Belledune smelter workers 'in the dark' as community braces for closure

They wanted to show they are still united after the announcement this week the smelter will shut down for good at the end of next month.

Word from provincial officials is that about a quarter of the 420 employees will get full pensions, but picket Andre Comeau said he and his co-workers have not heard directly from Glencore which employees will get those pensions and what is in store for the rest of them.

"Right now, we're kind of kept in the dark," Comeau said.

A meeting between the union and the company is expected next week.

Jennifer Sweet/CBC

As workers fret for the future, a group of government, business and union officials gathered to discuss new opportunities for the workers and the region, from expanding local companies and port operations to negotiating with Glencore to keep some infrastructure intact.

Port of Belledune CEO Denis Caron said the first priority was to get an action plan in place as seamlessly as possible to support smelter employees and their families.

"Because there is going to be an impact," he said. "It's an emotional time."

'Where am I going to get a job?'

It's been an emotional time for Comeau, as he thinks ahead to the holiday season.

"The only money that we have to survive on right now is our union pay," he said, adding it's not enough for "a good Christmas."

Comeau is married and has three grown children. They normally get together for the holidays.

"Every day you're thinking, where am I going to work? Where am I going to get a job?" he said.

"If the stores are not busy enough, they're not going to hire extra people for holidays. ... Jobs are going to be hard to find."

Flipping burgers on a barbecue at the picket line for lunch, Comeau joked that it might be good practice.

Bart Dempsey/Submitted

He said the pensions for a quarter of the workforce is reasonable, considering the people he knows who are close to retirement. But he won't be one of them.

He's only worked at the smelter for seven years as a short rotary furnace operator. Before that he was an auto mechanic, but he has no interest in returning to that field.

"It's kind of hard to say what I'm going to do next," he said.

For now, he's still very much focused on the present — why the closure is happening and why the workers didn't get more notice. He's been frustrated by the lack of information and the timing.

"I'm pretty sure they knew a long time ago that they were going to close the place,' he said.

The loss of a father

The smelter is also where Comeau lost his father. Aurele Comeau was killed in a workplace accident there in 1991, crushed between two trains, after 23 years at the plant.

The junior Comeau developed strong convictions about the safety concerns that have been at the centre of the contract dispute. The fatal accident happened the year after another strike at the smelter.

Jennifer Sweet/CBC

"They fought for safety and they fought for a lot of things that they won back then," he said. "So when it was time for us this year and they wanted to take our safety office away, there was no doubt in my mind that I was not backing off on that."

Having a full-time safety officer gave workers peace of mind at the hazardous workplace, Comeau said.

"It's a hundred times worse than what you see on the outside," he said.

Workers had to wear respirators and wash their hands constantly to protect themselves from cancer-causing substances such as arsenic.

"I'm glad, in a way, that I won't have to step foot in there anymore, just for my health."

'Very, very short-term opportunities' 

About two dozen officials met in Belledune on Thursday night to discuss how to cope with the impending closure and support families like the Comeaus.

The group talked matchmaking opportunities at local or provincial businesses, retraining opportunities and support for immediate family members before turning to moving forward as a region.

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Caron, the port CEO, said there are some "very, very short-term opportunities" that should be considered, including expanding the local industrial wood-pellet sectors to serve demand in the United Kingdom.

The port has also been working for months on a deal with Aryan Phosphate, a company that could bring raw material to be processed locally and shipped out again as a value-added fertilizer product.

Caron said Belledune has a competitive advantage because of its ability to handle bulk material and, unlike many urban ports, it has lots of space to grow. 

Its existing facilities are nearing capacity, but he said a $34-million expansion of two terminals will go ahead as planned.

The port will be negotiating with Glencore to try to keep some of its infrastructure, such as rail lines, conveyors and warehouses.

The group also plans to develop a strategy for the region to diversify its economic base.