ASI hires agency to protect assets;

USW believes workers being hired

 

BY BOB MIHELL

Special to Sault This Week

A decision by Algoma Steel Inc. to hire an outside agency "to maintain

its assets" in the event of a work stoppage has provoked an angry

response from the United Steel Workers executive.

Brenda Stenta, manager corporate communications for ASI, acknowledged

Friday the company had hired an agency to seek the necessary workers as

part of its "contingency plan" should contract negotiations, underway in

Toronto, fail.

Stenta added that it was a "common practice" used by the company "each

time we enter into labour negotiations", including in 2004 when an

eleventh hour settlement averted possible strike action. "You can't shut

this whole asset down or you won't have an asset to come back to," she

said.

Stenta stressed management had no intention of running the steel mill.

She suggested ASI would need "about 40 or 50 people" to protect its

assets.

But Mike Da Prat, president of Local 2251, said from Toronto Monday the

contingency plan was kept secret from both the USW executive and ASI

workers despite management promises of "full, true and plain disclosure"

during negotiations.

The discovery of an advertisement that appeared July 4 in the Toronto

Sun under the heading: "Temporary Full-Time Positions Available" by a

USW member led to further inquiries by the Union.

The ad goes on to target a variety of tradesmen including mechanical

maintenance technicians, welders, and cokemaking operators. As

incentive, the ad offered, "Up to $3,250 Cdn. per week with OT" and

"accommodations, meal allowance and travel paid".  Da Prat said it was

only by accident that the Union learned what the USW believes is a

company plan to hire replacement workers during current contract talks.

"We were not aware [they were advertising in 2004] anymore than we were

aware they were doing it now," Da Prat said. "What happened was some

individual discovered it by accident. We had someone call down and we

we're told only this: that it was a place in Northern Ontario that was

eight hours away from London, Ontario. They had coke ovens and they

needed coke oven experience, and their contract was up on July 31."

After hearing about the Toronto Sun ad, Sault This Week attempted to get

a response for more information using the email address included in the

classified, but were unsuccessful as of deadline.

STW then contacted the manager of corporate communications for ASI

Friday and asked if the July 4 ad for replacement workers was on behalf

of Algoma.  While Stenta acknowledged that the company had hired an

agency to "assist with contingency planning", she said she had no

knowledge how that agency had proceeded. "I don't know where the agency

has advertised," Stenta said. "I believe they have advertised in a

variety of different places. I'm not privy to their strategy."

She added, "It is always our preference that we be able to use our own

people to maintain the assets while people were off work. We made that

request to both locals again this year and they have not yet responded."

 

Da Prat countered, "[ASI] talked to us informally about asset integrity

and we told them we had to check and would get back. And their request

to 2251 was for way more than forty to fifty people. It was upwards of

300."

Da Prat said the Union was prepared to act responsibly to make sure the

company's assets are maintained, but suggested there is more than one

way to do so.  He said that in 2004 they had made a "comprehensive

proposal" to protect assets, but prevent any discipline of workers if

they refused direct orders that conflicted with their support of

"brothers and sisters" on the picket line. The company did not accept

the Union proposal.

Equally disturbing to Da Prat, however, is a promise delivered in a

letter to employees on July 5 from ASI president/CEO Denis Turcotte, the

day after the Toronto Sun replacement worker advertisement. Turcotte

wrote: "Since emerging from CCAA, the Company has committed to a

communications standard of 'full, true and plain disclosure'...

Regardless of the sensitivities and occasional conflict it creates, we

believe that all employees want and need to get the straight facts about

issues that affect their lives at work."

The three-page letter concluded, "We will make sure that

'misinformation' is corrected and any selective disclosure is

rectified." At no point does Turcotte's letter mention the company's

contingency plan in the event of a strike.

Da Prat said, "They're upset that we suggested that they weren't being

[open and truthful]. I suggest that someone take a look on Google what

'full, true and plain disclosure' really means. We've exchanged emails

now, but no one told me they were establishing a contingency plan."

In a follow-up email received Monday, Stenta wrote the company would

prefer to use its own personnel should it become necessary to protect

assets.

But in the absence of an agreement with the Union and only 129 non-Union

employees, she said ASI hired the Agency to protect its assets in the

"unlikely event" of a work stoppage.

"Algoma Steel is not running ads nor are we hiring anyone other than an

Agency that will assist in maintaining the assets," she concluded.

Sault MP Tony Martin said Sunday that he was not aware of an ASI

contingency plan. He said that if the company were, in fact, seeking

replacement workers in the event of a work stoppage, he would be

disappointed.  "This doesn't speak of the kind of corporate

responsibility that Algoma Steel has stood for," Martin said. "I think

this sends out the wrong message at a time when a new company is trying

to gain the confidence of its workers."

Martin expressed concern about a trend in Canada where workers work

longer and harder for less, while top managers make more and work less.

"In the framework we have now, there is no legislation to stop a company

from bringing in replacement workers, or scabs, or whatever you want to

call them. It sets up a confrontation all by itself because the company

does have to legally protect its assets. In the past, they used

management to protect those assets," he said.