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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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Window repair or replacement is the responsibility of the condo corporation

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If the windows in your condo are hazy, drafty, or have rotting frames, it’s an indicator that they need repairs or outright replacement.

However, under the Condominium Act, it is the responsibility of the condo’s board to carry out such changes as a replaced window is a common element.

“Under the Condominium Act, a declaration may alter the maintenance or repair obligations of unit owners and the corporation but cannot make unit owners responsible for repairs to the common elements,” said Gerry Hyman is a former president of the Canadian Condominium Institute and contributor for the Star.

“A declaration for a high-rise condominium invariably provides that the unit boundary is the interior surface of windows. That means that the entire window — whether it is a single pane or a double pane — is a common element. Necessary repairs or replacement of a broken pane is the obligation of the corporation.”

According to Consumer Reports, selecting an installing windows replacement can be very overwhelming for homeowners. Therefore, if you aren’t covered by your condo’s corporation, it would be necessary to hire professional hands.

Wood, vinyl and composite windows need to be tested on how they can withstand various natural elements. For wind resistance, a window can be very tight when it’s warm but get quite cold too—especially when it begins to leak a lot.

Whatever the case may be, the bottom line remains that replacement windows can save you heating and cooling costs, but it’s best not to expect drastic savings.

Additionally, while getting a new window might help you save on your electric and gas bills, due to their expensive cost, it may take a long time to offset their cost.

Mid-last-year, the government withdraw a $377 million Green Ontario program that provided subsidy on windows to installers and repairers. Window companies had to install energy-efficient windows in order to qualify for the government subsidy that pays for up to $500 of a $1,000 to $1,500 window.

Due to the largely generous subsidies from the government under the Green Ontario program, a lot of window dealers were fully booked for months—even after the program had ended.

“We’re fine with the program ending, we just need more time to satisfy consumers,” said Jason Neal, the executive director of the Siding and Window Dealer Association of Canada, the industry group representing window dealers in a report.

According to Neal, the Progressive Conservatives acted hastily, making massive changes with no prior notice.

“No notification was given to us by anyone,” he said, noting he learned about the change through one of his dealers.

“It’s created a ripple effect.If they had just given us notice we would have pushed that down the line from the manufacturer right into the dealer right down to the consumer.”

Neal noted that he wasn’t particularly sad to see the Green Ontario program end, as it was “the worst rebate program in the history of the window industry.”

“It’s been horrible,” he said. “$500 a window has created such hysteria.”

However, despite the program ending about a year ago, numerous homeowners have been contacting window dealers consistently with concerns that they might not be able to afford replacement windows without the government’s subsidy.

“I understand their concern,” said window dealer Chris George. “I would suggest they reach out to their local representative of the government in their riding and let them know about their concerns.”

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7 Vancouver Real Estate Buying Tips

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The real estate market in Vancouver is turning around for good for everyone looking to purchase a home.

Previously soaring prices are now beginning to ease up, making it a perfect time for buyers—with real estate agents already getting ready for a very busy spring and summer season.

However, before splashing cash on a new property, there are some very important tips you need to know to ensure you make the most of the buyer’s market.

Here are some few expert tips that would guide you when purchasing a home in the sometimes frustration Vancouver seller’s market.

  1. Get adequate financing

It is very important that before you make the move to purchase a property, you put into careful consideration your credit score.

Normally, home buyers with lower scores use the secondary mortgage market to finance their purchase, as they’re more likely to pay a higher interest rate.However, it is advisable to get loan approval long before purchasing the house. This way, you are fully aware of how much you are able to spend—but never be tempted to borrow the maximum amount of money available.

“What’s your mortgage payment that you’re comfortable with? And take into the fact the taxes you’re going to have to pay, if it’s a strata – what the maintenance fees are, if it’s a home what type of maintenance are you going to have to pay in the future?” said Phil Moore, president of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver in a report.

Always be careful of the type of loan you secure and ensure that you can comfortably afford it over a long period of time.

  1. Get a real estate agent

Buying a property without professional help is a very risky move and can be likened to choosing to represent yourself in court without a lawyer. While you might trust your negotiation skills, only realtors are permitted to present offers directly.

Therefore, it is necessary to get a professional real estate agent in the area to represent you. So, screen a few agents and select the best one who has in-depth knowledge of the markets and has a great reputation.

“They’re there to protect you. They’re there to walk you through each step of the process,” Moore said.

  1. Sign up for automated alerts

Most—if not all—realtors have access to the Vancouver real estate board’s database which is updated approximately two days before the public MLS website.

Therefore, you can request from your realtor to sign you up for automatic real-time alerts of all new listings. Doing this gives you an edge as you’re among the very first to know about new properties.

  1. Do a thorough inspection

After receiving an alert for a new listing, it is necessary to push almost immediately for an inspection from your realtor. In this current market, buyers now have time to make an inspection.

Making a quick inspection eliminates any surprises—as there could be major maintenance or repair issues that could spring up. Therefore, you can now table your offer based on the outcome of the inspection, with clauses about claiming your damage deposit back if everything isn’t as was advertised.

Additionally, if you notice that renovations were done, you need to be sure that it was permitted work and carried out appropriately. Failing to do this would ultimately lead to further cost down the line and simultaneously affect the resale value.

  1. Have a back-up plan

There’s always the possibility that everything may not go as smoothly as you’d want. From the inspection being a failureto the property not living up to your expectations—or not being able to agree on the closing date that matches with your needs.

However, a professional real estate agent will definitely help you get past all of these things. If you plan on selling the property as you buy, you can table that and make it part of the deal.

“You’ve got an option, especially in a buyer’s market: you can put in an offer subject to selling your place. So maybe you want to have a place lined up,” Moore added.

Additionally, building contingencies into your buying plan is necessary. Things such as unexpected delays in closing the deal, closing cost and moving costs that could result in added living expenses if that’s your permanent home.

  1. Don’t fall for the buyer frenzy

The Vancouver market buying frenzy that caused a serious climb in the prices a couple of years ago has ended. Thus, it is important not to get caught up in bidding wars with properties that have been deliberately under-priced—with the hope of initiating multiple offers.

“Some of the sellers have been on the market for over a year and they’re eager to sell. So what I’m saying to consumers is: you have a lot of choices, you’re in the driver’s seat, let’s go out and take a look at what’s available,” said Moore.

  1. Never be wary of multiple offers

When purchasing a property, don’t be afraid of multiple offers as you have the same opportunity as anybody else.

Typically, there are just a few offers below the asking price: a couple priced fully, and two or three above the asking price—depending on how close the fair market value is from the asking price.

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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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