04/25/2012 02:39 EDT | Updated 04/25/2012 06:25 EDT

Rio Tinto Lockout: 2012 London Olympics The Battleground Between Mining Giant, Unions

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The union representing locked out Rio Tinto workers in Alma, Que., is lodging a formal complaint with Olympic organizers against the mining giant’s sponsorship of the upcoming London Games.

Alleging ongoing labour and human rights violations, the United Steelworkers (USW) is urging the International Olympic Committee and the London 2012 Organizing Committee to drop Rio Tinto as its official supplier of 4,700 gold, silver and bronze medals.

The complaint, which the USW plans to file in London on Thursday, argues that the transnational firm has broken the committee’s rules around ethical procurement, and calls on Olympic organizers to remove the Rio Tinto from its role, and have the medals recast.

“Olympic athletes who have spent an entire career in perfecting their performance should not be receiving medals tarnished by Rio Tinto’s long record throughout the world of abusing labour rights, human rights, community rights, and environmental rights,” USW campaign director Joe Drexler told The Huffington Post Canada. “Unfortunately, [Olympic organizers] apparently did not do their homework in selecting Rio Tinto as an official supplier.”

The complaint is the latest attempt in an ongoing international campaign to sever the relationship between the upcoming Olympic Games and Rio Tinto. Dubbed Off The Podium, Drexler says the effort was born out of the desire to “build worldwide pressure to bring justice to the workers in Quebec.”

Rio Tinto Alcan has been operating its aluminum smelter in Alma at limited capacity since late December, when it locked out 780 unionized workers amid stalled contract talks and rising tensions.

According to Drexler, the complaint will lay out a number of charges against the company for its actions in Alma, including violating health and safety regulations and interfering with legitimate trade union activity by initiating an illegal lockout, a claim that the company denies.

All of which, the USW maintains, goes against the pledge the London 2012 Organizing Committee’s pledge to uphold the international labour guidelines outlined in the Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code.

Off The Podium has also garnered support from unions in Australia and the U.K., where a London organization has been pursuing its own efforts to dispute the involvement of Rio Tinto, among several major mining firms, in the Olympic Games. The labour organizations banded together to protest at Rio Tinto’s annual shareholder meeting in London last week.

At the time, Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese defended to company’s “ethical track record” in a press release, maintaining that "being ethically responsible is a thread that runs through everything we do.

“We aim to bring long-lasting positive change to the communities where we work, respecting human rights, bringing economic benefits and looking after the environment,” he said.

Rio Tinto Alcan spokesman Bryan Tucker told HuffPost on Wednesday that campaigns like Off The Podium will not bring the union and the company any closer to reaching a resolution.

“The Alma lockout will not be solved on the Olympic podium,” he told HuffPost. “It will be solved here, with the people that are working in the region, that are working with the employees and [...] have the future of the plant close to their hearts.”

But Drexler says the campaign will shine a much-needed light on the labour dispute, which he believes has gotten short shrift.

Despite dragging on for nearly four months -- and drawing thousands to Alma for a protest in late March -- Drexler says the lockout has yet to garner significant media attention in Canada, particularly among English language outlets.

“I just don’t think that English language newspapers in Canada are very interested in what is happening in Quebec,” he said, maintaining that the dispute is “just as significant” as the highly publicized Caterpillar lockout at the recently closed Electro-Motive Diesel plant in London, Ont.

That battle generated widespread public outrage earlier this year when the company locked out unionized workers after they refused to accept a 50 per cent pay cut.

“What Rio Tinto is trying to do is to de-unionize the workforce, not only in Canada, but it is a global strategy,” Drexler said.

But Mike Moffatt, a labour expert at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, questions the traction the union will get in taking Rio Tinto to task over its labour relations record.

“Historically union-worker relationships haven’t been a big issue for them,” he told HuffPost, pointing out that Rio Tinto has tended to avoid strikes and lockouts, unlike a company like Caterpillar.

Still, he says that thanks to low aluminum prices, Rio Tinto hasn’t had much of an incentive to bring the dispute in Alma to speedy resolution.

“I can understand why the union has a grievance on that side,” he said.

According to the union, the major sticking point is Rio Tinto’s increasing reliance on subcontractors, and the perceived attempt to phase out unionized workers by replacing outgoing retirees with contract workers who receive a much lower wage.

“As the workforce in Alma becomes every year more and more non-union, the union will lose its power to protect the workers and to stand up for the community,” Drexler said. “Local business revenues will suffer as incomes in the community drop, [and] tax revenues will decline.”

But Tucker says he “vehemently” disputes this claim, maintaining that the company plans to keep all jobs directly related to core operations, which represent “the majority of employees working at our sites,” as Rio Tinto Alcan positions.

“There is subcontracting at the plant but it is completely false to advance the notion that we are systematically replacing all retiring union members with contract workers,” he said. “All we want is to have the ability to use subcontracting in a way that’s consistent with the business models that we use at our other plants [...] and that our competitors use.”

Tucker maintains that the union walked away from negotiations after the company refused to accept demands that would have required it to increase the number of unionized jobs at the plant “without any regard to economic situations, competitiveness, productivity.”

He insists that the company was within its rights to initiate the lockout -- which he describes as “a responsible decision on our part” to protect workers and the integrity of the assets in the midst of evidence of vandalism.

“We’re pretty optimistic that eventually we’ll be able to sit down and come to an agreement because we just see this as a highly unusual demand,” he said. “But it’s going to take two reasonable parties.”

The company says it is remains in contact with the provincially appointed mediator, but there are no further discussions with the union scheduled at this point.

The USW plans to continue to ramp up the Off The Podium campaign in the coming months. As to whether they will achieve their goal, that remains to be seen.

According to Moffatt, one factor that could tip the scales in favour of the union is Rio Tinto’s recent decision to shutter an aluminum smelter in Lynemouth, England, a move that will eliminate hundreds of jobs just as the country slides back into recession.

“Even though it’s not really relevant to any of the arguments that they’re making [...] the fact that Rio Tinto isn’t particularly popular right now in England probably helps their case,” Moffatt said.

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