Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The lockout of about 300 employees on the part of Tembec in Pine Falls Manitoba has been going on since August 31 (see previous item on this blog). The demands of the company for wage and benefit concessions amounting to nearly 35% are, of course, outrageous, and since the dispute began management has basically been stonewalling and refusing any efforts on the part of the union to negotiate. The following item from the Winnipeg Free Press tells more about the present situation of the locked out workers and their community. It also gives news of other layoffs that are affecting the area.
The loss of 42 more mining jobs near Lac du Bonnet is another body blow to a region already staggering from a two-week-old paper-plant lockout at Powerview-Pine Falls.

The latest round of cutbacks at the Tantalum Mining Corporation of Canada mine at Bernic Lake compounds the damage done when 38 other Tantalum Mine employees were laid off in April.

"It (the loss of 80 Tantalum jobs) is a huge blow," Harold Taylor, general manager of Eastman Regional Development Inc., said in an interview Monday, noting the mine is one of the area's biggest employers.

"The one hit, they can absorb, I would imagine. But a second one? No," he said. "That area doesn't have a lot of industrial jobs anyway, so to lose that diversity leaves the local economy weaker."

The layoffs, the latest of which took effect on Sept. 4, were ordered after adverse market conditions prompted Tanco to suspend the mining and production of both tantalum and spodumene concentrate at the Bernic Lake mine. The cutbacks leave only six underground workers at the mine, which is now producing only cesium.

Taylor said that part of the Eastman region was already hurting economically from the two-week old labour dispute at the Tembec paper-mill plant in nearby Powerview-Pine Falls.

Tembec, which is that town's largest employer, locked out nearly 300 unionized workers on Aug. 31 after they overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that union officials said called for wage and benefit concessions totalling about 35 per cent. There have been no contract talks held since then, and a spokesman for the workers' union -- local 303175 of the United Steelworkers -- said the union will likely decide today whether to ask Labour Minister Nancy Allan to appoint a mediator to try and break the stalemate.

John Valley, Tembec's executive vice-president of business development and corporate affairs, refused to comment Monday on whether the company would agree to the appointment of a mediator. He also declined to comment on the details of the company's demands, other than to say it needs to achieve immediate and significant reductions in its labour costs to improve the competitive position of the Powerview-Pine Falls plant. (It seems management is unlikely to say anything other than repeat its demands-Molly )

Meanwhile, the owners of two Powerview-Pine Falls businesses said Monday the Tembec lockout is taking a toll on many area businesses, including their own.

Ed Papineau, who co-owns Papineau Motors along with his brother, Ron, said their revenues are down about 20 per cent because of locked-out workers cancelling orders for things like new tires or non-essential repairs to their vehicles.

And Papineau fears it will get a lot worse if the dispute drags on for a long time -- a fear that is shared by Tonya Kemball, owner of the local Chicken Chef restaurant.

Although Kemball couldn't put a number on it, she said her restaurant has seen a significant decline in business volumes since the dispute began.

"Last week and this past weekend we really noticed it. It's just a scary situation all around."
Powerview-Pine Falls Mayor Ted Pichor said the impact on local businesses has been offset to some degree by the recent bout of warm weather, which has kept cottage owners coming to town to buy groceries and other supplies.

"But if it (the labour dispute) lasts a long time... it would definitely have an impact (on the town's economy)," the mayor said.

Kemball, whose husband, Daniel, works at the Tembec plant, said she remains hopeful the dispute won't drag on for too long. Taylor is also optimistic it will get resolved and the Tembec mill will also survive the current newsprint-industry crisis, which has seen the North American demand for newsprint plunge by 50 per cent since 2003.

But even if it does, Taylor said the latest woes at Tembec and Tantalum should serve as a wake-up call for local municipalities. He said they need to be a lot more proactive in trying to lure new industries to the area, which still hasn't recovered from the closure 11 years ago of the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. research facility in Pinawa.

"That created a huge hole, and that's still the case," he said.

A spokesperson for Tantalum's parent company, Boston-based Cabot Corporation, could not be reached Monday for comment. ( I guess he drinks in the same bar as Tembec management-Molly )
This is your classic David and Goliath story. The workers involved are few in number, reside in an isolated rural community and are facing an international corporation with far more resources to play a waiting game than they have. Their union, the United Steelworkers surely has more than enough on its plate right now with major disputes in Ontario and Newfoundland, and they can hardly be faulted for not going "over the top" in support for these workers. The Tembec workers are also over a barrel in others ways. While small the area is an actual community where people have put down roots. It's not a "lumber camp", and the people involved have been raising families in the town and have a significant amount to lose, perhaps enough that they may eventually see no other way than to cave in to the company's greedy demands.
There is, however, an alternative. It would be up to the members of local 303175 to initiate it themselves as the union leadership is preoccupied by other matters. Very few people outside of their local area are fully aware of the situation, and solidarity rallies in nearby cities (Winnipeg and North West Ontario) would do a lot to bring the public over to their side, especially as such rallies would see the support of many community members who are not members of the local. It would do wonders to convince the provincial government to actually pressure Tembec to come to the bargaining table.
Beyond that, however, there is the larger question of the situation of these almost one-industry towns. The latter paragraphs of the above article illustrate the problem very well, and it is a problem that many small industrial communities are facing nationwide. It is important that an area's economy be diverse enough to withstand either the misfortunes or the simple greed of one corporate employer. The situation is not as dire as it may seem for towns whose basic industry is forestry. Throughout the world there is a movement for 'Community Forests', forests that are owned and managed by community co-ops. These outfits have the interests of local residents more in mind than some industrial dinosaur, and they draw on a pool of local talent, initiative, ideas, community spirit and creativity of the sort that makes schools of business look like kindergartens. They furthermore create an economy whereby the revenue generated stays in the community, and the plans for development are much more integrated with the communities needs-including the issue of sustainability.
These are not some pipe dream. There may be hundreds of these co-ops worldwide, and there are many Canadian examples as well-The Revelstoke Community Forest Co-op, The Whistler-Squamish-Lil'wat Community Forest, The Harrop-Proctor Community Forest, the Acadian Forest Families, to mention just a few. When the present situation at Tembec is resolved, one way or the other, citizens and workers should begin to look at alternatives to the corporate control that places them is such a position of helpless jeopardy. Community Forests are the alternative to corporate lumber giants.

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