280 workers ready to strike at Brunswick smelter in Belledune

More than 280 unionized employees at Glencore Canada's Brunswick lead smelter in Belledune are preparing to strike Wednesday at 6 p.m. if their contract dispute is not resolved.

Ninety-six per cent of members voted in favour of a strike on April 4 and 5, Bart Dempsey, president of Local 7085 of the United Steelworkers, said Tuesday.

The last contract expired Feb. 28. According to Dempsey, there are two items that management at the northern New Brunswick smelter won't move on.

"They're looking to get rid of the full-time [union] president and basically pay a certain amount of hours outside of his regular hours to do union business, kind of on his own time."

Dempsey said the company has paid for a full-time president, with an office on site, since 1979.

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"The membership will not stand for losing their union offices and their [safety] representation," he said.

Another sticking point is the proposed removal of the chair of the health and safety committee.

"When it boils down to it, your safety is what you count on … that's how you know you're going in in the morning and coming out at night."

Dempsey said the position was fought for and won in 1991, the last time the workers went on strike. He said the joint health and safety committee is made up of four members of the company and four members of the union.

The position is also full-time, "dealing with concerns from the union towards safety, health and environment and all that," he said. "We're not giving up our representation or our offices.

"Don't get me wrong. Wages are there also. Everyone would like a raise, but it doesn't seem to be the driving factor."

There are also pension-related issues.

Dempsey said employees 58 and older can now retire early after 32 years on the job. The company proposed scrapping early retirement, which would leave employees to work until they're 65, even if that meant 45 years on the job.

He said that's unreasonable, given the nature of the work.

 "It's a lead smelter, it's not a candy factory."

No one at the Belledune smelter or Glencore Canada Corp. could be reached for comment.