Rio Tinto and Unifor Local 2301 are meeting Thursday, Aug. 12, to determine if there is enough common ground to renew negotiations in hopes of ending a strike at the company’s Kitimat aluminum smelter now in its third week.
In a letter to its employees on Aug. 7, Rio Tinto’s management team said both parties had agreed to set up a meeting in the coming days to “evaluate the options of going back to the negotiation table.”
The meeting is scheduled to take place between Unifor Local 2301 president Martin Mcllwrath and Samir Cairae, Rio Tinto’s managing director of its Atlantic operations, who will be arriving in Kitimat from the company’s headquarters in Montreal.
“The meeting is strictly about getting back to the table,” said Mcllwrath indicating that it was not a contract negotiations meeting.
According to Mcllwrath, Rio Tinto walked away from negotiations and ceased communication with Local 2301 on July 25 to then reduce aluminum production at the Kitimat smelter to 25 per cent of its normal 432,000 tonne annual capacity.
“On July 28 the union spoke to Samir Cairae in person at our picket line where we impressed on him that this strike didn’t have to happen as we had provided a solution to the company on July 25 which they walked away from and that it was their decision to let the smelter go down. We reiterated our position that we remain ready and willing to negotiate calling on the company to return to the table,” said Unifor 2301 in a bulletin issued on Aug.6
When asked, Rio Tinto said that during the last discussions, there were still too many union demands to deal with and it did not allow them to have a collective agreement “comparable to the ones we find in our other businesses in Canada or with our competitors.”
The company had also asked for an independent mediator from BC Labour Relations Board – which was rejected by Unifor 2301.
“It is for this reason that we took a step back to reflect on the importance of the next discussions,” said Rio Tinto in an email statement ( which is also in the company’s letter to its employees).
In response to the company’s reasoning of “too many demands ” by the union, Mcllwrath said that unlike 2017, this year there were significantly lower demands.
“With 170 demands, we brought to the table the lowest amount of demands in 2021 as compared to 500 back in 2017,” said Mcllwrath.
The strike between Rio Tinto and its 900 unionized employees represented by Unifor Local 2301 began July 25.
The strike commenced after negotiations failed between both parties to reach a collective agreement on matters of employee benefits and use of contractors among others issues.
No details have been provided as to what’s involved in contract talks save for the union which published information stating the company was proposing a series of benefits reductions.
Rio Tinto has denied that allegation but has not provided details on what it did propose, stating the contents of the negotiations to be confidential.
Local governments and leaders, including the District of Kitimat, City of Terrace, Haisla Nation, Skeena BC Liberal MLA Ellis Ross and NDP MP Taylor Bachrach called on Rio Tinto and Unifor Local 2301 to resume talks amidst fear of economic disruptions in northwest B.C.