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Rio Tinto Is on the Stand Over Olympic Medals, Shareholder Meeting

Kari Lydersen

Fireworks go off during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

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When top athletes ascend the awards podium at the Summer Olympic Games in London, the medals draped around their necks will be made primarily of metals mined by the London-based multinational company Rio Tinto.

The supply chain behind the gold, silver and bronze would typically not be on the minds of athletes or spectators during these heady moments. But a campaign being launched this month by the United Steelworkers and their allies says medals supplied by Rio Tinto are not in keeping with Olympic ideals. The campaign is also backed by the global labor alliance Workers Uniting, Unite the Union – Great Britain and Ireland’s largest union – and the London Mining Network.

Steelworkers education and strategic campaigns director Joe Drexler told me:

Rio Tinto is marking itself as one of the darkest in a very dark industry. Any company that engages in environmental destruction and abuse of human rights is inevitably also committing abuses of its workers. That usually goes hand in hand and Rio Tinto is no different…We are demanding Rio Tinto not be allowed to taint the solidarity and spirit of the Olympic Games by forcing athletes to wear tainted and tarnished medals.

At Rio Tinto’s annual shareholder meeting in London April 19, workers, community members and environmentalists from around the world will air their grievances in front of investors and announce the campaign around the Olympic Games. They will also hold several other events in London related to the Olympic campaign that week.

Among the attendees will be workers from Rio Tinto’s enormous Utah mine, Mongolian workers and residents affected by Rio Tinto operations, and two Steelworkers locked out of the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelter in the town of Alma in the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean region of Quebec. The 780 workers were locked out on Dec. 30 during a dispute over the company’s attempt to replace unionists with non-union, lower-paid sub-contractors. On March 31, thousands demonstrated against the lockout, including labor leaders from five continents.

A flier about the Olympics campaign describes the Quebec lockout:

Security guards, forced the workers onto the street, without even giving those who had been exposed to beryllium the time to go through the decontamination procedure. The workers are not demanding higher wages or enhanced benefits. Their concern is protecting jobs for future generations.

The Steelworkers also lament Rio Tinto’s imminent closing of the Lynemouth aluminum smelter in northern England, which will result in between 300 and 500 lay-offs. The union says the company should leave more time to find a buyer that would keep the plant open. Analysts pointed at oversupply of aluminum worldwide and low prices, linked to the economic crisis. Rio Tinto blamed environmental regulations to protect air quality and public health and a tax on climate change-causing carbon dioxide that kicks in in 2013.

Drexler told me that given this global oversupply of aluminum, the Quebec lockout could actually be benefiting the company, as the decreased aluminum supply could help them keep market prices higher.

Rio Tinto annual meetings have been targets of shareholder activism – where people holding shares are speak before other investors and company executives – for the past several years.

This year representatives will also attend from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where Rio Tinto subsidiary Kennecott is developing a controversial nickel mine called the Eagle Project, and Mongolia, where Rio Tinto is part owner of the massive Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine. In 2010, trade unionists attended to speak out about the lockout of borax miners represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at a California Rio Tinto operation.

Drexler told me he thinks shareholder activism does make a difference in companies’ well-being and behavior. He noted that the Norwegian government pension fund divested from Rio Tinto in 2008 over alleged environmental destruction at its Grasberg mine in Indonesia, a joint venture with Freeport McMoran.

A company that inflicts reputational damage on itself eventually pays a price,” Drexler said.

The union says the Quebec government and the Canadian government as a whole are also directly responsible for what occurs with the Quebec lockout, especially since the province is paying Rio Tinto for hydropower generated at its operation. Drexler told me:

The battle isn’t just against Rio Tinto, it’s against the governments that support these multinational companies. They are allowing these abuses to occur by allowing them to sell power back to the public. If you have government financing supporting a lockout, that’s an ideal situation for a greedy corporation.

A press release from the United Steelworkers quoted General Secretary of the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), Jyrki Raina, on this point:

Rio Tinto Alcan’s lockout is all the more reprehensible in that it is funded by public money as the result of a secret agreement between the Quebec government, Hydro-Québec and RTA (Rio Tinto Alcan). In addition to no-interest loans over 30 years, subsidies and electricity at an extremely discounted rate, the government is paying this company $15 million each month to buy surplus electricity that Quebeckers don’t even need. What a travesty!” said Daniel Roy, the United Steelworkers’ Quebec Director.

The Canadian Mining Journal published a response from Rio Tinto, describing the company’s economic and social importance over 86 years. It said the ripple effects of the company’s local investment add up to $1.3 billion; and quoted Étienne Jacques, Chief Operating Officer for Rio Tinto Alcan Primary Metal, North America:

Our approach to business has made the Saguenay — Lac-Saint-Jean region a global centre of excellence for the aluminium industry and we are determined to maintain this leadership position. Our primary responsibility to the region is to make sure our plants remain competitive in the coming decades…Rio Tinto Alcan negotiates in good faith with all its unions…In fact, over the last 16 years, the company has resolved all its contract negotiations throughout the world without conflict. Unfortunately, in spite of our efforts, we could not avoid the conflict at the Alma plant.

Workers, clergy, environmentalists and other advocates are increasingly attending shareholder meetings as a way to pressure companies to improve their labor, environmental and human rights records – both by appealing to their public image and warning investors that improper conduct could affect the company’s profitability down the line. 

Last week, I reported on civil rights and labor leaders’ visit to Daimler AG’s annual shareholder meeting in Berlin, where they demanded the company take a stand on Alabama’s draconian anti-immigrant law, since the automaker has a large factory there. 

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers union is a sponsor of In These Times.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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