Brunswick Smelter, union reach agreement

Unionized workers at Brunswick Smelter in Belledune have voted to accept a new contract, but many are unhappy about changes to their pension and health benefits, according to an official.

Deal ratified by 70% of workers, but many unhappy with pension, health benefit changes

Brunswick Smelter in Belledune has a new collective agreement with its 300 unionized employees, securing the smelter's future, at least for the time being.

The deal was ratified by 70 per cent of union workers on Thursday, following several months of negotiations.

Brunswick Smelter in Belledune was faced with higher expenses after Brunswick Mines closed last year and it had to find a new source of ore. (CBC)
"Mixed emotions today. A lot of people have mixed emotions," said union negotiator Ray Godin. "Although it's been accepted by 70 per cent, I can tell you that there's probably about 100 per cent that don't like the deal."

The agreement means many workers will see changes to health plans, and pension benefits, said Godin.

Still, members of the union's negotiation team felt they had little choice but to recommend a yes vote, he said.

The company was faced with higher expenses after Brunswick Mines closed last year and it had to start shipping in ore from Europe and South America.

It was looking for $3.5 million in savings through cuts to pensions and benefits.

An offer last month was rejected, but the company had said the smelter's future was uncertain, even if a deal was reached, according to union officials.

Among the terms of the new deal, workers with less than 12 years of service will switch to a defined contribution pension plan from a defined benefits pension, said Godin. That change will affect about 45 per cent of the workforce, he said.

In addition, there are co-pay changes on health premiums, as well as changes to vacation pay that will apply to all workers.

Morale low

"There's a lot of mistrust," said Godin. "It's been a bitter six months, eight months and they've got a lot of catching up to do when it comes to morale."

The first step in regaining the trust of workers will be for management to show solidarity by not accepting any wage increases or bonuses in the near future, said Godin.

General manager Marc Duchesne declined an interview but said in an emailed statement he is "pleased" the new contract has been ratified.

"It has been a long process and we would like to thank our workers for their efforts during this difficult time," Duchesne said.

"We can now turn our attention to working together on the challenge of building a long-term future for the smelter in Belledune."

The employees had been without a contract since February.