Citizens rally to ‘save the northwest’ amidst Rio Tinto Kitimat strike

Residents gathered at Centennial Park in Kitimat ahead of a rally dubbed ‘save the northwest’ on August 5, 2021. People at the gathering called for Rio Tinto and Unifor Local 2301 to resume negotiations to resolve the labour disputes that led to a strike at the smelting facility. (Binny Paul/Terrace Standard)Residents gathered at Centennial Park in Kitimat ahead of a rally dubbed ‘save the northwest’ on August 5, 2021. People at the gathering called for Rio Tinto and Unifor Local 2301 to resume negotiations to resolve the labour disputes that led to a strike at the smelting facility. (Binny Paul/Terrace Standard)
(Binny Paul/Terrace Standard )(Binny Paul/Terrace Standard )
(Binny Paul/Terrace Standard )(Binny Paul/Terrace Standard )

Hundreds of northwest B.C. residents took to the streets in Kitimat the afternoon of Aug. 5 amidst stalled labour dispute negotiations between Rio Tinto and its unionized aluminum smelter workers.

Prior to the rally – dubbed ‘save the northwest’ – a gathering took place at Centennial Park where employees of Rio Tinto, members from the local union and small business owners addressed people that had gathered.

The event was also a call out to both parties involved in the dispute – Rio Tinto and Unifor 2301 representing more than 900 smelter workers – to get back to the table and iron out a collective agreement before the strike brings about large scale economic repercussions for Kitimat and surrounding northwest communities.

“What we wanted to achieve today was to come together so that people could get a better understanding of what could potential happen to the town if negotiations don’t continue,” said Kitimat resident Jeremy Morden, who was one of the rally organizers.

Morden and fellow organizer Liberal Botelho are worried the trickle down economic effect of the strike is going to hurt not just families of Rio Tinto employees, but also ancillary businesses and Kitimat’s economy.

“It’s a small town and people rely on each other, so in a short period things could go bad for a lot of businesses,” said Morden.

Botelho, who works at the Kitimat smelter along with four other family members fears “long term ramifications” for the whole northwest community if both parties don’t get back to the table to resolve the dispute.

“If [Rio Tinto and Unifor 2301] think their strategy is to outwait each other by holding out, then it’s going to affect communities and merchants,” said Botello.

A strike which began on July 25 in Kitimat after seven weeks of failed negotiations between Rio Tinto and Unifor Local 2301 is now in its third week.

After 900 employees from the Kitimat smelter went on strike, Rio Tinto reduced the production of aluminum to 25 per cent of its 432,000 tonne annual capacity by taking majority of its smelting pots offline. With the labour dispute unresolved, only 96 pots out of 400 were running as of Aug. 4 at the smelter, according to a Rio Tinto spokesperson.

Once taken offline, restarting the pots and getting them back to full capacity can take anywhere between nine months to a year – which further fuels employment worries of the 900 odd striking smelter workers.

While the industrial hub of the northwest – home to multi billion dollar projects like LNG Canada, Rio Tinto Modernization project and Kemano T2 project – has witnessed labour strikes before, residents and workers say the current one is “worrisome.”

“There hasn’t been any negotiations between both parties for 12 days,” said Morden.

“In the past there were strikes in Kitimat, when Alcan was running the smelter (Rio Tinto acquired Alcan in 2007) but at that time there were still negotiations happening,” added Morden.

Rio Tinto employs approximately 1,050 people at the BC Works smelter and Kemano powerhouse, including around 900 employees represented by Unifor Local 2301. The company contributed C$780 million to the economy of British Columbia in 2020.

Along with residents, local leaders including Skeena BC Liberal MLA Ellis Ross and NDP MP Taylor Bachrach have also called for the dispute to be resolved. Local governments of Kitimat, Terrace and Haisla First Nation have also sent letters to Rio Tinto and the union urging them to return to the bargaining table and reach an “amicable agreement.”