$64M Brunswick Smelter project in jeopardy if workforce dispute continues, says company

Brunswick Smelter's general manager says a $64-million project at the facility will be cancelled if the dispute between the company and unionized staff is not settled soon.

The contract dispute has been ongoing for two months with no apparent settlement in sight. Workers have been off the job since April 24.

"Phase 2 of the acid plant program will be cancelled early July as it is simply impossible to realise such a construction during a strike," Marc Duchesne said in an email statement. "The market condition make this site vulnerable and this strike is adding even more risk."

The employees and employer have disagreed on what type of dispute it 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 280 workers want four things from the company. 

"Basically we're asking for four things: to go back to the table, to get a contract done, it's to leave the two union positions be as they are, leave the early retirement and give something on the [defined contribution] pension." 

'Go back to table'

Dempsey said 75 per cent of the smelter's workforce are on that pension and they want to see an increase to it. 

Despite meetings with the mediator, Dempsey said the offer from the company is not what the union is asking for. He added the company moved a bit on things but not enough for unionized staff to accept it.

Serge Bouchard/Radio Canada

"Morale is still good for what we are willing to stand up for and willing to fight for, but the guys, all of us would like to go back to work," he said. "We'd like them to remove this from the table and get the contract done, move on with the project and try and work together." 

When asked about the threat of cancelling the project, Dempsey said the union gave $20 million in concessions during the last contract negotiation. 

The union president said they are not willing to give up things they fought for during the last negotiation such as the full-time safety position. Dempsey said the position is there to benefit both the workers and the company. 

As for having a full-time paid position for the union president, Dempsey said it was also put in place to help both sides. 

Staff operating smelter

Duchesne said there were discussions with the union supported by a team of mediators named by the provincial government.

CBC

"We are still not able to find a solution as the Union reject the need to adjust some clauses of the contract to the 2019 reality," he said.

For now, the general manager said the smelter is being operated safely at 54 per cent capacity by staff.

"The employees are doing an incredible job to protect the smelter as they understand the importance of keep running it to protect its sustainability," he said.