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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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Do you know what kind of condo you’re buying?

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(NC) Condominiums can come in all shapes and sizes. But it’s important to know that not all condos are created equal when it comes to warranty coverage.

Whether you’re buying a condominium townhouse, loft-style two-bedroom or a high-rise studio, they are all classified as condominiums if you own your unit while at the same time share access (and the associated fees) for facilities ranging from pools and parking garages to elevators and driveways, otherwise known as common elements.

The most common types of condos are standard condominiums and common elements condominiums. The determination of how a condominium project is designated happens during the planning stage when the builder proposes the project and the municipality approves it.

When you’re in the market to buy, you need to know how your chosen condo is classified because it affects the warranty coverage under the Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act. Standard condominiums have warranty coverage for units and common elements, but common elements condominiums only have unit coverage.

How could this affect you as the owner? If your condo complex has underground parking and, for example, there are problems with leaks or a faulty door, the condo designation will determine whether there’s warranty coverage.

If your unit is a standard condominium development, then the common elements warranty may cover the repairs. If it’s a common element condominium development, then repairs might have to be covered by the condo corporation’s insurance, which could impact your condo fees or require a special assessment on all the owners.

To avoid surprises, you should have a real estate lawyer review the Declaration and Description attached to your purchase agreement to be sure that you know the designation and boundaries of the unit you’re looking to purchase. Find more information on the types of condos and their coverage at tarion.com.

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5 savvy renovations to make your kitchen look like new

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(NC) The kitchen is the heart and focal point of any home. But if yours is looking a little tired, a few simple renovations can change the feel of the entire space.

Whether you’ve just moved in, have been meaning to update for years or are experiencing life changes, remember that a kitchen uplift doesn’t have to come with a huge price tag. These small-scale projects could be the change your kitchen needs:

  1. Brighten it up.Adding LED lights below your cabinets will brighten your backsplash and counter and provide a warm glow. Place your favourite containers below to act as focal points – those copper canisters that are hiding under the island and the marble coasters you couldn’t resist can now all be on display.
  2. Swap the old with the new.The backsplash is the first thing you see, so replacing it can be enough to give the space a whole new look. Try a unique shape or colour to change things up, like turquoise or patterned tiles, hexagon-shaped tiles or even a full slab of stainless steel.
  3. Rework what you have.People often think new cabinets are necessary for a kitchen reno, but a lot can be done with what you’ve got. Repainting the cabinets and switching out the knobs to chic new handles will do wonders for a makeover.
  4. Don’t hide away.Try adding some open shelving in an unused spot, such as above the sink or window, or next to the cabinets. Display your most beautiful dishes and add some decorative pieces to give the space a modern, airy feel.
  5. Add new materials into the mix.Changing the island to a butcher-block counter adds warmth and practicality.

Taking on a renovation can often feel overwhelming. But if you talk to your contractor about budgeting and spreading out payments through services like The Home Depot Project Loan, it can be easier than you think. The service allows you to finance any home projects, big or small and is available at locations across Canada.

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How to afford a home renovation that fits your life

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(NC) Changing seasons always bring about the desire to update our living spaces. But your life stage and budget can influence what kind of upgrades you can make. Here are some tips to get you started.

Assess the investment. The first step is to gauge how much value your investment will bring, whether you’re looking to sell or grow into a family home. A common misconception among home owners is that all renovations will increase a home’s value; unfortunately, this is not always the case. It’s always a good idea to strategically renovate the space to fit your life plan and goals.

Plan for both long- and short-term value. As a homeowner, it is important to assess what kind of value items can contribute to your life plan. Searching for products that are energy efficient, like an eco-friendly washing machine or water filtration system, can help you save on your monthly bills. A long-term investment, such as hardwood floors or bathroom tiles, can spruce up a living space for years to come. While sometimes this require a larger budget, the project can be both appealing to future buyers and stand the test of time in a family home.

Create a renovation budget. Once you have a clear plan, you’ll need to create a budget to align with your financial goals. Always ensure your budget includes any interest you’ll be paying. Ask multiple sources for competitive quotes.

Use a payment plan. For those high-ticket investment items, consider using a payment plan. Payment solutions such as The Home Depot Project Loan can help with bigger renovations. This allows you to stick to your budgeting goals while using a flexible payment plan to make larger purchases more accessible.

Use DIY to offset costs. In addition to using a payment plan, taking on a few safe and simple renovation projects yourself is an easy way to offset renovation costs. Your local hardware store can help source materials and provide helpful tips to make those do-it-yourself projects, such as refinishing cabinets or sanding old hardwood floors, a breeze.

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