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Steelworker locals stand united in Essar Algoma talks (updated)

Provincial mediator heads for the Sault
USW Local 2251 President Mike Da Prat and Local 2724 President Lisa Dale speak to media this morning at Quattro Hotel and Conference Centre. David Helwig for SooToday

The presidents of the Sault's two largest United Steelworkers Union locals stood shoulder-to-shoulder today at a news conference regarding their contract talks with Essar Steel Algoma.

Mike Da Prat, from Local 2251, and Lisa Dale, from Local 2724, met press representatives at the Quattro Hotel and Conference Centre, as Local 2251 started information meetings preparing for a strike vote next Tuesday.

Da Prat said he expected his membership will provide a clear strike mandate next week.

"We have a mutual support agreement," Da Prat said, referring to the two Steelworkers locals.

Local 2251 represents Essar Algoma's hourly workers.

Local 2724 represents salaried employees.

"We informed the company that we wanted to negotiate monetary (issues) together," Da Prat said.

"What we're looking for here is to show the company that there are common, mutual interests here," added Dale.

"When you're talking about concessions or any kind of monetary issues that could be on the table here, it's better for us to be able to show a joint solid effort where we are going to look after all the people that work there."

Warren Winkler, a former Chief Justice of Ontario appointed to mediate the Essar Algoma contract talks, is on his way to the Sault, Da Prat said.

Until now, Winkler has waited in the wings, stating it was too early to intervene.

For Da Prat, the main issue to be decided immediately is the relevant legislation under which negotiations should proceed.

“Judge Winkler is coming to mediate. We don’t know if he’s mediating under the CCAA (Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act) or whether he’s mediating under the Labour Relations Act. Somebody has to tell us what act we’re working under,” Da Prat told reporters.

Da Prat and Dale both indicated their respective locals strongly wish to bargain together on monetary issues.

“With respect to the joint support between us and 2724, they’re absolutely for it,” Da Prat said.

The company opposes that, he said, so 2251 and 2724 have agreed to allow each other’s executive members to serve as advisors, giving both union locals a seat at the table during both sets of negotiations.

Both Da Prat and Dale said they’re having difficulty getting data from the company supporting the concessions sought, including a proposed 10 per cent wage reduction.

“They’re looking for what we believe to be extreme cuts,” Da Prat said.

“Typically, in a restructuring, and I’ve been through a number of them, we all work together,” said Da Prat. “Management and both unions work together to find solutions. In this case, we’ve been dictated to by the purchasers and we’ve been dictated to by this management team.”

Asked whether Local 2724 might also take a strike vote, Dale said: “We just took back to our executive what our next steps are, so we’ll have something to announce in the next couple of days.”

Has Essar Steel Algoma been trying to split the United Steelworkers to gain a tactical advantage?

“We know that from the beginning of time that the divide-and-conquer tactics have been present,” Dale told SooToday.

“But this time is like no other. We’ve been able to really work hard together to get our membership engaged to show that there’s more strength in numbers and that it’s time we started working together rather than fighting each other. We need to challenge the company so we can protect what we have,” she said.

Asked whether the Sault’s steel mill might be at risk in the current talks. Da Prat replied with another question. 

“When did the world turn upside down?” he asked. 

“We used to have the unions threatening to withdraw their services, and management making responsible decisions. To the point that (now) in the middle of winter, management is threatening the unions to put them out on strike. Why is it that the union has to be the responsible person?”

“They need asset integrity. If they can’t get it, then they better find another solution. Not threaten to blow the place up,” Da Prat said.