Miners Strike To Defeat Two-Tier

Steelworkers are striking against mining giant Vale Inco's demands to end pensions and profit-sharing. With one-fifth of the northern Ontario mining workforce ready to retire, members say this strike is a defining battle for the next generation of mine workers. Photo: Dennis Williams, USW Toronto Area Council.

Miners in northern Ontario have been striking since July, standing against demands from a mining colossus to end defined-benefit pensions and to ax profit-sharing. The bottom line for members is ensuring that the company doesn’t cut the workforce into different tiers.

They look to be on picket lines for a long time yet, as Vale Inco—a Brazil-based multinational that took a $13.2 billion profit last year—has signaled that it intends to restart production in Sudbury by pulling non-union engineers and managers off desk jobs and sending them into the mines. Some have had only a few days’ retraining, strikers say.

Almost 3,100 members of the Steelworkers, who extract and process mostly nickel and copper in Sudbury’s mines, mills, and smelters, are striking. Another 900 Steelworkers are off the job in Vale Inco’s operations in southern Ontario and Newfoundland.

Much of what comes out of the ground in Canada finds its way into steel and electronics manufacturing. As the economy slowed and metal prices dropped last year, the company responded with hundreds of layoffs. The union offered a year-long contract extension in June, but the company insisted on pushing concessions.

Vale is pursuing legal action against 40 activists like Gilles Brosseau, a picket captain at the Creighton mine, accusing them of “misconduct” on the picket lines in phonebook-sized subpoenas delivered to their doorsteps.

LOCAL RESENTMENT

Brosseau said the company is trying to intimidate vocal strike supporters who “rally the troops and hand out the leaflets” and who have helped to slow trucks transporting ore out of the mines. Courts could ban hard-line picketers from Vale Inco property, where Brosseau says the company is restarting rail and truck shipments in violation of an injunction agreed to by company and union.

Vale has created a well of resentment in Sudbury, strikers say, by using its overwhelming position in the local economy to force contractors back to work across picket lines. The strike has idled thousands of workers in mine support businesses, and many others are looking on anxiously to see if the Steelworkers can defend their “nickel bonus,” which boosted miners’ incomes by as much as $41,000 a year in recent years as nickel prices skyrocketed.

The flush years allowed miners to spread wealth around locally, and purchases of new houses, boats, and trucks soared. Some miners have now jumped west to Alberta’s tar sands, where oil extraction promises a few more lucrative years for workers.

But picket lines are holding steady in Sudbury, says Yannick Rivard, a 26-year-old electrician and member of USW Local 6500. Picket duty is scheduled so that members can hold down outside jobs, he said, and members who anticipated the strike and banked their bonuses are spending their days on the lines.

The town showed its support at a recent rally, where 2,500 showed up to hear speakers from Vale unions worldwide excoriate the company.

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Foreigner-bashing has swept through town, too, as rumors flew that the company was importing Brazilian replacements. Those rumors were started by Vale, said USW District Director Wayne Fraser, noting that federal regulations would prevent it.

With one-fifth of the Sudbury workforce ready to retire, and a new mine opening up soon, members say this round of negotiations is a defining battle for the next generation of mine workers—and the local economy. (It’s also one near to the leadership of the Steelworkers: President Leo Gerard came out of the Sudbury mines.)

WALKING THE RED CARPET

Though the International has been slow off the mark, it helped break the strike out of its isolation in Ontario’s distant reaches recently by dispatching three miners to walk the red carpet with Michael Moore at his press-laden film premiere in Toronto.

Vale Inco’s petty cruelty isn’t helping it locally. During the strike, the company cut off a $5-a-month top-up to weaker pensions for widows and retirees, and told injured members who did light work making signs and repairing tools that they must cross picket lines or lose supplemental medical coverage.

“It’s just brutal—they’re not just picking on us but on widows with these tiny little pensions from the ’70s,” Rivard said. “They tried to blame it on the recession, but these guys still managed to make ridiculous amounts of money.”

Brosseau said Vale indicated before the strike that it wanted to discount seniority when jobs went up for bid.

The bottom line for members is ensuring that the company doesn’t cut the workforce into different tiers, as many union contracts have in the last three decades.

“We don’t want to have problems working next to a guy with a different pension,” Rivard said. “Guys can see themselves getting attacked down the line. Six years down the road, what are they going to get rid of next?”


Correction: The story originally reported that Vale made $19 billion profit last year, which was its gross, not net, profit.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #367, October 2009. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.

Comments

Anonymous (not verified) | 10/21/09

Trust me, Brian...these men have already lost maybe 30 grand, they are NOT going back for nothing..in fact, they are getting more and more support as this strike goes on. Also, the labour board said the non unionized workers will work underground for NOW...Unless they are waiting for someone to get hurt or killed...I don't know what for now means...Vale is now being sued by the International Royalties Committee because Vale (hid) under-reported $26 Million dollars and breached the contract. This company has shown how dis-honest it is and that it cannot be trusted. I'm ready to give up my right arm to say that Vale has also breached the agreement it made with our "so called" government.

The Steelworkers will loose the strike despite their efforts.

Thee workers are living in a time warp!

Even the Labour Relations Board yesterday told them screw-off with their stupid argument about vale's use of replacement workers.

Mark my words: They will go back to the bargaining table with hat in hand begging for the offer that they rejected and they will be happy to take it!