2,500 ArcelorMittal workers in Côte-Nord, Quebec, have been on strike since May 10. The strikers, mining, port, railway and office workers belonging to the Luxembourg-based multinational, are represented by 5 local sections of the Steelworkers Union, affiliated with the Quebec Workers Federation (FTQ) , the largest central labor union in Quebec with more than 600,000 members.
The strike follows the unequivocal rejection of a “final and comprehensive” offer presented on May 7 by ArcelorMittal. The workers voted against this offer in percentages varying from 97% to 99%.
The union negotiating committees had recommended that the offer be rejected. But it was only under the pressure of the members of the base who had overwhelmingly rejected on May 1, barely 10 days before, an agreement in principle negotiated by the Steelworkers. The union had recommended to its members to vote in favor of this agreement in principle, yet inferior to the offer rejected on May 10.
Details of the content of the offers remain unknown. According to ArcelorMittal, the agreement in principle supported by the Steelworkers provided for wage increases of 12% over 4 years, which is at best a freeze on real wages given inflation and the rising cost of living. For the rest, the union has confined itself to declaring that the elements “at stake” in the negotiations include working conditions, including pensions and insurance, bonuses and working hours.
In 2017, workers voted 83% in favor of a new four-year collective agreement. The contract contained salary increases varying from 2.2% to 3% per year and the maintenance of defined benefit pension plans, which the employer wanted to transform into defined contribution plans (without guaranteed pension at retirement). The regional coordinator for the United Steelworkers, Nicolas Lapierre, declared at the time that the new collective agreement was a great victory: “The climate of trust has been restored. We’re leaving for four years. The agreement in principle is clearly satisfactory. ”
Now, as the rejection of the offers and the anger of the workers demonstrate that the 2017 deal was, in fact, not a victory, the same bureaucrats are reduced to arguing that the poor conditions of the workers are the result. “Promises made [par ArcelorMittal] during the 2017 negotiations [qui sont] remained without continuation ”. The Steelworkers, however, did not see fit to explain why these promises were not included in the collective agreement, or if they were, why the union did not enforce them.
ArcelorMittal workers must learn from these experiences: they cannot reverse the attacks on their working conditions by leaving a pro-capitalist union begging for “good” crumbs on their behalf. They have enormous potential power and the objective conditions are ripe to broaden their struggle and turn it into the spearhead of an entire working class counterattack to push through jobs, wages, pensions and conditions. of work before the frantic pursuit of profit.
In 2016, ArcelorMittal invoked the price of iron ore of less than $ 60 per tonne to demand concessions, cancel planned investments on the North Shore and threaten to end its operations fifteen years earlier than planned. Today, iron ore is worth more than three times what it was then, reaching all-time highs of over $ 193 a tonne. This does not prevent the company from still asking workers to be “reasonable”, that is to say not to raise any claim that could infringe on profits.
ArcelorMittal, the second largest steel producer in the world and the 120th largest company according to the magazine’s 2019 ranking Forbes, has benefited massively from the huge increase in the price of iron. The multinational made net profits of nearly US $ 2.3 billion in the first 3 months of 2021, an increase of more than one billion compared to the already large profits of 1.2 billion for the last quarter of 2020.
The company is controlled about 40% by Lakshmi Mittal, a billionaire of Indian origin now residing in England. Mittal is the 196th richest person on earth, with an estimated fortune of US $ 9.7 billion, according to the 2020 ranking of Forbes. Mittal will shortly be replaced by his son, Aditya Mittal, as CEO of ArcelorMittal, a position that earned him US $ 6.2 million in full compensation in 2019.
ArcelorMittal has announced that it has repurchased shares for $ 650 million in the first months of 2021 and that $ 570 million will be used for the same purposes during the remainder of the year (the share buyback is a form of speculation in which the company buys back its own shares to raise their price, for the benefit of shareholders). The company also intends to pay a dividend of $ 0.30 per share, which will funnel hundreds of millions of additional dollars into the pockets of shareholders. ArcelorMittal’s share value has jumped 168% in the past year.
The ruling class is united to put pressure on the workers. As soon as the strike started, Quebec Labor Minister Jean Boulet declared that a long-term strike “would have a significant impact on the entire economy of the Côte-Nord and Quebec”. Workers wanting to make sure the company does not use scabs have been picketing past the curfew time imposed due to the pandemic. They received reports of offenses, even though they were exempted from complying with the same curfew when it came to working at night and making profits for ArcelorMittal.
In response, the union simply says it is ready to return to the bargaining table. It thus plays the role entrusted to the union apparatuses by the ruling class, which is to stifle the anger of grassroots members to prevent it from going beyond the legal framework of “collective bargaining”.
In 2018-2019, these same Steelworkers betrayed the courageous struggle of workers at the ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour during an 18-month lockout. The union had then done everything to isolate the workers, limiting itself to pathetic appeals to the shareholders of the multinationals Alcoa and Rio Tinto, owners of the aluminum smelter. Union bureaucrats had also refused to make the struggle international, even as Alcoa and Rio Tinto workers in Australia, Spain and the United States waged similar struggles against employer attacks.
In the end, the Steelworkers had harbored illusions in capitalist politicians, going so far as to pass right-wing Prime Minister François Legault off as a potential “ally” of the working people. Legault, a multimillion-dollar former CEO, was quick to ridicule the union’s efforts by openly taking a stand in favor of the employer and publicly denouncing workers’ “big wages” and their “exaggerated demands”.
Isolated and exhausted, ABI workers finally voted out of spite in favor of a deal filled with concessions.
To counter union isolation and demobilization tactics, ArcelorMittal workers must form a grassroots strike committee and elect trusted workers to it. This committee should demand that negotiations between the Steelworkers and ArcelorMittal be public. In addition, the union having already shown that it is ready to negotiate agreements in principle that go against the workers’ demands, the grassroots committee should demand that no new union offer can be presented without the workers have at least ten days to study it and make sure it does not contain concessions.
The committee must also broaden support for the strike by contacting other sections of workers who have entered into the struggle elsewhere in Quebec, Canada and around the world. Everywhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has confronted workers with the irrationality of the capitalist system that has caused the deaths of millions of people to preserve the profits of the financial elite, banks and big business. The ruling class is now using the ensuing economic catastrophe to amplify its attacks on jobs, wages, pensions and working conditions.
It is only in a unified political struggle with their class brothers and sisters – across Canada, the United States and overseas – that the striking ArcelorMittal workers can withstand the onslaught of the ruling class. Only in this way can their struggle serve as a catalyst for a workers’ counter-offensive against capitalist austerity and for a complete reorganization of the economy to ensure social equality.