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Steel mill's biggest union contract expires July 31. No talks so far

The July 31 deadline will be extended only if both parties agree to the extension, Steelworkers Local 2251's Mike Da Prat tells SooToday.
Will Essar Steel Algoma and its biggest union be partners in recovery or adversaries when they sit down to negotiate a new collective agreement?

As Mike Da Prat, the longtime president of Steelworkers Local 2251 tells it, there are two types of contract negotiations.

"One is normal negotiations where the union attempts to get the company to agree to improvements," Da Prat says. "The union has to ask and the company gets to say: 'Sorry I cannot do that.'"

But with Local 2251's collective agreement with Essar Steel Algoma due to expire on July 31, Da Prat foresees a different kind of bargaining.

"In these type of negotiations that we're in today, the shoe goes somewhat on the other foot. The company wants or needs certain things, and it's the union that can say: 'Sorry I can't do that.' But at the same time, the union still has to try to get improvements in areas."

Representing 2,207 hourly workers, Local 2251 is Essar Algoma's biggest union.

The steelmaker announced on March 31 that it had agreed with its second-largest union (Local 2724 representing 457 salaried employees) to extend contract talks and focus instead on their collective effort to find a new owner or investor.

Will Essar Algoma and the much-larger Local 2251 similarly agree to continue to work under their existing contract, settling up later as part of the final corporate restructuring?

That's by no means a foregone conclusion, Da Prat tells SooToday.

"Don't forget that both parties have to agree to extend their collective agreement beyond the 31st," he says.

"A lot of people don't understand that. They simply think it's there for the asking. The first order of business is always to try and get it resolved. Hopefully, things will be concluded. But matters have to unfold the way they unfold."

With a July 31 deadline, talks with Essar Algoma would normally have started back in November or December," Da Prat says.

So far, no meetings have occurred or even been scheduled.

"The way things went and the grievance claims that we had to work through certainly took up some time."

"We've already served notice to the company to bargain."

"We have a responsibility and an accountability to negotiate the best we can for our members. Part of the negotiations is negotiation prep. We've been engaging in negotiation prep in order that we have our proposals ready for whenever negotiations start."

Da Prat concedes that even so, he's been preoccupied with the steel mills's fiscal woes and he's not really ready for bargaining quite yet.

"We still have prep to do. We have to schedule proposal ratification meetings in order to have the members aware of the proposals we're intending to make and get their approval."

"I assume that we're going to schedule them in the near future."

With exception of a hiatus in 2000-02, Da Prat has been involved in every set of Essar Algoma contract talks over the past quarter century - good years and bad.

He started participating in 1992 as a member of the Local 5595 executive and was around during the 1994-1995 negotiations in which employee ownership was lost.

Da Prat was president of 5595 when the locals were merged into 2251.

He became unit chair of the tubular business unit from 1995 through 2000, lost a bid to become Local 2251 treasurer in 2000, then ran successfully for president in 2003.

Negotiations are never easy, he says, but experience helps.

"We have not sat down and discussed protocol or anything. Everybody needs to be patient because things are moving slowly. This is not something that you can push, It has a pace and it marches until we get there."

Meanwhile, Da Prat told Local 2251's monthly general membership meeting last week that the local's legal fees in the Essar Steel Algoma insolvency proceedings reached $335,379 by the end of April.

Members nonetheless voted to donate $1,000 to Muscular Dystrophy Canada to help find a cure for the neuromuscular disorder.

In the House of Commons, the federal government's commitment to Canadian steel was discussed recently during Question Period.
The following statement was issued this week by Regina-Lewvan MP Erin Weir:


Ottawa importing steel as Canadian mills lay off workers

Even as Canadian steel mills are laying off workers due to a lack of demand, the federal government admitted last week that only 19 per cent of the steel in the massive new Champlain Bridge will be made in Canada. New Democratic MPs pressed this issue in Friday’s Question Period.
Regina–Lewvan MP Erin Weir had raised the matter with Judy Foote, minister of public services and procurement, at meetings of the Government Operations and Estimates Committee on March 10 and May 17.
In Question Period, he pointed out: “She could not tell us whether Canadian or offshore steel will be used in the Alaska highway, the Alexandria Bridge, or other major federal infrastructure projects.”
Hamilton Mountain MP Scott Duvall followed up by questioning the government’s lack of action to address the dumping of underpriced Chinese steel into our market.
By contrast, the United States announced a fivefold increase in duties on Chinese cold-rolled flat steel last week.
As Weir had noted at committee: “Producing a tonne of steel in Canada with relatively clean energy and strong environmental standards emits far less carbon than producing it offshore. A further environmental advantage of using Canadian-made steel in Canada is that it minimizes the emissions from transporting the steel.”
Despite the NDP’s limited number of spots in Question Period, it has been by far the strongest voice in Parliament for Canadian steelworkers.
For example, Duvall had previously asked the Liberal government to release the former Conservative government’s secret deal with US Steel.
Weir had previously pushed to include Regina in extended employment insurance benefits given layoffs at the Evraz steel mill.

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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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