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Peoples’ Social Forum: lessons from Alma, Quebec

Carolyn Egan

October 6, 2014

Recently at the People’s Social Forum in Ottawa thousands of young activists joined with trade unionists, environmentalists, and Indigenous peoples to talk about their present and past struggles and how they can work together to defeat the austerity agenda.
There were many who came from Quebec, and one had a real sense of the Franco-phone reality in this country. There was translation in every session, which gave people the ability to listen and speak in either French or English.There were many excellent sessions. One that particularly stood out for me was presented by Steelworkers from Alma, Quebec.
Alma Steelworkers
They withstood a long lock out by Rio Tinto in an attempt to impose two tier wages on new hires. The workers spoke in detail about how they had organized both among their fellow workers and their community to present a strong, united front against the employer.
There were many ups and downs with discussion and debates front and centre in the many months they were on the line. They built a strong solidarity in Alma but they also spoke about the support that came to them from across the country and internationally. This was very important because it gave the workers confidence that they were not alone in taking on one of the largest multinationals in the world.
Steelworkers came from US Steel in Hamilton and the from the Steelworkers Toronto Area council to show their support. Twice activists drove the thirteen hours each way to join with their fellow workers on the line. The support from English Canada was greatly appreciated and brought tears to the eyes of many of the locked out workers.
The Alma Steelworkers also marched in Montreal in support of the Quebec students building strong links with them. They connected their fight with the broader fight against austerity.
They received $60,000 per month from British Columbia CAW (now Unifor) members at a Rio Tinto facility in Kitimat. This came out of their own wages to support their fellow workers in Quebec. Over 8,000 travelled to a solidarity rally in the small town in the Saguenay to stand up against corporate power. This included workers from South Africa, Australia and the United States who also worked for Rio Tinto.
The fact that these workers won their struggle against overwhelming odds was a very important lesson, particularly the way they won it. Strong rank and file involvement typified the fight and the workers made this absolutely clear.
It wasn’t an accident that they were able to stay strong and reach out to others for the necessary solidarity.  A strategic campaign also took place with demonstrations around the world at Rio Tinto workplaces along with a campaign leading up to the Olympics to keep Rio Tinto “Off the Podium” because the medals were to be made by their product.
Lessons such as these, when so many workers struggles are defeated, are very important as trade unions, Indigenous peoples and social movements come together to share their experiences at events such as the People’s Social Forum.  As workers, the poor and the oppressed strategize on how best to mobilize and fight, the fact that 800 workers in rural Quebec could take on and defeat a vicious employer is very inspiring. Victories like these can give both courage and a sense of confidence in these difficult times that workers using their collective power have the capacity to come together and win. Hopefully this is the lesson that will endure.

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