No end in sight for Brunswick Smelter's dispute with workforce
280 employees started walking the picket line April 24
It's been one month since unionized employees at Brunswick Smelter in northern New Brunswick started walking a picket line, and both sides of the contract dispute say they're waiting for the other to come back to the negotiating table.
The workers and company don't agree on what type of dispute this is.
The union gave a 72-hour strike notice, but on April 24 — 14 hours before the deadline — employees at the Glencore Canada-owned smelter in Belledune 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.
Bart Dempsey, president of local 7085 of the United Steelworkers, said the main sticking point in the contract dispute revolves around company proposals to reduce union and safety representation and for removal of early retirement plans.
"We haven't heard anything from the company, but it remains the same," he said. "We're willing to go back to the table if they remove these concessions that we don't believe they need."
The union now has a full-time president's office and a full-time safety office, he said.
"They are looking to remove those two offices basically for the president to do his union business outside of his regular work schedule," he said.
Dempsey said he normally works about 60 hours a week as union president and doesn't see how the work could be fit in on top of a full-time job.
The co-chair of the health and safety committee handles safety concerns, but Dempsey said Brunswick Smelter management suggested unionized employees could reach out when and if they need to.
"We're having a problem with that because we believe he's needed all the time," he said.
Dempsey pointed to an accident that happened March 17 to a supervisor at the smelter as a reminder of how important vigilance is when it comes to safety.
WorkSafeNB described the incident as: "Employee got pulled in a conveyor system, and suffered two broken ribs and potential arm muscle and ligament injuries."
The incident is under investigation.
The plant is not profitable
Glencore, the multinational company that owns the smelter, said it is ready to go back to the bargaining table.
"We presented our final offer and the union never came back to us saying they don't want to give any concessions," said Alexis Segal, head of communications at Glencore Canada.
He said the work of the safety chair can be done on a part-time basis.
"We look at the other sites in New Brunswick, and there's no other place where they have a full-time co-chair of the joint health and safety committee and we believe that's the way to go from now on," said Segal.
He said that safety comes first, but changes have to be made at the smelter.
"The fact is, the plant is not profitable," he said. "It was not profitable last year, so it's important that we can continue to improve the way we operate the plant."
He said a global downturn in the lead industry makes the plant difficult to run in the black.
Segal also addressed the March accident.
"Employees have been informed of the risk and the lesson learned following that accident," he said.
"Safety comes first. It's very clear in all our policies and the way we apply our policies."
"People are watching their bucks"
John Roy, a member of the union walking the picket line, said his main concern is safety.
"It's tough, but I've been through this before with other industries and you always come out stronger for it," Roy said.
"It does … put a little bit of stress on you, but you manage.
"Safety is worth it. Nobody wants to lose their life."
Belledune Mayor Joe Noel said it's too soon for the community to feel the effects of the strike, but it will eventually.
"When people are out of work, of course there's worries and the money that is normally being spent is not being spent, so that has an effect on businesses," said Noel.
"People are watching their bucks more carefully when they don't have a [regular] income."
Mediation for all
Trevor Holder, minister of post-secondary education, training and labour, said in the legislature on May 17 that he expected talks to begin again.
"I can also tell you that it is our understanding that talks have taken a break but are scheduled to resume over the next few days," he said. "We remain optimistic that a settlement can be reached."
The province said a mediator has been brought in and has spoken to both sides. No negotiations have happened since the strike began four weeks ago.