The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 74/No. 17      May 3, 2010

Canada nickel workers strike
stands firm after 10 months
(front page)
SUDBURY, Ontario—The strike against Vale Inco by almost 3,000 nickel miners, smelter, and refinery workers, members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 6500, is now into its 10th month. At stake are gains won through decades of union struggles by generations of members of Local 6500.

“If we fall, 150,000 will fall,” striker Mike Lacelle, who works underground at the Frood-Stobie Vale Inco nickel mine, told the Militant April 8. Lacelle was referring to the thousands of parent-company Vale workers in other countries. “Everyone is watching us,” he said. The company “miscalculated our resolve.”

Based in Brazil, Vale Inco is the second largest mining company in the world. It bought out Inco, a Canadian-owned mining company, in 2006.

Sudbury is the center of a vast mining region four hours north of Toronto. The strike began last July with workers rejecting the company’s concession demands, including elimination of the defined-benefit pension for new hires and of the nickel production bonus system, which would significantly reduce the income of the workers. Pension income for new hires would be tied to the ups and downs of the stock market rather than a fixed rate.

Since then the company has refused to negotiate and has resumed some production using company staff, contract labor, and more than 50 members of USW Local 2020, which represents Vale Inco’s 290 office and technical workers.

The walkout is now the longest in the history of numerous strikes at the Sudbury basin mines. Despite the economic pressure, 89 percent of the strikers, who receive $200 a week in strike benefits, voted down Vale Inco’s last “offer” March 12. Strikers reported 10 members of USW Local 6500 have crossed the picket lines.

On the eight picket lines, the strikers are limited to eight pickets per site by court injunctions. They can only hold up traffic in and out of the mines and other facilities for 12 minutes. The strikers face daily harassment and provocations by AFI “security guards.” AFI is the professional strikebreaking outfit hired by the company.

“The injunction also says we can’t wear balaclavas,” said Rene Duguay, a mechanic. “But the security people can wear them. Everything is against the workers.” Balaclavas are close-fitting knit hats that cover most of the head and part of the face. Strikers report 10 union activists have been framed up and fired on charges of threatening AFI personnel and scabs.

Office and technical workers, members of Local 2020, voted by more than 80 percent to accept a new contract rather than join Local 6500 on strike. The office workers’ new contract gives them a 6.5 percent raise over three years, while the company has only offered Local 6500 members 2.7 percent over five years.

The use of scab labor has raised safety issues. A striker at the refinery, who didn’t want his name used, said, “Someone is going to get hurt.” He was referring to the fact that insufficiently trained scabs were handling Carbonyl, which is stored under high pressure in huge tanks. Carbonyl is an extremely toxic and deadly gaseous form of nickel.  
Generational ties and solidarity
The Vale Inco bosses are facing a workforce with a solid union consciousness, which includes more than 7,000 pensioners in the area with decades of work and picket line experience.

“In the last three years Vale Inco has hired 1,200 young workers,” Rick Bertrand, USW Local 6500 vice president, told the Militant. “Vale thought the young workers wouldn’t stand up. But they did because their fathers and great grandfathers were in this.”

On March 22 a rally here drew 5,000 strikers and supporters. Among those attending were workers from other unions bused in from around the province, leaders from Vale Inco unions in other countries, and students from Laurentian University. Many of the speakers at the rally took a Canadian nationalist stance, condemning the federal government for allowing Vale to take over Inco without any “net benefit to Canada,” and demanding Ottawa intervene.

On May 3 the Ontario Labor Relations Board will begin hearing a “bargaining in bad faith” complaint by Local 6500 officials against Vale Inco.
Related articles:
Florida teachers force veto of antiunion bill
U.S. gov’t seeks to placate anger over mine deaths  
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