01/12/2018 13:43 EST | Updated 01/14/2018 09:21 EST

Quebec ABI smelter workers think they will be locked out for a long time

MONTREAL — Workers at the ABI aluminum smelter in Becancour, Que. said Friday they expected to be locked out of work for a long time.

The United Steelworkers Local 9700 said the facility's 1,030 employees were suddenly locked out at 3 a.m. Thursday, less than 24 hours after they voted against the company's latest contract offer by more than 80 per cent.

Union leaders said they think the company's owners are looking to increase the price of aluminum.

Workers picketed outside the Becancour smelter Friday afternoon.

Alain Croteau, head of the Quebec section of the United Steelworkers, said the facility's owners have a "hidden agenda."

"We think that financial interests are behind (the lockout)," he said. "When a big smelter such as Alcoa here in Becancour doesn't produce, it takes aluminum off the market and drives up prices."

The ABI smelter, a major private employer in the region, is 75 per cent owned by Alcoa and 25 per cent by Rio Tinto Alcan.

"We think the lockout will last two or three months, minimum," Croteau said. "It could go to six, seven, eight months, maybe more, we don't know. It's sad for the population. It's sad for the families and the workers here."

Local union president Clement Masse agrees his members will be out of work for a while.

"Just stopping the tanks and re-started them, we're talking about many millions of dollars," he said. "If the employer took the decision to close two series of tanks, it's because they don't think they are going to settle this next week."

The union says the key issue is a company plan to introduce a new member-funded pension plan instead of a defined benefit plan.

ABI said it will use management to continue one production line out of three for the duration of the lockout.