep to act effectively on the workers’ behalf. “They want to pay me extra for a few hours a week on top of normal work, but it is a sixty hour a week job I’m doing.”

The safety rep position has brought attention to safety concerns at the smelter, notably the presence of carcinogens, low air quality, and a lack of proper reporting to government authorities. According to Warren, the safety rep position identified many health concerns through the years and reported the smelter to the government authorities. That investigative work required long hours of research and administrative labor. Warren says the full-time position is necessary for the work to be done properly. “We’re trying to make sure the workers come home every day. Nobody walks in to work with a lunch bag and expects to go home in a body bag.”

“It was kind of an understanding that we would have [those positions] in place,” said Dempsey. Dempsey believes that the positions, elected from among the workers at the foundry, are important to ensuring workers’ concerns are addressed on a consistent basis. “We’re able to deal with grievances and concerns as they come up,” he said, and this ensures better conditions for workers and a better work environment.

Management is not playing fair, Dempsey believes, “[These positions] have not been a problem for 50 years but now, with this new management team, they don’t want any accountability, they don’t want to be questioned. They want to take away our representation.”

Belledune has historically been a resource extractive-based rural community, in which Glencore plays a significant role. A major depository of metals was discovered in 1953, triggering a mining boom in Belledune. The current smelter was constructed in 1961 with $50 million in support from the provincial government of Louis Robichaud.

Glencore Canada now operates the smelter, while the NB Power coal-burning facility in Belledune sources its coal from two Glencore-owned coal mines in Colombia, El Cerrejon and La Jagua. A Conservation Council NB study1 related the above-average cancer rates in the Belledune to environmental factors, including carcinogen exposure. Inka Milewski, writing for the NB Media Co-op in 2013, identified that according to provincial air quality data, Belledune residents are exposed to unusually high levels of sulphur dioxide, a strong carcinogen.

The union believes it can bring greater health and safety to the workers and community. “People think this is just about money but its more than that. It’s about safety,” says Dempsey.

Recent community-based initiatives for economic options beyond resource extraction signal a general mood to improve the sustainability of the rural region. An example is the Barque Co-operative in Pointe-Verte, the village just south of Belledune that offers training in green job skills and trades.

In 2014, the last time Glencore Canada and USW sat down to bargain, the union made pension concessions to ensure the company’s continued profitability. Warren says the union “made some major concessions to ensure the health of the company.” Almost $20 million in pension concessions were given to Glencore Canada. “You’ve gotta sit back and wonder when they attack our members, their own workers.”

The Belledune smelter is owned by Glencore Canada, based in Toronto, part of Glencore Public Licence Company (PLC), a British-Swiss multinational commodities and mining company with global holdings and investments in metals, minerals, crude oil, coal, and natural gas. Glencore PLC has headquarters in Switzerland and a registered office in Jersey, a tax haven.

Although Glencore maintains that it is in a continued state of downturn, the company is currently listed as the 12th largest company in the world according to Fortune’s Global 500 list.

USW is part of the international IndustriALL federation of unions. IndustriALL is supported representatives from USW, including two members from the Belledune local, travelling to Zug, Switzerland for Glencore PLC’s annual general meeting.  USW believes that investors can encourage the smelter management to back away from the full-time positions.

“We’re getting a lot of support,” says Warren. “Locally, the community supports our members because they know the workers that work in that smelter live there and spend their money there – they’re family members and neighbors. We’re also getting global support. These are big global companies and we have to face them on that global level.”

Warren says the visit to Switzerland was the beginning of a campaign to garner international solidarity for the Belledune workers.

“We’re very pleased with our first steps in the global campaign we’re mobilizing against them. But hopefully, we get to sit down with them and negotiate but that’s going to take two parties willing.”

Abram Lutes is an environmental action reporter with the RAVEN project Summer Institute and a member of the NB Media Co-op board of directors.

1 Milewski, Inka; Liu, Lily. (2009). “Cancer in New Brunswick Communities: Investigating the Environmental Connection, part 2: fourteen urban and rural areas.” Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

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