December 09, 2009

SUDBURY STRIKERS DIG IN FOR LONG WINTER, By Liz Rowley, December 1-31, 2009, issue of People's Voice

The word on the picket lines at Vale Inco's Sudbury mines is that it will be a long winter. But however long it takes, striking miners, mill workers and smelter workers will be there one day longer.

About 3,000 members of Local 6500 USWA, plus another 1,000 from Port Colborne, Ontario and Voisey's Bay, are entering their fifth month on strike against Vale Inco, the second largest producer of nickel in the world, with operations in Mongolia, China, India, Chile, Peru, Angola, South Africa, Indonesia, and Canada.

Vale is demanding a privatized pension scheme for new hires, and changes to seniority rights that will make it difficult if not impossible for union members to bid on jobs. It also wants a cap on the nickel bonus - a profit sharing scheme worked out by INCO and the Steelworkers years ago - that Vale says it can't afford.

But as USWA President Leo Gerard points out, Vale has made enormous profits during the worst downturn in 70 years - $4.1 billion profit in the last two years alone, more than double the profit INCO made in the last ten years when nickel prices were very high. INCO is on record stating it could still make a profit with nickel selling at $4; the price was $7.35 in late November.

"These mines don't belong to Vale. They belong to Canadians," says Gerard, a sentiment shared by many on the picket lines and in the community who call for the nationalization of Vale Inco.

The Communist Party is also calling for public ownership, under democratic controls, arguing natural resources belong to the people of Canada, and the profits generated should be used to benefit the people, to diversify Sudbury's economy with secondary industries and manufacturing, and to guarantee the wages, pensions, benefits and health and safety of mine, mill and smelter workers in Canada.

Vale, a Brazilian company that was publicly owned until it was privatized in 1997, bought out the Canadian-owned International Nickel Company in 2006 for $19 billion, after giving certain undertakings respecting Canada's national interests in the rich natural resources in the Sudbury basin. These are undertakings that the Harper government and Industry Minister "Two-Tier Tony" Clement, now refuse to enforce, or even disclose. This is why Clement's photo features prominently on the outhouses on many picket lines.

The sale is the cause of the strike, there's no doubt. Stephen Ball, Vale's Manager of Corporate Affairs in Ontario, said it all in this Sudbury media interview: "Mining is a capital intensive operation and to attract global capital, Canadian workers will have to get more competitive with workers in less developed countries."

The less developed country he has in mind is Brazil. The competition is with Brazil's 40,000 unionized miners, who made $600 a month until November when a militant strike, and support from Brazil's President Lula, won them an additional 14% over 2 years. The new wage, and the new bar for Vale is $642 a month.

"(Vale) just wants to break the union. They want to completely hit the rest button on the entire labour situation and the agreements that have been put in place in the past," a former INCO Executive told local media.

Vale is scabbing the strike with unionized office workers, members of USWA Local 2020 and 6600. These office workers don't work in the mines, mills, or smelters, but the company has ordered them to cross picket lines and get on-the-job training from managers to start up furnaces and smelters - some of the most dangerous jobs in Canada that could result in deadly explosions if a mistake is made.

Mining has also resumed with the inherent danger of rock falls and gas, and the added danger of unskilled and untrained scabs working in a dangerous environment.

Vale has built bunkhouses at the North Mine that will house 200 scabs, who will be helicoptered in and out every five days. They will work days and nights, 100 at a time, if the company has its way. On November 19, Vale invited union members to cross the lines in yet another provocation.

But scabs don't last long in the regular work force after a strike is over, said Peter Wade. "Historically these guys don't survive after they cross the picket line. Just going by the experience after the Falconbridge strike, a year after, they're not working there."

Scabs don't survive well anywhere. Not only strikers, but the whole community - families, relatives, neighbourhoods - remember who crossed and who didn't. After all, the future of the whole community is at stake today. The wages of unionized miners at Vale Inco and Xstrata (Falconbridge) keep the community, including small businesses, afloat.

As strikers hold up contractors and scabs heading in and out of worksites, members of Locals 2020 and 6600 bring coffee and donuts to the strikers, along with news of what's going on inside, and the promise that "we're working like turtles!"

Workers who refuse to cross the lines can be fired under Ontario's medieval labour laws.

The company has repeatedly taken the union to court seeking injunctions to speed up traffic in and out of the struck sites. The union has between 12 and 15 minutes to let the last truck in the line through, or face fines and restrictions on picketing.

The union has sent delegations around the world to meet with trade unions where Vale refines its products. The unions have responded with shows of solidarity including offers to shut down production to increase pressure on Vale to return to the bargaining table and bargain in good faith. A September rally in Sudbury featured union representatives from around the globe, along with USWA leaders from Canada and the US.

The pressure is on to get the company back to the bargaining table. The union is expected to announce that it's ready to restart negotiations December 1, and invite the company to join them to reach an agreement. Vale has refused to bargain since negotiations broke off and the strike began on July 13.

Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Rowswell released a letter supporting Sudbury strikers in early November. The Sault is another mining town in Northern Ontario that has also seen workers and community victimized by hard times and vicious companies, and right-wing governments. So far, Sudbury's NDP Mayor Rodriguez has said nothing about the strike, while Sudbury Liberal MPP Bartolucci told CBC Radio he can't support the strike because his constituents don't support it. But in fact the community seems quite solidly behind the strikers - no surprise given that Sudbury is all about mining. Sudbury's NDP MPs have supported the strike, and are working with the union. Sudbury Communists are also active on picket lines and in the community.

In fact, the CAW's Mine-Mill Local 598 could very well be joining strikers in February if Xstrata takes the same bargaining approach as Vale. Stay tuned.

(Rowley is the Ontario leader of the Communist Party.)

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