Marilyn Scales is a field editor for the Canadian Mining Journal, Canada’s first mining publication. She is one of Canada’s most senior mining commentators.
Vale and the 3,000-plus striking members of Steelworkers Local 6500 have finally hammered out a deal that may end a 51-week-long strike in Sudbury, ON. Union members are voting today and tomorrow (July 7-8) on a new five-year contract, and observers are optimistic.
The strike fuelled strong rhetoric from both sides. There were charges of not negotiating in good faith. There were arguments over picket line protocol. There were allegations of strikers being injured on the picket line. There were calls for government ministers to intercede. Vale replaced strikers with other workers on its payroll so that partial production could resume. There were suspicions that the company was out to bust the union. Negotiations broke off for lengthy periods. Both parties took their complaints to the courts. It took a mediator to reach the new deal.
The cost to the community was great. With over 3,000 workers on the picket line, Sudbury Mayor John Rodriguez was quoted as saying the city missed the spending power represented by a $4 million payroll for each week the strike continued.
Families broke up, homes were forfeit and a spike in suicides was reported.
Vale took over Inco Ltd. in hotly contested $19.2 billion deal in 2006. Before that date Inco had a history of adversarial labour relations. The 1979-80 strike that lasted nine months was a breaking point. This writer noted that during the 1990s Inco actively tried to improve its relationship with its workers, and some of the previous animosity was set aside.
But with a new owner, particularly a Brazilian one instead of a Canadian one, workers did not know what to expect from labour relations. That uncertainty is gone. Any good feeling nurtured by Inco has evaporated under Vale management. The company has, indeed, taken a hard line.
The union leadership, too, took a hard line. To put workers on strike when nickel inventories were high and keep them on the picket line for a year does not benefit the union membership. I am inclined to believe they would have been better off working the past year without a contract. If management had locked out the workforce, that action would have been just another black mark against an arrogant owner.
Now Vale workers have had a taste of how stubborn a Brazilian owner can be during negotiations. Labour relations have been set back decades. Perhaps as many as 600 strikers have found work at other mines and as many as 500 may have retired. The exact number returning to work if the union members approve the contract is unknown. I don’t envy them if they have to return to a hostile work environment.
Details of the new five-year contract have not been released at press time.
Members of Local 6200 that represents workers at the Port Colborne, ON, cobalt refinery also voted on the recent agreement on July 8. Vale workers at the Voisey’s Bay mine and mill in Labrador remain on strike and are negotiating a separate settlement.