New Brunswick

'A lot of guys are hurting': Brunswick Smelter contract dispute nears 6th-month mark

Many of the 281 unionized employees at Brunswick Smelter say the last six months of walking the picket line have been tough, but they won't give up because they feel safety inside the smelter is at stake.

Pickets say they want full-time safety and union reps in contract before they return to work

Trevor Smearer has worked at Brunswick Smelter for 21 years. An accident in February left his arm broken in three places, reaffirming his commitment to having a full-time safety officer inside the plant. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

Many of the 281 unionized employees at the Brunswick Smelter in Belledune say walking the picket line has been tough, but they won't give up because they feel their safety is at stake.

The contract dispute has been going on for nearly six months with no apparent settlement in sight. Workers have been off the job since April 24. 

An injunction limits the amount of on-site pickets to six people at any time, but a special rally was held Tuesday morning outside the smelter that was attended by about 100 people. 

Trevor Smearer was there, holding a sign beside his jeep that is covered in slogans such as, "End the lock out" and "Don't blame the victims."

Smearer said he was injured on the job in February, before the dispute at the Glencore-Canada-owned smelter began.

But he feels his treatment by the company has shown him how important it is that the members of local 7085 of the United Steelworkers are fully committed to walking the line until the union gets what it's asking for.

The smelter in Belldune has been operating since April without its 281 unionized employees. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

"We're not after money, we want to come home at the end of the shift the same way we went in."

Smearer was hit by a chain while operating a crane. His arm was broken in three places, requiring surgery to insert a metal plate and 15 screws to put it back together. 

He said he feels the company was more interested in blaming him for being injured than taking steps to ensure it wouldn't happen again.

"No one wants to get hurt, and when you do, you hope you have the system behind you to help you to get back to work safely," Smearer said.

Two points that Smearer and the union say are not negotiable are the current company-paid positions of full-time union president, and full-time co-chair of the joint health and safety committee.

The latest proposal from the company, on Sept. 18, would have the union president performing those duties during two paid shifts a week, and the committee co-chair receiving a paid leave of six hours a week.

Bart Dempsey, president of local 7085, said his members don't want part-time representation and won't return to work until their demands are met.

Bart Dempsey, president of Local 7085 of the United Steelworkers, said members want to keep a full-time union president, as well as a full-time safety chair. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

He dismisses management's argument that other places don't have full-time safety reps. 

"There's no other lead smelter in New Brunswick," Dempsey said. "A lead smelter is not your average workplace."

"There's poison gas"

Keith Jalbert, a lead caster in the refinery, agrees that working at the smelter brings its own brand of safety concerns.

"You're dealing with hot metal," he said. "That's not a very safe environment to work in. There's poison gas. Basically, you're working with lead, cadmium, arsenic. It's all there." 

Jalbert started at the refinery in 2007. He said the stakes are high in a place with so many hazards, and it's in the employees' best interest to have an independent voice looking out for them.

"(If) we lose our union representation and our health and safety, and it's going to be up to the company to do whatever they want. If we say a job is not safe they're going to say, 'Well yes it is, go home we'll get someone to do it.'

"You need someone to watch your back." 

About 100 supporters of the unionized employees gathered outside the processing plant on Tuesday morning, yelling 'Scab' as a car left the gated yard. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

Alexis Segal, head of communications at Glencore Canada, declined an interview to address safety concerns but said a mediator, assigned by the province, is involved in the process.

A donation to ease hardship

The night before Tuesday's rally, a Quebec chapter of the union presented fellow members with $28,000 to help their efforts.

Jalbert said the gesture was appreciated. Six months on a reduced pay isn't easy, he said.

"Your bills aren't being met, and you don't do the things you usually do. Like I used to just jump in the Jeep and go for coffee. There's no more of that.

"I hope this gets over soon."

Lockout or strike?

Neither side has given any indication they are closer to agreeing to a contract. They don't even agree on what kind of contract dispute is happening.

The union gave a 72-hour strike notice, but on April 24 — 14 hours before the deadline — employees were sent home, with pay.

The union calls the continuing work disruption a lockout, but the company says that because employees were paid until the deadline, it's a strike.

About the Author

Tori Weldon

Reporter

Tori Weldon is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been working for the CBC since 2008.

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