When two employees were fired by their employer for strike activity their fellow workers brought the company to the brink of collapse in protest at their dismissal.
New Caledonian workers' union defends fired comrades, 2005
Time Period: November 8, 2005 to December 2, 2005
New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, contains approximately one quarter of the world's nickel resources, and the nickel mining industry has long been a central aspect of the small island's economy. In 2005, unions on the island caused repeated disruptions to the nickel supply chain, some in protest of working conditions, others as the result of a national divide between those who wanted further mineral resource development in the country’s north, and still others who wanted development to be focused in the south. Furthermore, unions also took action to protest the importation of foreign labor to the nickel mines. As a result of these various disturbances, relations between labor and management were not at all friendly in November 2005. When the French company Société Le Nickel (SLN), the largest employer on New Caledonia, fired two employees for involvement in strike actions, the New Caledonia Workers Confederation Union (CTNC) responded by calling yet another strike, which ended up being the largest of the year.
The strike began on Wednesday, November 8 at the Doniambo nickel smelter in the capital city and main port of Noumea. Due to previous strikes, the ore supply at the smelter was limited, and the strikers used tires to blockade the access road where more ore could be delivered. SLN moved the smelter into a low-capacity level of operation, and announced that it only had a 23-day supply of ore left. The smelter was designed to operate continuously and to run out of ore altogether would cause significant damage.
Following a complaint made by SLN, a court in Noumea ruled that the blockades around the Doniambo smelter could be removed by force, and imposed on the union a $1,000 fine for each day the blockade continued. Additionally, the New Caledonian Employers Federation issued a statement condemning the ongoing labor disruptions.
In defiance of the court order, the CTNC expanded its protests on Monday, November 13. It announced that the strike would continue indefinitely until the fired workers were reinstated. Approximately five hundred CTNC members and supporters started the day’s protests at the nickel smelter, but then expanded outwards into Noumea, eventually blocking all major roads and highways for about ten hours. The city-wide blockades effectively disrupted the commutes and work routines of the city’s residents and businesses.
SLN engaged in talks with the CTNC throughout these actions, but SLN briefly cut off negotiations on November 17 after a manager was hit by a rock thrown through a car window after meeting with CTNC representatives. The dwindling supply of ore at Doniambo ensured the urgency of the negotiations, however, and SLN returned to the bargaining table on the next day, November 18. Traffic blockades continued throughout this time period—union members placed heavy machinery and shipping containers on highways. Police did not intervene to allow traffic flow.
By November 24, the strike had already caused $40 million in losses to SLN, according to the company’s statements. On this day, the Employers Federation rallied one thousand of its members outside the French High Commission in Noumea, demanding that the police remove blockades in order “to defend the freedom to work, and the freedom to move around.” Jean-Yves Bouvier, the head of the Employers Federation, compared the employers’ action to a strike of their own.
Perhaps in response to this rally, riot police removed blockades at the port of Noumea and on the main roads, but union members replaced them within 48 hours. The union also expanded its roadblocks to specifically shut down the industrial district of Noumea.
On December 2, the smelter had less than one day’s ore left, and to shut it down would have been a financial catastrophe for SLN. To prevent this from occurring, the company agreed to reinstate the two fired workers by February. Satisfied, the CTNC lifted the blockade of the smelter and declared the strike over.
Five days later, police arrested CTNC leader Sylvain Nea for his role in organizing the strike and blockades. He was later sentenced to three months in jail, but was released in time to help organize a nationwide general strike near the end of 2006.
The Radio New Zealand International archive is searchable at .
"Strike action hits output at New Caledonia's SLN nickel plant." Radio New Zealand International. 9 Nov. 2005
"New Caledonia employers worried about social climate." Radio New Zealand International. 11 Nov. 2005.
"New Caledonia's main nickel company due to be hit by strike action." Radio New Zealand International. 13 Nov. 2005.
"New Caledonia nickel operator refuses to talk with strikers." Radio New Zealand International. 17 Nov. 2005.
"Talks set to resume in bid to end New Caledonia strike." Radio New Zealand International. 18 Nov. 2005.
"New Caledonian employers to demonstrate over strike-related problems." Radio New Zealand International. 23 Nov. 2005.
"Police clear access to New Caledonia's port after days of blockades." Radio New Zealand International. 24 Nov. 2005.
"Talks to resolve New Caledonia industrial unrest so far inconclusive." Radio New Zealand International. 24 Nov. 2005.
"New Caledonia nickel strike unresolved, fuel supply at risk." Radio New Zealand International. 29 Nov. 2005.
"Police in New Caledonia clear access to blockaded fuel depots." Radio New Zealand International. 30 Nov. 2005.
"More blockades in New Caledonia as strikes continue." Radio New Zealand International. 2 Dec. 2005.
"Unionists in New Caledonia agree with company to end strike." Radio New Zealand International. 2 Dec. 2005.
"New Caledonia strike leader arrested." Radio New Zealand International. 7 Dec. 2005.
"Jail term sought for New Caledonian union leader." Radio New Zealand International. 27 Apr. 2006.
Edited by Max Rennebohm (15/07/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:
William Lawrence, 28/3/2011
Published for the Global Nonviolent Action Database