As Rio Tinto strike continues, union pushes back against misinformation claims

rio tinto strikers

It's now the fourth day of the strike among Rio Tinto workers in Kitimat and Kemano, and tensions are beginning to flare up on both sides.

The latest dispute centres on comments made by Rio Tinto General Manager Affonso Bizon in a message to employees on Sunday, where he said misinformation was being spread at the bargaining table.

In the message, Bizon said “Rio Tinto is NOT proposing any reduction in post-retirement or survival benefits.” He described this as a "malicious rumour."

However, Unifor Local 2301 President Martin McIlwrath is disputing his comments.

"It appeared that the plant manager was making statements that were inaccurate," he said in an interview with CFTK.

In a news bulletin posted on Monday, the union lists some of the demands that they claim Rio Tinto had tabled with them.

Two of these new demands say no dental or vision coverage will be offered at retirement to employees hired on or after July 24th, 2021. Likewise, another demand says vision and dental care won't be offered to the spouse of a retired employee who dies if that retired employee was hired after July 24th of this year.

In the union's previous collective agreement from 2017, there's nothing barring new employees from receiving these benefits.

"The facts are the facts,” said McIlwrath. “The company came to the bargaining table to take things away. We just laid out the demands as the company proposed them, so people can take a look at that and take it for what it's worth.”

Other demands the union claims Rio Tinto put forward would have increased the amount of hours required by temporary workers to receive benefits, and made temporary employees ineligible for summer vacation.

CFTK reached out to Rio Tinto to ask about the union's rebuttal of Bizon's claim, and to get confirmation that the company tabled these demands. However, a spokesperson said Rio Tinto can't comment on specific elements in their negotiations.

Bargaining between the two sides is currently at a deadlock. According to a second news bulletin posted by the union on Monday, Rio Tinto contacted the union on Sunday to try to reach an agreement before shutting down the smelter. The union agreed, but the company reportedly later told them they wanted to pause negotiations so that both parties reflect on their positions.

Despite the disputes, McIlwrath says he wants to get back to bargaining.

“We would like to see our members back to work, but if [Rio Tinto’s] not willing to play ball, then we're in it for the long haul."

Rio Tinto is currently in the process of shutting down its smelter. The company estimates it will take between 12 to 16 months to restart it.