February 6, 2012 / 5:58 PM / in 6 years

Quick end to lockout at Rio's Quebec smelter unlikely

TORONTO (Reuters) - Rio Tinto’s (RIO.L) lockout of workers at its Alcan division’s big Alma aluminum smelter in northern Quebec looks set to drag on with no signs of a breakthrough to end the labor dispute.

A spokesman the Anglo-Australian miner said on Monday that no talks with the union are scheduled.

“I wouldn’t put a timeline to (talks) right now because nothing is scheduled,” said Rio Tinto Alcan spokesman Bryan Tucker.

Rio Tinto Alcan initiated the lockout at its 438,000 ton Alma smelter in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec, on January 1, after talks with the Alma aluminum workers’ union on a new labor contract failed. The two sides had been in negotiations since October and the union’s contract expired on December 31.

Rio has been operating the plant at about one-third of its production capacity since early January, using some of its non-unionized employees at the site.

Rio Tinto announced on Friday it will restart two suspended lines of production at its 100,000 ton Shawinigan smelter in Quebec, bringing that plant back to full production. A major power problem had forced Rio to shut down two of the plant’s four production lines in late December.

Tucker said the restart process at Shawinigan has begun, but the plant will only be back at full capacity in May. The company has earmarked the smelter, which was commissioned in the early 1940s, for permanent shutdown in December 2014.

LOCKOUT CRITICIZED

The United Steelworkers union, which represents the more than 750 unionized workers at Alma site, has sharply criticized Rio Tinto Alcan for initiating the lockout and accused the mining giant of beginning “a major assault on workers and communities”.

One of the major sticking points between the two sides is Rio’s plan to increase the proportion of contract employees at the plant to 27 percent from 10.7 percent. The contract workers, the union notes, would be paid half the wages currently earned by unionized employees.

“Accepting this demand would cause a dramatic downward economic spiral not only for the workers but for members of the community, which would see income, local business sales and tax revenues drop precipitously,” said Daniel Roy, Quebec director of United Steelworkers.

The union is organizing a global campaign against Rio Tinto’s action and has letters of support from unions both within Canada and overseas, said USW official Guy Farrell.

“This is a fight we are having for future generations. This is not a fight for those that are working at Alma right now,” Farrell said.

Reporting By Euan Rocha; Editing by Peter Galloway

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