The world’s largest producer of aluminum, Montréal-based Alcan, announced on January 22, 2004 that it was closing its Jonquière Soderburg smelter in Arvida, Québec. In order to protect their jobs, the unionized workers of the smelter have seized it and demanded that it either remain open, or that Alcan replace the smelter with a new one.
The Value of a dollar
The 60-year-old smelter had been scheduled to shut down in 2014 because its technology does not meet modern environmental standards. The company announced that it was closing the plant 10 years earlier due to the ageing workforce. Alcan has claimed that closing the plant will avoid layoffs, as there have been “enough retirements to more than offset the job reductions so that people could be transferred and there would not be any layoffs” (www.canada.com, February 02, 2004).
These are not the actual reasons that the plant is being closed however. Alcan shares have fallen a little bit as of late, and when the company announced the closure of the plant, they said that it was because the rising Canadian dollar was making the plant uncompetitive. This has now been forgotten, and the company claims that the closure has “absolutely nothing to do with money.” This highlights the fact that the Canadian economy is completely dependent upon exports. Although Canadians travelling abroad often complain about the low value of the Canadian dollar, it is actually quite advantageous for the Canadian ruling class. A low Canadian dollar means that exports increase, as most companies around the world would be more willing to buy cheap Canadian products than products from the US for example, where the US dollar is stronger. This situation is however quickly becoming intolerable for the US economy, which just happens to be Canada’s largest trading partner (upwards of 85% of Canada’s trade is with the US). The US is accruing a massive trade deficit, as it imports 50% more than it exports. This is causing great strain on the US economy, as US consumer spending is the only thing keeping the economy afloat. The US dollar has been dropping in value as of late, and this is having immediate results in the Canadian economy, as this plant closure and the softwood lumber trade dispute clearly demonstrate.
The premature closure by Alcan also allows the company to free up more electricity to be exported to the US, which is much more lucrative presently than aluminum. Last year’s blackout in the north-eastern US and Ontario has caused the Bush administration to put a lot of pressure on Québec to export more electricity to the US. Hydro-Québec has recently been issuing warnings to the Charest government about the need to re-organize the energy industry in Québec, insisting that it receive more investments because its energy production is more efficient than others, and this is of course a process that the Liberal government gladly supports.
The dispute in Saguenay must be put in the context of an economic slowdown in the region. Just a few days before Christmas, 600 workers at the Consolidated-Bathurst paper mill in Port-Alfred lost their jobs. The 550 workers at the Jonquière Soderburg smelter in Arvida, recognize fully that although the company talks about avoiding layoffs and giving the workers transfers, they have effectively lost their jobs.
The workers took over the smelter on Tuesday, January 27, and stopped the closure process. Alcan has tried to make a series of arguments against the union, which is now running the plant. Alcan has claimed that they are concerned about breaches of health and safety standards, and has questioned the ability of the workers at the smelter to organize the work. Alcan has claimed that the functioning of the smelter requires a certain level of planning and coordination “which don’t exist in this plant.” Alcan claims that the workers have taken control of the installation without any supervision and that the work is completely disorganized.
This is absolute garbage. Rolland Poirier, the union local’s general secretary has stated that the mill’s foremen are making inspections, “but the operating decisions are being made by the operators” (www.canada.com, Fedruary 2, 2004). As the Canadian press noted further, “while the unionised workers have done well operating the smelter at Jonquière, Que., on their own since taking it over last week to protest plans to close it this spring, affecting 550 jobs, Alcan management is still responsible for the facility, he [Travis Engen, Alcan president] said” (www.canada.com, Feb, 2, 2004). So even the president of the company eventually had to admit that the workers could organize the work, and get it done well. Then on Tuesday, February 3, the union issued a release claiming that production at the Arvida smelter in Saguenay is higher than it was before the workers took control, and union president Claude Patry added “all this was done despite the manoeuvres of deliberate sabotage and non-collaboration by management” (www.canada.com, Feb. 3, 2004) This is obvious – most workers can tell you that it is those who actually do the work who best understand how to organize and complete the necessary tasks to complete a job. The old saying is true – workers don’t need bosses and managers, but the bosses and managers need the workers. The workers report that they are in full control of the plant, and the company claims that the workers are continuing to control the smelter and are blocking access to company supervisors and managers.
The State and Revolution
Alcan has taken the case to the Québec Labour Relations Board, which ruled late Friday, January 30, in agreement with Alcan, that the actions of the workers were illegal. A mediator has now been appointed to solve the dispute. Engen says that he is willing to negotiate and work out a deal with the workers, who have not yet responded. The workers have demanded that a new smelter be built to replace the one that will close. In the absence of this promise, the workers will not talk. There has as yet been no deadline announced by the company to work out a deal, although they claim that they will take back the plant and proceed with the closure. There are obvious reasons for this. The class struggle has become very acute since the victory of Jean Charest’s Liberals in the provincial elections last year. The unions have held several mass days of action and protest against the government’s austerity measures, and there has been some talk of a general strike. On Saturday, January 31, some 5,000 people turned up at the old city hall of Jonquière to demonstrate against the closure. The company, and the government, perhaps recognize that if they take a hard-line approach to this dispute that they may face an all out class war in Québec. One thing that the company has already underestimated was the long tradition of union militancy in the area. The company has not set a deadline, because they know that eventually they can starve the workers of goods needed to continue working. In response to questions of a deadline Engen said, “there will be some limits, obviously, because there are some raw materials required to produce aluminum. I would imagine the stocks of raw materials that are at hand are falling. But there’s no deadline.” (www.canada.com, Feb 2, 2004). In response Claude Patry has said that what Engen has claimed is nothing but “falsehoods in order to scare everyone.”
The entire capitalist system has aligned to defeat the workers. The company is using the media and the state, and it will eventually use other companies, to put pressure on the workers. If the union holds out long enough, they will not be sold the necessary products, and the plant will be forced to shut down. This highlights the central task of the workers’ movement around the world.
The workers in Québec, and in other places around the world, such as in Venezuela and Argentina have demonstrated that workers can indeed assume control over their jobs, factories and industries. But in order to guarantee the success of such a move, the entire economy must be nationalized under workers’ control, and the workers in turn must use a workers’ state and their own media to put pressure on the bourgeois. Eventually the companies that control the raw resources needed to produce aluminum will not sell them to the Arvida factory under workers’ control, and the workers will be forced to relinquish control. The apparatus of the state, by way of mediators and possibly the police, may be used to regain control of the bosses’ property.
The way to prevent this is to fight fire with fire. The workers at Alcan plants in Canada and around the world must raise this issue in their union locals and join in struggle with workers in Québec as the only effective means of fighting the Alcan bosses. This battle in Québec sets a precedent for Alcan plants and mills around the world, and Alcan workers the world over will have to face the same problems and fight the same battles. This has already been demonstrated by Alcan’s recent purchase of Pechiney SA, a French packaging supplier. Alcan has already stated that there will be some restructuring of its French operations, including layoffs. The workers in France will be attacked and many will lose their jobs. An effective struggle of Alcan workers around the world can lead to victory both in Québec and France, and would become a shining example of international solidarity and an example of victory in the struggle of the working class for workers all around the world.
Furthermore, in order to prevent the shortage of raw resources required to produce aluminum, the workers at the plants and factories that sell these resources to Alcan must link up in struggle and solidarity with the workers in Arvida, and assist these workers. It is the duty of the Canadian and US trade-union leaders to raise this issue locally and link up in struggle with Alcan workers as the only means of guaranteeing victory. The problem is that if the workers control the smelter for some time and maintain workers’ control over the plant, an island of socialism cannot be maintained in a sea of capitalism. The products made at the smelter will still need to be sold, and the products required to make them will still need to be bought on the world market. Further to this, the world economy is in crisis, and there are simply more products being made than can be bought. If the US dollar continues to fall, the plant will remain, in capitalist terms, uncompetitive. If the market is dry, no amount of workers’ control in the world in this particular factory will be able to remedy that.
What this highlights and points to though, is what is possible. There have been many cases of workers’ control of factories in Venezuela and Argentina over the past few years, but these are also coming under attack. The only way these factories and shops under workers’ control can be maintained is if socialism and a nationally planned economy replace the chaos and anarchy of capitalism. In these countries the bosses are unifying to sabotage the efforts of the workers in these factories, and without the assistance of a genuine workers’ state, these efforts will not be defeated.
What is most striking about this case of workers’ control is that it is taking place not in Venezuela or Argentina, two countries badly affected by a serious economic crisis, but in Québec, Canada, a member of the G7. What this shows is that the same rules of struggle apply here as in any other part of the world. The system is the same everywhere. Workers’ control of industry functions, as Trotsky explained years ago, as a ‘school for the planned economy’, and allows the workers (and a workers’ state) to gain a scientific understanding of how the economy functions so that mankind can consciously control production. This would make it possible to have a worldwide nationalized and planned economy, where goods would be produced in abundance and workers would not lose their jobs due to the chaos of the market or blips in the value of their national currency, and even if changes in a certain workforce needed to be made, then obviously a socialist system could actually provide a livelihood for workers who had lost their jobs, whereas under capitalism you are simply left out in the cold. This is the problem that workers in Jonquière are facing. Under capitalism, facing the closure of their plant, they are thrown out into a world of uncertainty and no guaranteed way of paying the bills and feeding their families. Under socialism, if it were necessary to close down an old environmentally unfriendly plant, a new, modern plant would be built or the workers would be retrained and given new jobs. There would also be a highly developed social safety net, guaranteeing ways for them to feed their families.
If the workers in Jonquière are to succeed in their struggle to maintain their jobs and their livelihoods, then the workers of Québec, Canada, and indeed of the whole of North and South America must assume control over their workplaces and begin coordinating a continental plan of production to guarantee jobs and decent living for all. What’s at stake here, and the issues involved, are bigger than a simple local struggle for jobs, it is in fact a struggle between socialism and capitalism, and the expression of the fact that the productive forces have outgrown the narrow limits of the nation state and private property. The workers in Québec and Canada must link up in solidarity and struggle with their fellow brothers and sisters who are fighting for the same right to a job and decent living in Venezuela and Argentina, and elsewhere. This will be the only way forward out of the mess that the anarchy of capitalism has created and the only way forward to building a genuine socialist society.
February 5, 2004