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(en) Canada, ALCAN: Worker's control in Jonquière By Nicolas Phebus (La Nuit, NEFAC-Quebec)

From Collectif La Nuit (NEFAC) <nefacquebec@yahoo.ca>
Date Thu, 5 Feb 2004 10:11:12 +0100 (CET)

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When the top management of the ALCAN multinational
announced, during the World Economic Forum in Davos,
Switzerland, the closing of Arvida aluminium smelters
they undoubtedly did not suspect the Pandora's box
they opened. Of course, everyone was expecting the
workers to be angry, as testified by the presence of
the provincial riot squad in Jonquière as soon as the
news broke, but nobody was expecting "this".
Indeed, who could imagine that in 2004, in Quebec, a
union local would ambitiously occupy an installation
of a powerful multinational and, as a means of
pressure, would restart the production at full
capacity under workers’ control? That is, however,
exactly what the Syndicat national des employés de
l’aluminium d’Arvida (SNEA, that’s the union) just

For a few months bad news has hit the working class of
the Saguenay-
Lake-Saint-Jean hard. The loss of well-paying jobs
just seems to multiply. In May, there was the
bankruptcy of the Forest Co-operative of Laterrière
(650 jobs). Right before Christmas, it was
Abitibi-Consolidated’s turn to announce the closing of
the Port-Alfred plant (650 jobs). And ALCAN just added
a layer last week by announcing the premature closing
of its Söderberg smelter, in the Jonquière Complex,
thus destroying 550 jobs. The action of the trade
union aims to counter all that.

Workers’ control

On the Jan 24-25 weekend, the executive board of the
union assembled a "cell of crisis" gathering one
hundred shop stewards to discuss strategy. Usually
this kind of "cell" sets up psychosocial help for the
wages-earner who lose their employment and tries to
negotiate the best possible "conditions of
separation". Monday evening, a closed-door union
assembly was held to present the suggested strategy
and to hold a vote. 2 000 workers took part in the
deliberations and not a word filtered out of the room.
The press predicted that the means of pressure would
likely only amount to boycott of overtime.

It was only the following day, Tuesday Jan. 27th, that
the union revealed its plan of action and informed the
public of what happened during the night. The basic
idea was simple: to restart the production in full
under their control until they got a written agreement
from ALCAN stating that the corporation will invest in
the region to replace lost jobs. As of Monday evening,
after the first assembly of its members, the union set
its strategy in motion asking the workers of the
Söderberg smelters to maintain full operation. The
first room of tanks being closed started service and
the casting center, closed last summer, once again
received hot metal.

According to the president of the union, Claude Patry,
workers have everything in hand to ensure the
operation of Söderberg over a long period. The
workers, he says, control the entire chain of
production, from the arrival of bauxite, to the
harbour installations, to the smelter, as well as the
Vaudreuil chemical factory that converts bauxite into
alumina, the rail network, and the hydroelectric

It’s not in ALCAN’s interest to cut the supply of
bauxite that arrives from overseas or to cut the power
supply, said the trade union, because it’s the other
ALCAN factories of electrolysis of Alma, Laterrière,
and the Bay that will suffer from it.

The most beautiful thing of the whole operation is
that, until now, it’s ALCAN that paid the wages of the
workers as the process of closing was to take until

Full-fledged production under workers’ control is to
some extent the joker in union’s deck of cards. A
strike, the traditional weapon, is not thinkable in
the context. Indeed, to strike means to extinguish the
smelter, exactly what the owner wants. It should be
said that in this precise case, the workers have the
bigger side of the stick.

Indeed, the closing of a smelter is a complex
operation that requires the co-operation of the
workers. Unless the corporation simply decides to lose
the production in the smelter while cutting the
provisioning of electricity, it is necessary that
unionists agree to the operation. Moreover, while
producing at full capacity, the union prevents ALCAN
from selling its electricity in the USA (one of stated
goals of the whole operation).

Questioned on the legality of the "occupation", union
president Claude Patry answered: "It is not illegal to
continue to work." That, however, is not the opinion
of the Labor Tribunal of Quebec that, after 5 days of
workers’ control, declared the occupation of the
factory illegal. Workers occupying the ALCAN smelter
in Jonquière say that they will continue the
occupation no matter what the Labor Tribunal thinks.

They issued a press release Tuesday Feb. 2nd, stating
that they've achieved high productivity gains under
worker's control. In a week they managed to produce
1500 metric tons of aluminium. They said that this is
worth $2,225,000 Cdn and, if it is processed further,
could be worth $9 million Cdn. They also said that the
production is going on smoothly, despite sabotage by
the management and non-collaboration of the bosses.

Before letting ALCAN close its old installations, the
workers demand written guarantees from ALCAN. They
want a new aluminum works in Jonquière and want ALCAN
to build a factory out of its Jonquière Complex.

It is proposed for example that the company invests
with an auto giant in a factory, which could create a
thousand jobs in Jonquière. The workers of ALCAN also
want new manufacturing factories in the area. Their
demands relates to five large areas: to increase the
production and to diversify the products of the
Vaudreuil factory, to manufacture the anodes for other
factories of the multinational, to repatriate all the
refitting activities of ALCAN to Quebec, to obtain
major investments for graphite cathodes in order to
provide the aluminum works for new generations and to
make a workshop/smelting/forge/garage service the
service provider for all of ALCAN’s operations in the

Apparently the unionists have support of a majority of
the population and elected officials of the area.
Within 48 hours, the union council of ALCAN succeeded
in gathering more than 5 000 people in the streets of
Jonquière to support their cause.

Obviously that whole operation, although very creative
and combative, places itself in a strict legalist and
reformist framework (no matter what...). It will have
to be seen what will be the union’s reaction, now that
the occupation is declared illegal.

For the moment, the top management of the Quebec
Federation of Labour (QFL), which the union just
joined by merging with the Canadian Auto Workers, said
it fully supports the action. Henri Masse, QFL leader,
made a point of making an official statement saying,
"We fully support the creative resistance of the
spectacular operation of resistance started by our
members at ALCAN in Jonquière".

However, the breach opened by this action in people’s
minds is sensational. It’s an open negation of the
right of management of the corporation and a
formidable assertion of workers’ power. And then,
between worker's control
and self-management, there's only a small step!
Collectif anarchiste La Nuit (NEFAC-Québec)
a/s Groupe Émile-Henry
C.P. 55051, 138 St-Vallier Ouest
Québec (Qc), G1K 1J0


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