May 23, 2010

MAY DAY COLLECTION SENT TO SUDBURY STRIKERS, by Liz Rowley, from the May 16-31, 2010 issue of People's Voice

Toronto participants in the People's Voice May Day celebration responded to the call to support Sudbury strikers against Brazilian multinational Vale Inco with a donation of $350. Another $350 was raised for People's Voice, which has helped expose Vale's union busting, and helped mobilize support for the strike since July 2009.

The gathering also passed a resolution calling on the provincial government to pass anti-scab legislation, and to force the company to negotiate the "fair deal" that miners, smelterworkers, and the community are entitled to.

Vale Inco, which has 97% of its global holdings outside Canada, is determined to kill the defined benefit pension plan that provides some measure of security for workers after a lifetime in their dangerous occupation. Even this plan has left some workers and mine widows unable to cope, because pensions were not tied to cost of living increases. Nor do they cover the costs of diseases such as black lung which are rife in mining towns like Sudbury.

Vale wants a defined contribution (DC) pension, akin to RRSPs, completely exposed to the ups and downs of the market. In the crash of 2008, hundreds of thousands of people lost substantial portions of their DC pensions and savings.

The company also wants to end the nickel bonus, a profit sharing arrangement whereby workers get a share of the increase when the price of nickel rises.

For the first time in its 100 year history, the Inco mines and smelters are being worked by scabs, as the company struggles to break the workers' resolve and their union, Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers. Strikebreakers and rent-a-cops have been recruited in Milton, a small farming community in Southern Ontario, as well as from Timmins, a hard rock mining town rocked by layoffs and mine closures. Others are being recruited from the unemployed and unorganized across the province, and flown into the mine and smelter sites by helicopter. The scabs are sleeping in the mine site offices, and flown out on regular rotations.

AFI Security cops are following strikers and their family members on trips to the grocery store, school, and so on. This intimidation is intended to wear down the families and convince strikers to accept the company's terms. In retaliation, strikers are picketing the homes and businesses of scabs, and listing their names at mine entrances and in public places. Strike supporters have organized extended pickets, holding up company trucks as long as three hours, much longer than the protocol which requires the union to let all traffic pass through the lines after twelve minutes.

In March, the office workers at Vale, members of a separate, composite USW local, voted nearly unanimously to accept a contract offer containing a $5,000 signing bonus, a wage increase, and other juicy enticements. Instead of joining in the big strike of miners and smelterworkers, the office workers, including senior staff, opted to take the bait and look after themselves. These are the same untrained and inexperienced employees the company has used since last July to work the mines and smelters. Serious gaps in Ontario's labour laws permit employers to redirect employees to work in their struck worksites. The deal was intended to put a wedge into the union, and it has done so. Strikers won't forget that they were left out in the cold by their brothers and sisters who cross the picket lines every day.

In April, public pressure finally pushed NDP Mayor John Rodriguez and the Sudbury town Council to enforce municipal by-laws that prohibit using company offices to sleep and house workers. A mass meeting at City Hall forced the Mayor and Council to speak up for the community.

But the company isn't producing much. Many of the trucks passing through the lines are empty. Production is fitful at best, intended mainly as a propaganda weapon to break down support for the union. There is a real danger of serious accidents in the mines, and chemical gas leaks or explosions from the smelters could affect the whole town. This itself is reason to compel the provincial government to step in and ban the use of scabs.

How to win against such a powerful company with such deep pockets? That's the question facing strikers and their supporters. Clearly there must be a greater mobilization of Canadian labour in support of the strike. Also at issue is ownership and control of Canada's natural resources, and Investment Canada's "free pass" to Vale to extract nickel and precious metals under any conditions.

The labour and democratic movements can demand that local MPPs and MPs act to force the company back to the table to negotiate a collective agreement, to ban the use of scabs, and to re-open the Investment Canada deal that allowed Vale into Canada in the first place. They can also put pressure on other businesses that deal with Vale, such as TVOntario which sells advertising to Vale on its nightly "Agenda" news program. Letters to the editor and calls to the talk shows are important.

After 10 months, with no end in sight, this is now everybody's fight. The outcome will ripple right through the mining and resource sector, either lifting up the fight to save pensions and good unionized jobs, or axe them.

The strikers are holding on, but they need all the firepower the labour movement can bring to bear. Working people across Canada need to know what's in the balance, and what they and their unions can do to help win.

The real solution is to nationalize Vale and put the operation under public ownership and democratic control. That would end what is effectively a lock-out, and result in a fair deal for striking workers. It would also return ownership and control of these rich mines and natural resources to the Canadian people. A noble idea, and one worth fighting for sooner, rather than later.

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

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