Wednesday, October 07, 2009

[olympiaworkers] Strike at Canadian nickel mine enters its 12th week

Submitted by Ret Marut on Oct 6 2009 to

After months of unresolved bargaining a strike began on July 13th at the
Sudbury mine in northern Ontario, Canada, after employers Vale Inco
refused to alter its original demands for concessions. United Steel
Workers union members (USW Local 6500) in Sudbury and Port Colburne in
Ontario and Voisey Bay in Labrador responded by voting 85% in favor of
strike action.

The strike affects 3,073 employees at Vale's integrated mining, milling,
smelting and refining operations in Sudbury, 116 employees at the Port
Colborne refinery and over 200 at Voisey Bay. The concessions demanded by
the company include a drastic change in pension benefits for new hires
(the pension Fund is $725 million in deficit), changes to seniority rights
and a cap on the "Nickel Bonus". "This bonus was negotiated in earlier
years to allow the company to benefit from relatively lower wages when
nickel prices were depressed and workers to benefit when the price was
high. Nickel bonuses – once used to placate underpaid unionised workers –
in recent years suddenly paid off 'big' – averaging as much or more than
the Canadian full-time median income of $41,000 – as nickel prices rose
three-fold to over $25 dollars a pound. Miners became six-figure earners
and bought new houses, cars, trucks, and boats."

The area is the richest ore region in the world. The mine has made $4
billion in the past 2 years, yet the company is demanding a reduction in
wages and conditions. Vale Inco is a subsidiary of the Brazilian Vale
mining conglomerate (pronounced 'Vallay'), the world's 2nd largest mining
company and active in 35 countries (including the UK). Vale is the No 1
producer of iron ore, an essential component of steel production. (More
than two thirds of all global iron ore comes from just three companies:
Vale, BHPBilliton and Rio Tinto.) There has recently been a wave of
mergers and acquisitions in the industry, with Vale expressing it's desire
to become the dominant power in the business. This has led to recent
expansions and cost-cutting, including attacks on workers' conditions. As
the competitive acquisitions grew, large companies often saddled
themselves with heavy debts - and then were were hit by the global
recession and subsequent decreased demand from major customers in China
and India.

Success in the global mining industry depends on also dominating related
markets (known as "vertical integration") such as shipping, smelting,
refining etc. Those top companies with the widest control set the price
for all others; they are the "price makers" while the rest are "price
takers". Vale now control most of the docks and freighters that move iron
ore around the world's oceans and its competitors are dependent on Vale
for shipping access.

"If that (resuming production) means a war in Sudbury, it's going to
be a war in Sudbury," - Wayne Fraser, director of District 6 for the
USW. (Sudbury Northern Life, Aug 19th.)

"The president of Steelworkers Local 6500 said his members will be
"respectful" of those crossing the picket line when Vale Inco resumes
partial production, something which could occur as soon as the end of
this week.
"My guys have been respectful all through this strike, and I'm sure
they'll continue to be," said John Fera, whose 3,100 members have been
on strike against Vale Inco since July 13." (Sudbury Northern Life ,
Oct 1st.)

Vale had hinted that they may at some point bring in scab labour to
restart production. But this week smelting operations have restarted at
the Sudbury Clarabelle mill with USW members of non-striking (USW) Local
2020; representing office, clerical, and technical workers who work under
a separate labour agreement not affected by the strike, they being used to
do the work normally undertaken by the strikers. So they are effectively
scabbing on their fellow union members. Such is the legalistic logic of
trade unionism; the USW leadership response is to "file a grievance" on
safety grounds.

The company has already lost one contract due to the strike. The miners
had managed to blocking contractors' trucks from crossing their picket
lines at the mining complex; but following a court injunction, pickets are
expected to not hold up trucks entering and exiting company property for
more than 15 minutes at a time.

The USW has sought to compromise with multinationals for some years now,
with diminishing success;

... the past record of the USW (in the USA and Canada) in protecting
jobs or wages is hardly auspicious of future success.

Over the past thirty years, in the steel industry, a sector that went
through numerous restructurings, bankruptcies, and closures, the
steelworkers sought to protect job security through consistent and
patterned wage reductions in the 1980s and 1990s. However, while
productivity increased, and by early 2000 profits improved, steel
manufacturing experienced record job loss.

More recently, in the United States, the USW has pressed for
'international champions' to takeover failing plants, and then sought
partnership agreements that typically traded wage and benefit
concessions for job security. They have also sought to have U.S.
governments uphold tariffs on steel imports from China and Western
Europe, claiming 'illegal' dumping of low-priced products was
responsible for the multiple bankruptcies in the U.S. steel industry.
But the results have often been poor.

Tariff restrictions were quickly lifted. While new conglomerates
failed to maintain employment and new investment, and union
cooperation with management has only meant more contracting out, the
speedup of work, job-loading, and more overtime for a few.

Mining dominates the economy of the town; after 50 years of struggles the
Sudbury miners still enjoy some of the best conditions in the global
mining industry - and Vale clearly want to change this. Vale's practice in
their native Brazil (and in other countries where feasible) is to lay off
workers every 3 years or so and then re-employ new workers under reduced
conditions and wages. USW workers have been visiting Brazil regularly to
publicise the strike and have also contacted miners in other countries.
Union leaders from various countries and international bodies recently
attended a USW in Sudbury and pledged solidarity, without specifying
commitment to any particular action;
This is expected to be a long, drawn out strike. But it will take more
than vague promises and excessive respect for the legalities of union
procedures to win victory for the Sudbury miners.

1 comment:

Derek Blackadder said...

If you support the strikers, show it! Join the USW/LabourStart global e-mail campaign at: