Inco mines, mills, and refines about 9 percent of the worlds nickel, a base metal used especially in the production of stainless steel. The operation in Sudbury, a city four hours north of Toronto, produced 226 million pounds of nickel and 230 million pounds of copper in 2002.
On the day before the strike the workers voted to reject the companys contract offer by almost 95 percent. Nine out of 10 union members cast a vote.
Contract talks had begun on April 7. A range of issues were in dispute, including pensions and vacation time and pay. Negotiations broke down after the bosses insisted on measures attacking health-care benefits for current employees, retirees, and survivorsfamily members who are entitled to receive benefits after a worker dies.
The strike halted production at Sudbury, although the bosses used helicopters to ferry nonunion staff across the picket line to carry out maintenance. On June 3 company officials announced that they would not be able to meet some contracts for nickel, copper, and cobalt.
On June 17 a court injunction went into effect forcing the union to allow the bosses to bring in 1,100 non-union workers.
The union is demanding that Inco drop demands for concessions in health-care benefits and increase the lifetime pension for workers over age 65 by 10 percent. Under this proposal, employees with more than 30 years of experience would see their monthly check raised from $3,000 to $3,300.
Wayne Fraser, director of USWA district 6, said May 29 that the company has refused to confirm that it will withdraw concessions affecting current and future retirees and …will not reduce health-care benefits. Inco is still holding on to concessions affecting seniority and is refusing to address increases in the minimum pension.
The health-care takebacks include halving the entitlement for dental visits from twice to once a year. The Inco bosses also want to force all active and retired workers to go to the same company-approved pharmacist and optometrist.
Pensions a key issue in the strike
Pensions are a key issue for the workers, 45 percent of whom are eligible to retire within three years. The company has pleaded poverty in the face of the union demands, claiming a shortfall in its pension funds of US$802 million (US$1 = Can$1.36).
Speaking to Militant reporters during a picket-line visit, workers firmly rejected any notion that they should be made to pay for the pension shortfall. We say, its not our fault, its your fault what happened to the pension fundthe company has to bail itself out, said Shane Cusack, a union steward who has worked at Inco for two years.
Theyre trying to take away benefits that previous workers fought for. A lot of the young guys are out here fighting because our forefathers fought for the benefits we have, said Keith Bona, 30, who has worked at Incos Copper Cliff south mine for two and a half years.
If they want us back, theyre going to have to share the wealth, said striker Shirley Brown, a worker with 29 years experience.
The production and maintenance workers in Sudbury are being joined on the picket line by some of Incos 10,000 retirees. Wayne Stonehouse, 57, said that Inco awakened a sleeping giant when it attempted to slash health-care benefits.
The company withdrew its proposed health-care management program the day workers voted to reject the companys offer, but Stonehouse said he doesnt believe its off the table for good.
Stonehouse said hes had to access the health benefits a lot after being all screwed up from working in the mines. He had two heart attacks on the job and suffers from emphysema, even though he doesnt smoke.
Elvidio Mejia is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union at Maple Leaf Foods in Burlington, Ontario. Patricia OBeirne is a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees in Toronto.
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