Striking Ontario Miners Defy Vale Inco in Overwhelming ‘No’ Vote

For eight months 3,000 Steelworkers have been on strike at Vale Inco’s nickel and copper mines in Ontario, standing against a crush of concessions. They’re holding tough, rejecting an insulting settlement offer by 87 percent in mid-March. Photo: USW Local 6500.

For the past eight months, the 3,000 Steelworkers of my local have been on strike at Vale Inco’s nickel and copper mines in Ontario. Our rallying cry has been “Fair Deal Now.” We’re not bluffing: on March 12, we turned down the first offer we’ve received by 87 percent.

Ontario labor law allows the employer to force a vote during a strike, and members rejected Vale’s contract by an even higher percentage than voted to walk out.

The strike has never made sense to the members of Local 6500. Brazil-based multinational Vale purchased Inco for about $19 billion in 2006, claiming at the time that the mines in Sudbury, about 250 miles north of Toronto, were a jewel in its crown. During the next two years, we earned that reputation. From 2006 to 2008, Vale earned about $4.2 billion from the Inco operations, about twice as much as the old Inco made in the previous 10 years.

So how did this multinational corporation repay its workforce for record production and record profits? By demanding record concessions.

Last July we were offered massive layoffs hitting anyone with less than seven years’ service, the destruction of defined pensions for new hires, caps on profit-sharing when times are good, fewer safety positions in an inherently dangerous workplace, evaporation of cost-of-living raises, laxer rules for contracting out, no union protection for new hires for six months, and harsher penalties for absenteeism that ignore Canada’s guaranteed 10 paid sick days per year.

TAKING ADVANTAGE

Last spring, we were knee-deep in the same terrible recession everyone has faced. Originally, Vale told us our business was strong and that we should “weather the storm.”

Local 6500 offered to extend the contract until markets stabilized. We pushed back our contract expiration twice. Our show of good faith allowed Vale to complete a rebuild in its smelter operations and prepare for a strike.

The company tried to capitalize on the mood of fear and retreat after Chrysler and GM gouged out major concessions from auto workers. Before contract expiration in July, Vale laid off 900 workers, said more layoffs were coming—and reminded us to work safely.

As the strike began, Vale brought in a private security force to intimidate and harass the members. Eight months later, they are still parking outside of our houses, following spouses to work, and dispatching private investigators to watch our union hall.

By fall, Vale announced that it was going to run our mines, mill, and smelter with scabs. In 107 years of mining in Sudbury and several strikes, this would be the first time management attempted to run during a dispute. Worse yet, the first replacements were non-striking office and technical workers of USW Local 2020 forced to do our work. Soon ads for $5,000-a-week scab positions began to appear. Production appears so slow, however, that strikers joke it’s a “not for profit” operation.

BETRAYAL

Vale has betrayed the entire community, not just the workers who earned the company record profits. It instituted a procurement system which excluded local businesses. Donn-Marr Welding highlighted this fact with a message spray-painted on its store windows: “31 yrs now closed, thanks VALE.”

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The company has refused to follow local fire and zoning laws that do not allow replacement workers to sleep inside an industrial complex.

But the city is hesitant to take Vale on: in late February, the company slapped our union and its leaders with multi-million-dollar lawsuits charging we engage in “unlawful thuggery.” Other nuisance suits have been filed against many rank-and-file members, including for statements made on our Facebook page and for picket-line actions (most of which have consisted of taking photos of scabs).

GLOBAL CAMPAIGN

Meanwhile, the Steelworkers International has launched an ambitious campaign to combat Vale wherever it does business. Members have traveled to Korea, Australia, Indonesia, New Caledonia, Brazil, England, and New York to spread the word. Allied unions have confronted Vale in Spain, Mexico, and African nations. Strikers and global union allies trailed a shipment of scab ore all the way back to customers in Germany and Sweden.

Anytime Vale executives show themselves, Steelworkers and their allies have been present. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where Vale has started canceling events instead of facing us yet again.

If there is a silver lining to this conflict, it is that Local 6500’s solidarity has become stronger than ever. Along with regular picket duty, we have rallies twice a week, a food bank, and a drop-in center. Every Thursday night, we have a jam session at our hall, and we are constantly having special events to keep members’ spirits up.

Picket lines have held steady, although it’s a struggle because we can’t stop scabs. Some members have left for out-of-town jobs, but participation beyond the picket lines is growing as our rallies get larger and larger each month.

Busloads of people from around Ontario will converge in Sudbury for a massive rally March 22, where 40 delegates from Vale unions around the world will connect this struggle to their own. A global week of actions will follow.

The outcome of our strike will set the tone for other Vale miners worldwide and for private-sector workers in Canada and public workers, too, as our gains or losses are transferred to other working people. That knowledge gives us more resolve to remain steadfast.


Jamie West is a member of USW Local 6500

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #373, April 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.