Negotiations resume to end month-long Kitimat smelter strike

·2 min read
An aerial view of Kitimat, B.C., where Rio Tinto operates its aluminum smelter. Businesses in the municipality have suffered due to the month-long strike at the smelter and associated hydro plant. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
An aerial view of Kitimat, B.C., where Rio Tinto operates its aluminum smelter. Businesses in the municipality have suffered due to the month-long strike at the smelter and associated hydro plant. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Rio Tinto and Unifor Local 2301 have agreed to resume negotiations to end a month-long strike at the B.C. Works operations on the province's north coast.

The news has come as a relief to businesses in Kitimat, which have suffered as a result of the strike.

Around 950 workers at the Kitimat aluminum smelter and Kemano hydroelectric power plant have been been walking picket lines since negotiations broke down in July over hundreds of outstanding grievances and a process to resolve complaints.

But in a joint statement released late Tuesday, the union and global mining giant said they had had "an open and frank discussion about the long-term changes needed for our smelter to be a sustainable and respectful workplace for all.

"Together we are committed to negotiating in good faith ensuring that we maintain open minds in understanding each other's concerns," the statement added.

The smelter continues to operate at 35 per cent capacity under an essential services order granted by the B.C. Labour Relations Board.

Kitimat businesses struggling

Local businesses say the strike's economic impact goes far beyond smelter operations.

"I've been down about 30 per cent of my business because I get a lot of people that come for their lunch and dinner," says Jeanette Cowan, a food truck operator.

Cowan told CBC's Daybreak North host Caroline de Ryk that she served a free crab lunch to workers on the picket lines to show support, but the loss of wages is trickling down.

"If Rio Tinto doesn't go back then other restaurants and employment are going to be affected. Everyone is being impacted, right down the grocery stores," she said.

Thom Meier, general manager of 101 Industries, a contractor in Kitimat, is shifting his crews to other projects but warns a long-term strike could lead to layoffs.

"The impact is slowly being felt by us," he says, adding that the LNG Canada project in Kitimat has been filling some gaps.

"But Rio Tinto is a significant contributor and if we don't have that avenue and that additional opportunity, we may have to make difficult decisions about our existing employees," he said.

Rio Tinto says Unifor had rejected offers of an independent mediator during earlier negotiations.

As well as the grievances issue, the union has proposed the first changes to workers' retirement income and benefit levels in more than a decade, including moving younger workers to defined benefit from defined contribution pension plans.

If face-to-face talks scheduled in Vancouver are successful, Rio Tinto and Unifor say they will jointly develop a plan to return to work and ramp up to full production.

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