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Women of Steel promote hiring and retention of women at Quebec aluminum smelter

March 20, 2024

When a new aluminum smelter in Alma, Que., came into full production more than two decades ago, there were 57 women working in the plant. While women accounted for a minority among the smelter’s workforce of about 700, their numbers were nevertheless significantly higher than average at such male-dominated industrial facilities.

“At the beginning, around 2001, we had 57 women in the plant, which I think was kind of a record in the industry at the time,” recalls Mélanie Tremblay, a veteran worker at the Alma smelter and an activist with USW Local 9490, which represents the plant’s employees.

In the years following the smelter’s opening, however, the ratio of women workers in the plant declined – by more than 50%.

“We lost many of those women, for various reasons, and by 2010 we were down to around 26 unionized women workers in the plant,” Tremblay recalls. In the ensuing years, the numbers did not improve, she adds.

“Women were still being hired, but very few. So this was an issue for our union.”

In 2020, the Local 9490 women’s committee approached management at the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter to discuss creating an official process to address issues affecting women working in the plant. The proposed joint labour-management process was launched in March 2021, in conjunction with International Women’s Day and a new USW national campaign, Raising the Bar on Women’s Health and Safety.

As a result of its discussions with the employer, the union’s women’s committee was able to launch its own orientation program for newly hired women at the plant.

“Our committee identified the hiring and retention of women as one of the issues we wanted to address. We thought it would be helpful if we – the union – were given time with women, when they were hired, to talk about various issues, to welcome them to the plant and to the union, and to support them,” Tremblay says.

“Now, when a woman is hired, the company lets us have the room with them, so that we can freely discuss issues,” she says. “We also give the new worker a pamphlet with links and telephone numbers for contacting resource people, members of our women’s committee and other union committees. This allows us to provide new hires with a more-personalized welcome to the union, and especially to our women’s committee.”

The Local 9490 women’s committee also is developing a mentoring program as another component of its efforts to support and retain women in the workplace.

“We wanted to set up a mentoring system so that if someone has a question or a work-related problem of some kind, she can approach or be referred to another woman who has that experience in the workplace,” Tremblay says.

“It’s not that the men in our union wouldn’t help as well, but sometimes in the workplace it’s awkward or more difficult for a woman to turn to male colleagues if they’re having problems. So the mentoring process is the second part of our program to address the needs of women workers,” she adds.

Today there are approximately 50 women workers at the Alma smelter and there is renewed optimism regarding the efforts to welcome more women in the workplace. Tremblay credits her local union’s leadership, as well as the employer, for supporting the women’s committee’s work.

“From the beginning, we had a union president who really believed in this, and we had a plant manager who was really open to diversity,” she says.

“The company has targets to increase the number of women in the plant, and we’re definitely seeing an openness from them. We know that companies can’t ignore 50% of the potential workforce. There’s still a ways to go, but the company is involved and it’s a partnership.”

At a recent meeting of members of the USW’s Women in Industry Network, Tremblay encouraged women’s committees within other local unions to consider implementing similar programs. A key first step in such a process is for the committee to secure support from its local union leadership as well as the employer, she says. She adds she is happy to discuss these issues with other USW women’s committees, and can be contacted at melanietremblay9490@gmail.com.

“The goal is to promote the hiring and retention of women, and to give them what they need to succeed,” she says.

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