Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

August 26, 2010

HISTORIC MINERS' STRIKE ENDS IN SUDBURY By Liz Rowley, September 1-15, 2010 issue of People's Voice

(The following article is from the September 1-15, 2010 issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading communist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to: People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)

Three hundred and sixty days after it started, the strike of 3,300 miners, mill and smelterworkers in Sudbury and Port Colborne against Vale Inco, the second largest mining company in the world, is over.

By a vote of 75.5% at Local 6500 in Sudbury, and 74% at Local 6200 in Port Colborne, the United Steelworkers voted July 8 to end the longest mining strike in Canadian history.

"Nobody voted for the contract; they voted to go back to work", said Patrick Veinot, Local 6500 Vice President.

That was the sentiment as the bitter pill of a defined contribution pension plan (snuck in for new hires through the two-tiered back door) means today's relatively secure pensions will soon be a thing of the past. Entirely subject to the marketplace, DC plans could leave a pensioner with 30 years service with next to nothing when the economy tanks again.

For those with the defined benefit plan, pensions increased to $41,400/year with life time COLA and health care benefits and long term disability. This too will all be gone when the current workforce expires.

The settlement establishes new triggers and a $1,500 cap on the nickel bonus, a profit-sharing scheme Inco devised in the 1960s in lieu of a raise. The bonus used to kick in when nickel reached US $2.25/lb. Now the price must tip US $3.75 - another wage cut.

The small wage increase amounts to US $2.25-$2.50 an hour over the lifetime of a five-year agreement. There was also a $2,000 signing bonus, and some smaller bonuses linked to production.

Welcome back: you're laid off

There was also agreement that 113 jobs would be eliminated in Sudbury: a "preliminary" number according to Vale, the maximum according to the USW. The union says the 113 have been accounted for with the retirement of 89 at the end of the strike, and 55 more who found jobs elsewhere. With these numbers, Vale should be hiring, says the USW.

Vale's July 26 recall included calls to tell 18 workers that they no longer work in Sudbury, but could apply in Port Colborne in southern Ontario, or Thompson in northern Manitoba. Either way, Vale is aiming for labour mobility - pack-sack miners who will dig it out and move on.

Speculation is the workforce will continue to drop as Vale contracts out more non-union work, a real and continuing threat to the unionized work force.

During the strike, Vale fired nine of the most militant union members, including Veinot, who became Vice President in early August. The company claims that because Veinot was fired he was not a member of the bargaining unit, and ineligible to hold office. But the popular strike leader had the support of the Local Executive and membership, who told Vale to "stuff it".

The eight cases (one has retired on a full pension) will go to arbitration after an Ontario court ruled that the company must show just cause for the firings, bring witnesses, etc. Veinot is convinced the union will win reinstatement for all eight.

Dozens of legal actions launched against the union and individual strikers were dropped with the settlement. But the company is intent on sending a message to union members, by refusing to revoke the firings as part of the settlement.

It's the same message at Vale's reorientation meetings, where workers are told that the union no longer has the "power" in the workplace, and is a third party that shouldn't be involved. If there's a problem, workers are told to speak first to the supervisor, and only involve union stewards as a last resort.

In fact, nothing in the collective agreement has changed, as Steel rep Myles Sullivan tells it. But the political climate has certainly changed after a year on the picket lines facing scabs, cops, helicopters and lawsuits, after lost homes, marriage break-ups, and hardships are counted in, and after being forced to accept a collective agreement nobody but the company wanted.

Mind-boggling profits

This strike began shortly after the 2008 economic crisis, the ensuing bail-outs of giant corporations, and a global corporate assault on wages, pensions and organized labour. Provincial and federal governments proclaimed that the way out of the crisis was to open up the country to foreign investment.

This was the first set of negotiations after the takeover of Inco by Vale, a multi-national with operations all over the world and 2008 profits of US$13.2 billion. Company data show that each Vale worker produced $221,223 of the 2008 profits. Vale made $4 billion from the Sudbury operations alone in the two years after it bought Inco in 2006. Six top Vale executives took home $33 million in 2008, an increase of 121% over the last two years. Vale's earnings during the second quarter of 2010 rose 254% over the same period in 2009, to $6.11 billion. This is a company with deep, deep pockets.

"Ourselves Alone"

Throughout the strike, the USW worked hard to build ties with unions at Vale's global operations. At mass rallies in Sudbury, international guests visited the picket lines, and strikers crossed the world telling their unionized brothers and sisters about the historic strike in Sudbury.

The strikers also travelled in busloads to the OFL convention last November, to Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, and wherever they could.

But the labour movement as a whole was never engaged. The fight remained largely in Sudbury, and was mainly about bargaining. Few outside Sudbury knew about the strike, and most unions were just sympathetic observers.

But the issues at stake were huge, affecting workers across Canada. The strike began shortly after the massive attack on the wages and pensions of autoworkers, and during the campaign against public sector workers in Toronto and Windsor. All of organized labour was under attack, especially around pensions and wages.

A key issue was the take-over of Inco by Vale, which had made legal undertakings through the Canada Investment Act to operate in specific ways that would benefit Canada. US Steel made similar undertakings when it bought Stelco in Hamilton, and now faces charges for breaching its obligations.

Vale's clear breach of its obligations should have made the fight an issue to all those concerned about Canadian sovereignty. The labour movement is on record calling for public ownership of natural and energy resources. This would have engaged a much broader base of support for the strike and put more pressure on the federal government.

Vale's decision to scab its operations put the provincial government front and centre, and should have brought the whole labour movement into the struggle from the start. But the fight for an anti-scab law was left to the NDP, vastly outnumbered in the Ontario Legislature by Liberal and Tory MPPs. France Gelinas did her best, but speeches and press releases were never enough. This fight cannot be won without mass mobilization of the labour movement and its allies, without thousands of feet marching on the lawn of the Legislature.

The strike could have become a poster child of the fight for public ownership and Canadian sovereignty, for labour rights and anti-scab legislation, and for a united, fighting labour movement defending and improving pensions, wages, and living standards.

But the USW's position of "ourselves alone" led in a different direction. The political fight was left to the NDP in Queen's Park and Ottawa, where anti-scab legislation and control over corporations like Vale can't possibly be won without mass mobilizations by labour and its allies.

Unity and Struggle

At the local level in Sudbury, the fight quickly moved from the union hall into the community. Family members and supporters pressed the City Council into action against Vale's by-law infringements for sleeping scabs inside mine offices at the work sites. Supporters raised funds, mobilized for the rallies, responded to the media, exposed the scabs, and helped families suffering after months on strike.

But support never moved much beyond the USW at the national and international level. Most key decisions were made at the top levels of the union, and strikers were often scrambling for information about the state of negotiations. The union's "one day longer" strategy proved inadequate in a wholly changed situation against an extremely powerful corporate adversary.

The central lesson of the Sudbury strike, applicable to the whole labour movement, is that the days of "ourselves alone" are over. Right-wing governments allied with transnational corporations can't be beaten with the bargaining strategies of the last 50 years. To defeat the agenda of austerity and union-busting, it will take a united labour movement with a coordinated offensive agenda and a mobilized membership.

The war continues

"The battle's over, but the war continues". That's the message from the Local 6500 leadership. An angry and bitter membership will continue the fight with Vale in the workplace, a mile or more underground.

Remarkably, after a year, one in four strikers voted to stay out in spite of everything. Most of the other 75% held their noses and voted to go back to work. In the event, the union had nowhere else to go.

The struggle continues, with a new, feisty local leadership. Former local President (and local Liberal) John Fera has retired, and the new President and Vice President were active local leaders and fighters in the strike. The union has some time to think over the strike and the future with Vale.

Already the venue is shifting. With Xstrata just down the road, and in the mine shaft next door, the people of Sudbury face a future of trouble and more struggle.

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