Wildcat Strike in Kitimat
When a union goes on strike, things get tense. In Kitimat, at 6am on June 23, 1976, the situation was ominous when riot squads unloaded from school buses and faced a picket line of union members from the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers. Shouting through megaphones, the police marched towards the picketers striking against the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan).
Leonard Stevens remembers watching the scene from the roof of the boiler at the Eurocan pulp-and-paper mill, the neighbouring industry at the time. “I saw the RCMP riot squad already deployed, banging their shields with their riot clubs and advancing toward the picket line that the Alcan hourly workers had set up.” He admits that it looked “pretty intimidating, even from my vantage point.” The union members—men and women—standing by the picket-line fire-barrels and sitting on the log stumps blocking the road to the smelter were not there legally, and they knew it. But so deep was their dissatisfaction with their employer and with the federal government that they had spontaneously walked off the job in protest, starting a wildcat strike and illegal picket lines that lasted 21 days.
Kitimat was an industrial town and the hourly workers at the Alcan aluminum smelter had struggled to find a union that they felt represented their local and national interests. In the fall of 1972, they voted to form a new union and became the Canadian Aluminum Smelter and Allied Workers (CASAW). CASAW was certified to be the local union for Alcan employees in October 1972 and had a small union hall in a trailer beside the Portuguese and Greek Clubs in Kitimat.
At issue for CASAW in 1976 was the federal government’s perceived interference in the collective bargaining process between unions and their employers. Former Alcan worker Klaus Mueller, Jr explains that in 1975, Trudeau’s federal Liberal government legislated wage and price controls in an effort to check the rapid rise in inflation. “Jean-Luc Pepin was the chairman of the anti-inflation board and they limited the amount of increases and limited the types of settlements that unions could negotiate.” CASAW and other Canadian unions were upset that the government could overrule their negotiated settlements.
Because of high inflation, CASAW was stuck with a collective agreement with wage increases that were lower than inflation. They asked Alcan to re-open the contract, but this request was denied. Frustration toward the company and the federal government was building within the membership and throughout the smelter. Feelings of dissatisfaction rose to the point where the workers decided to walk out in a wildcat on June 2, 1976.
Bubbling discontent In the summer of 1976, Mueller was a young man working in potlining production services at the smelter, a department that repaired pots throughout the plant. In this job he was able to sense the discontent bubbling throughout the plant. “The shop steward councils had met and there was lots of discussion about the discontent, but the union never sanctioned the walkout, never encouraged it. One by one, people came and went and got their work-mates,” explains Mueller. “I was amazed at the unity—people who were non-radical were leading the walkout.”
Picket lines were set up on Alcan’s only road in and out of the smelter and at other areas around the small town where supplies were flown or boated in. The strike received attention across the country and was featured on the national news.
A strike at the smelter can have huge consequences: if the aluminum is allowed to cool in the pots the restart costs are enormous. Some feared the pots would solidify and the plant would never reopen because of the existing high inflation and low global demand for aluminum. The management team was asked to stay and maintain the pots, and some hourly employees chose to cross the picket line to assist them. The men and some women, derogatorily referred to as scabs, stayed in the plant, living there day and night to keep the smelter operating in a holding pattern. Necessary supplies were pushed in past picket lines and the smelter limped along without the majority of the 1,800 union workers.
Tensions ran so high that those who chose to scab were brought in by helicopter, or hidden in trucks or trunks of cars to get past the picket line. There were rumours of threats and vandalism directed at them. The un-sanctioned strike united the CASAW members, but their small community—neighbourhoods, churches, cultural groups and families—was deeply and bitterly divided.
Tied vote CASAW dared to stand up to the federal government’s perceived interference in collective bargaining and had great support from other Canadian unions, particularly those in Quebec. “Every union was watching this strike,” says Mueller, “because it was the first real test of that government’s wage and price control initiative, and because of the size of the workforce: 1,800 workers out for 21 days.”
The strike was illegal and the BC Labour Board issued a cease-and-desist order, which the union ignored. The picket line was illegal because the strike was illegal and because the picket line was on Alcan’s private road. When the riot squad was brought in on June 23, the picket line dispersed.
Lawyer Peter Burton, who in 1976 was the CASAW president, recalls, “the strike ended when a membership vote was tied on a motion to continue. Under the rules for union meetings, the President got to vote in those circumstances. I voted against the motion which meant that it was defeated, and the strike ended.”
But the struggle didn’t end when the picket lines came down and workers returned to the smelter. A headline in the Terrace Herald of July 21, 1976 reads, “Alcan Permitted to Discipline 136 Workers.” The article states that Alcan applied to fire 31 employees it thought were instigators. The Labour Relations Board rejected this, instead allowing the suspension of 136 workers for varying lengths of time and the issuance of warning slips. For his part, then-president Burton was suspended for six months. He went on to become a lawyer specializing in labour relations.
Working separately from CASAW was the Canadian Labour Congress which had its own strategies for fighting the wage and price controls. Some believe the wildcat in Kitimat played a role in stopping the program, which came to an end in 1978. According to Mueller, who quit working at Alcan shortly after the picket lines came down, the strike showed the government that this was not good legislation. “You have to know that there are times when you have to take a stand and fight for what is right,” he says, “and then deal with the consequences.”