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Lockout at one of Canada’s largest smelters drags into 2nd year, with no end in sight

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A Discount mini-bus, escorted by several security guards, edges toward the makeshift checkpoint that guards the lone road in and out of the sprawling ABI aluminum smelter in Bécancour, Que.

The bus’s path is blocked by a dozen picketers, who cup their hands to the tinted windows and try to identify the obscured figures inside.

“There were scabs in there, for sure,” one locked-out worker says after they let the bus continue onto the main road.

The workers repeat a similar routine several times a day, just as they have done ever since 3 a.m. on Jan. 11, 2018, when the smelter’s management locked them out.

Without these 1,030 workers, the smelter 170 kilometres northeast of Montreal was forced to shut two of its potlines, the rows of electrolytic reduction pots used in the smelting of aluminum. A third has been kept running at reduced capacity by management and salaried employees.

The union, the 60,000-strong Syndicat des Métallos, believes management has also been using scabs, which is illegal in Quebec. The smelter’s majority owner, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, denies the allegation.

Quebec’s labour tribunal held hearings on the matter last year and is expected to rule in the coming weeks.

Locked-out workers investigate vehicles that enter and exit the plant. They suspect management of using scabs to keep the smelter running. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

On the picket line, workers have developed their own sure-fire method of determining whether those entering the plant are managers or illegal replacements.

“If he’s got soft hands, it means he’s not a scab, because if he’s doing real work inside, he have hard hands,” said Claude Dumas, who operated a machine that pours out liquid aluminum before the lockout.

The workers say the company is sneaking in “scab” labour. The company accuses the union of using strong-arm tactics that put the safety of the plant in jeopardy. One year later, both sides are as dug-in as ever. 2:45

Digging in for long fight

The labour dispute enters its second year today, with little hope that the two sides will reach an agreement any time soon.

A mediation process broke down just before Christmas, perplexing Quebec’s new labour minister, Jean Boulet.

“It’s more complex than I thought,” Boulet told a local newspaper last month.

At one level, the conflict revolves around the retirement plan and seniority. Alcoa imposed the lockout after the union turned down a contract offer that proposed moving away from a defined-benefit pension plan and sought more flexible hiring practices.

“ABI’s management has always underscored the need to improve productivity and profitability at the smelter,” Alcoa said in a statement to CBC News.

But some observers have suggested something larger is also at stake. The collective agreement at the Alcoa smelter in Baie-Comeau​ is up this year, and they suggest the company might be trying to use the tough stand it’s taken in the Bécancour dispute to set an example.

‘There are small tragedies. Divorces, bankruptcies, people having to give up their homes. It’s sad. It affects everyone,’ said Claude Dumas, 49. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

“The employer’s demands have increased since the beginning of the lockout. There is likely a ruse in some of those demands,” Jean-Claude Bernatchez, a labour relations expert at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, told Radio-Canada recently.

The union, the Quebec branch of the United Steelworkers, is girded for a long fight.

It has amassed a sizeable war chest, drawn in part from donations, loans and the United Steelworkers international strike fund. In exchange for regular eight-hour shifts on the picket line, locked-out workers receive around $600 weekly, tax free.

That’s roughly half their regular pay, however. Some have taken on part-time work to supplement their income; others are just making do with less.

“It creates uncertainty for our families,” said Dumas, 49, who has three children in their early 20s.

“There are small tragedies. Divorces, bankruptcies, people having to give up their homes. It’s sad. It affects everyone.”

Nightmares and bad blood

As the conflict drags on, the mayor of Bécancour, Jean-Guy Dubois, says he worries more and more about a disaster scenario: the smelter’s closure.

Alcoa is the largest employer in this town of 12,000 residents. The smelter’s property taxes account for 17 per cent of Bécancour’s annual revenue. The smelter also supports several local suppliers.

“I don’t want to think about [a closure]…. All would change here,” Dubois says.

For the moment, that possibility seems remote. The smelter is less than 40 years old and is currently the third-largest in Canada, in terms of total capacity.

The union has amassed a sizeable war chest, drawn in part from donations, loans and the United Steelworkers international strike fund. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

But the absence of progress at the negotiating table alarms the Coalition Avenir Québec government.

In opposition, the CAQ had criticized its Liberal predecessor for doing too little to resolve the lockout.

The longer the dispute drags on, the more it is costing Quebec taxpayers: The Métallos claim provincially owned Hydro-Québec is losing more than eight dollars for every second that the plant is operating at reduced capacity. A year into the lockout, that figure is closing in on $220 million.

The CAQ promised during the fall election campaign to bring more high-paying jobs to Quebec’s heartland — the kind of jobs that are at stake in Bécancour.

Earlier this week, Boulet appointed a task force to determine what, if any, common ground could be found between the two sides, hopefully to pave the way for a new round of talks.

“I am extremely preoccupied by the repercussions of this conflict,” he said.

“I live in [nearby] Trois-Rivières, and I meet on a daily basis people who speak to me about the human consequences, the psychological distress and the impact on the economy.”

On the picket line, though, workers say it will take more than a settlement to get over the hard feelings that have been brewing for the past 365 days.

Bécancour Mayor Jean-Guy Dubois says if the smelter were to close because of the dispute, his town would be devastated. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

“When we go back in there, it’s going to take years and years to fix things,” says Dumas.

Behind him, his colleagues huddle around two steel drums that have been hollowed out and turned into a fire pit. A portable radio plays 1990s rock music as they wait for the next car to pull up to the checkpoint.

“We’ll never forget what happened to us,” Dumas says.

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A Look at TACT-Designed Interiors in Graywood’s Scout Condos

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Just west of the construction site for Scoop Condos on St. Clair Avenue West at Old Weston Road, Graywood Developments will soon be bringing a new 12-storey, SMV Architects-designed condominium to Toronto’s West End. Last month, we took a look at Scout Condos‘ amenity spaces—appointed by TACT Architecture‘s interior design wing—and today we’re back for a preview of the TACT-appointed suite interiors.

Scout Condos, Toronto, Graywood, SMV, TACT, St. ClairScout Condos, image courtesy of Graywood Developments

The project is offering 261 suites in a wide variety of unit types and sizes. Standard suite features are set to include 9’ ceiling heights in principal rooms, laminate wood floors, smooth painted ceilings, and neutral colour-painted interior walls. Other features include stacked washer and dryer units as well as individually controlled heating and air conditioning systems.

According to TACT’s Michael Krus, kitchens at Scout will be “more appointed, larger, with some custom elements unique to the project. We’re introducing integrated pantries into these kitchens, part of the kitchen millwork but flows into the living room so the kitchen becomes an extension of the living room. The kitchen isn’t just the kitchen, It will be support.” 

Scout Condos, Toronto, Graywood, SMV, TACT, St. ClairSuite interior, Scout Condos, image courtesy of Graywood Developments

Kitchens at Scout will feature custom-styled kitchen cabinetry in a selection of finishes, quartz countertops, glass tile backsplashes, stainless steel sinks, over-the-range microwaves with built-in exhaust fan, as well as standard appliances and integrated dishwashers.

Bathrooms will include custom-styled bathroom cabinetry in a selection of door finishes, porcelain tile finishes for walls and floors, quartz counters, and a full vanity-width mirror. Other features include white bathroom fixtures, wall-mounted vanity faucet with backsplash, and the choice of a chrome washroom accessories package.

Additional information and images can be found in our database file for the project, linked below. Want to get involved in the discussion? Check out the associated Forum thread, or leave a comment in the field provided at the bottom of this page.

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To request more info directly from Scout Condos click here

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Costco-style membership for hay aims to modernize handshake deals

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Cindy Wilinski says 100 years ago if you needed to buy hay for your livestock you tracked down a local farmer, by phone or in person, made a deal and hoped the product was as good as advertised.

She said nothing much has changed today, except now it might be purchased via an email or over text message.

“It’s still the old handshake kind of deal and hope you don’t get ripped off,” said Wilinsky, who owns an equine training and breeding facility near Okotoks.

Wilinsky said she first got the idea of bringing the hay business into the 21st century after a drought in 2015 left a lot of people scrambling to find hay. At that time she started a Facebook hay-sourcing group called the Haylist — a database that amassed more than 7,000 members — where people could list hay for sale, request hay and list trucking services.

The Haylist is still going but Wilinski felt she could do more to help livestock owners find good quality, affordable hay from a credible and trustworthy source. That led to the creation of the Haybank, a Costco-style membership business she launched in the fall.

And, the response has been overwhelming.

“We literally ran out of all the hay we had lined up that was on the yard as well as what was coming.”

Those who sign up pay an annual $500 membership fee, plus the cost of the hay they purchase and transportation if needed. (Contributed)

Rather than the handful of memberships she expected, 83 people signed up within weeks, including Priddis-area rancher, Danny Lansdowne.

“This year hay is all over the map and I can’t afford the $200, or $180 [per bale],” said Lansdowne, who purchased hay for his five horses and cows.

“It’s a blessing.”

Wilinski attributes the higher than expected demand to a prolonged drought pushing up the price of hay, while any lower priced hay is being snatched up, and in some cases, she says, it’s being turned around and sold at a higher price.

“You know it’s just one of those things that turns your stomach.”

Those who sign up pay an annual $500 membership fee, plus the cost of the hay they purchase and transportation if needed.

The fees allow Wilinski to purchase bulk amounts of hay, in some cases entire crops,  and keep the transportation costs down. She’s sourced hay as far east as Ontario, and south to Montana.

“The problem has always been in making the trucking affordable so it’s not landing here being priced higher than what they need locally for it,” she said.

From the feedback Wilinski’s received so far, she says people are appreciative of having a secure way to buy hay.

“And you’re not sending an e-transfer to somebody you’ve never met for hay you’ve never seen.”

Wilinski said she tests the quality of the hay once it arrives, and only after she confirms the amount and quality does she put it up for sale.

In the months since opening the Haybank Wilinski says she’s managed to work out some of the kinks, address some of the growing pains and put a more balanced system in place.

“(We’re) just trying to make sure everybody gets the feed they need for this winter,” she said. “Because by the looks of things so far we’re going to have another year that’s not looking so grand unless we get an awful lot of rain or some late snow.”

Wilinski said she’s already heard from people who want to invest in her business and hopes to get more trucks rolling in order to service her customers even better.

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Excavation Progressing at Waterfront Innovation Centre Site

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It has been four months since September when Menkes Developments marked the start of construction for the Waterfront Innovation Centre in Toronto’s East Bayfront area. Shoring activity that began the first stage is now wrapping up, and excavation has now begun for the new 12-storey, 400,000 ft², Sweeny &Co Architects-designed office development.

Waterfront Innovation Centre, Menkes, Sweeny &Co Architects, TorontoShoring at the west side of the Waterfront Innovation Centre site, image by Forum contributor Full Metal Junkie

The site is bisected by a short north-south stretch of Dockside Drive. Shoring activity is now proceeding on the smaller footprint of the western portion, where a drilling rig (above) continues to bore holes for the site’s caisson wall shoring system. Meanwhile, excavation is now progressing on the much larger eastern portion east of the road (below).

Waterfront Innovation Centre, Menkes, Sweeny &Co Architects, TorontoExcavation for the Waterfront Innovation Centre site, image by Forum contributor Full Metal Junkie

Crews are digging to a three-storey depth for the building’s underground garage, to hold 197 spaces. The dig is furthest along just east of Dockside Drive, where the pit has been excavated roughly two levels deep so far, and requiring a horizontal drilling rig to install a first row of tiebacks to anchor the shoring walls to the surrounding earth.

Waterfront Innovation Centre, Menkes, Sweeny &Co Architects, TorontoExcavation for the Waterfront Innovation Centre site, image by Forum contributor Full Metal Junkie

Tieback drilling has since progressed to the east end of the site, closest to Knapp Lane. The image below shows the horizontal drilling rig used for tiebacks sitting idle, while tubes for the site’s de-watering drape over the fence.

Waterfront Innovation Centre, Menkes, Sweeny &Co Architects, TorontoHorizontal drilling rig at the Waterfront Innovation Centre site, image by Forum contributor Full Metal Junkie

The project—part of a larger regeneration of the area overseen by Waterfront Toronto—is targeting a 2021 completion date, set to house at least 2,000 workers upon opening. WPP will be the building’s lead tenant, with the the Canadian head offices for the multinational e-commerce, advertising, online media, public relations, communications, and branding services giant to occupy 260,000 square feet of the building.

You can get more information about and see more renderings of the Waterfront Innovation Centre in our database file, linked below. You can get in on the discussion in our associated Forum thread, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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UrbanToronto has a new way you can track projects through the planning process on a daily basis. Sign up for a free trial of our New Development Insider here.


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