QUEBEC: Occupying Alcan: workers' control in Quebec


Jeff Shantz, Toronto

The working class Saguenay-Lac Saint Jean region in Quebec has been hit hard by recent plant closures. In May, the bankruptcy of the Forest Co-operative of Laterriere left 650 people out of work. Another 650 jobs were lost just before Christmas, when Abitibi Consolidated closed its Port Alfred plant. On January 26, aluminium multinational Alcan announced the closing of its nearby Soderberg smelter in the Jonquiere complex, costing 550 jobs.

Alcan's top management dramatically announced the closing of the Arvida aluminum smelters during the World Economic Forum in Davos. The Quebec state was obviously expecting trouble since it called the provincial riot squad to Jonquiere as soon as news of the plant closure came down. What it got — the very next day — went beyond even its panicked expectations.

Smelter workers, members of the Syndicat National des Employes d'Aluminum d'Arvida (SNEA), responded to the closure of their workplace by occupying the installation. Then they went further, and in an open show of defiant workers' strength, restarted production with full capacity.

Workers are in charge of the entire chain of production, from the arrival of bauxite at the harbour installations to the smelter. They also control the Vaudreuil chemical factory which converts bauxite into alumina, as well as the rail networks and hydro installations.

The union's president, Claude Patry, has stated that the workers have everything in place to ensure the operation of the Soderberg over an extended period of time. The kicker is that Alcan is still paying workers' wages, since the process of closing was scheduled to continue until March. Alcan is also not in a position to halt the supply of bauxite or cut the power supply since these measures would adversely affect production at other facilities in the complex.

Workers' control has brought with it high productivity gains, showing the lie of the "necessity of management". In one week, the workers have produced 1500 metric tonnes of aluminum. This represents almost C$2,225,000 worth of production — an amount that would climb to $9 million with processing. This production has occurred despite management sabotage.

Workers are not willing to end the occupation without some written guarantees from Alcan. Their demands include opening a new alum works in Jonquiere to provide services for the company worldwide. Workers are also demanding increased production and product diversification at the Vaudreuil factory. These demands include new investments by Alcan in the region to replace all lost employment.

After five days of workers' control, the Quebec Labour Tribunal ruled that the occupation was illegal. Workers have maintained that they will continue production regardless of the Labour Tribunal decision. The Quebec Federation of Labour has publicly stated that it fully supports the ongoing actions, calling the occupation a "spectacular operation of resistance".

Workers have strong support from the majority of people in the area. Shortly after the occupation began, more than 5000 people took to the streets to support the union's actions. This important example of workers' control bears watching.

From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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