Tony Van Alphen is a Business Reporter for the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. This article was originally published on Saturday, December 19, 2009.
Workers’ mettle gets test as Vale Inco strike drags into bitter northern winter , It’s a war zone here. Their tactics are designed to provoke us like never before. They’re not interested in getting back to bargaining.
SUDBURY–Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” is blasting from a satellite radio in the tent’s makeshift living room.
A couple of plush La-Z-Boy rockers and a couch surround a blazing wood stove. The fresh Christmas tree in the corner gives the place a cozy holiday feeling.
Three hearty men in heavy overcoats and toques hover around the stove, slap their gloves and exchange brotherly greetings. The song ends and they step outside into another world.
There’s not a lot of love or warmth there. They’re on the picket line just after sunrise a few days before Christmas at Vale Inco’s Clarabelle Mill.
It’s a flashpoint in the five-month standoff between some 3,100 workers and one of the world’s biggest mining companies.
The workers face a bitter wind, -20C temperatures and a company spending millions of dollars to keep them in line. Strikers walk the line and delay trucks and cars for 12 to 15 minutes before allowing them through to the sprawling mill up the road. Then, they walk some more.
Guards from a Toronto security firm monitor their movements. There are cameras on telephone poles, industrial lights for surveillance at night and parabolic dishes to pick up conversations hundreds of feet away.
The two sides don’t talk to each other. Like the ground beneath them, it’s a deep freeze.
“It’s a war zone here,” says millwright and picket captain James Joudrey. “Their tactics are designed to provoke us like never before. They’re not interested in getting back to bargaining.”
Sudbury is used to strikes, but this one is different. It’s not like the walkouts of 1958, 1966, 1969, 1978-79, 1982, 1997 and 2003. The change is apparent everywhere.
“There is no doubt this one is like no other (strike) in Inco’s history,” says Rick Bertrand, vice-president of United Steelworkers Local 6500, about the current dispute.
Some of those long strikes temporarily crippled the local economy because the city relied so much on “Mother Inco” and its payroll. In the 1970s, Inco represented 25 per cent or more of the local workforce. Now, it counts for less than 5 per cent.
The bustling city of 157,000 has diversified into other sectors, from mining innovation and equipment manufacturing to education, healthcare and tourism.
Some local manufacturers, retailers and families are hurting but the hardship isn’t as widespread as in past walkouts, when children came to school with smaller and smaller lunches. Many families now have second-income earners to cushion the financial blow.
The big change is ownership. Vale SA, a Brazilian-based mining behemoth, is the new owner in town. The Brazilians are shaking things up: they have strong views on how to run a mining company and deal with workers.
Since taking control in 2006 from Inco Ltd. in a $19.4 billion deal, Vale has slowly overhauled operations with a sharp eye on cost-cutting and maximizing profit. That change, and the resistance to some of it, is now starkly playing out at the Clarabelle picket line and the entrances to many other Vale Inco operations around the city.
Since the start of the strike in July, the two sides have not returned to the bargaining table. No one on the street, in the shops or other plants raises an eyebrow about the prospect of this walkout surpassing the 261-day strike in 1978-79, the biggest in Canadian history in terms of person days lost. “This looks like 1978 but worse,” says Bertrand.
The company, whose parent continues to post strong profits, is seeking changes so it can make money all the time in an industry notorious for up-and-down business cycles. It wants to reduce bonus incentives and pension plan costs, increase contracting-out and limit job transfers.
Vale says it expects production costs to rise as the mining infrastructure ages and it digs deeper in the Sudbury ground, one of the richest nickel deposits in the world.
“On top of that, the global nickel market is becoming increasingly competitive with world nickel inventories approaching all-time highs,” adds Inco spokesperson Cory McPhee.
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