Vale Inco Strikers Weigh Their Year of Sacrifice and Vote on Deal
[Editor’s note: A tentative agreement has been announced in one of the longest-running and bitter strikes in North America, among the 3,500 nickel and copper miners and mill workers of Steelworkers Locals 6500 and 6200 in Ontario. The Steelworkers union and mine operator Vale Inco are withholding details until ratification votes today and tomorrow conclude. How has a year on the picket line changed the union? Striker Jamie West brings us the latest.]
We are a week away from the one-year anniversary of the strike. That's only part of the story, however. Most of our membership was laid off June 30, so for about 90 percent of us, we've already been away from our careers for more than a year.
In the past year, we've learned a lot about our employer, Vale. We've learned that although Vale wraps themselves in the Brazilian flag, they don't represent the country or culture of Brazil. I've been to Brazil—it’s a culture of warmth, welcoming, and pride, a culture where everyone is greeted with a kiss on the cheek and where drinks and meals are designed to be shared between everyone at the table.
In contrast to this, Vale exploits the communities where they operate by stealing the land beneath their feet and offering scraps to the community in return. (In Brazil, they offer 1 percent of profits, but only if that community is “good.”) As well, Vale openly pollutes the environment and exploits their workforce wherever possible. Because it's less expensive than building a pond for its mine tailings, for example, Vale’s going to use Sandy Pond in Labrador, Canada, as a tailings pond. Just as shamefully, Mozambican Vale workers are paid $85 a month, a sum that forces every member of the family, including school-aged children, to find a way to supplement the family income.
We’ve learned a lot about ourselves over the past year. We’ve learned about the importance of unionism and solidarity—not just in our local or organization, but with workers around the world. We’ve learned that many of us were activists just waiting to be awakened, just waiting for the opportunity to demonstrate that we are worthy of the honor unions in Sudbury, Ontario, earned during the time of our parents and grandparents. As I've said many times this year: “When Vale said ‘bend over,’ our members all stood up!”
And now we're on the cusp of a ratified contract. I believe a percentage of workers are willing to sign anything. I don't mean that in a negative way. They are just tired of fighting, or have had their backs to the wall for too long. Similarly, a percentage of workers are committed to proving to Vale that “One Day Longer!” is more than a catchy slogan. These members went out for a fair deal and refuse to come back for anything less.
In the past few days, both of these sides have been speculating on the contract and about the vote. The details of the contract are coming out in meetings today and tomorrow, but already you can’t find a corner of Sudbury where there isn't a person telling you what is in the contract and why you should accept it (or why you shouldn’t).
There is a lot on the table. Many of us have lost our homes and our savings. We’ve sacrificed a year of our lives to this strike, so whether they are arguing to end the strike or keep it going, both arguments have merit.
From the beginning of this strike, I've always believed that, years from now, our sacrifices will be memories: a story that we’ll share with the next generation, just like the generation that went through the eight-month strike of 1978 shares their stories with us. The only difference will be that, years from now, we’ll know how our story ends. For now, we’ll have to wait and see. For now, we just have to last one day longer.