After months of unresolved bargaining a strike began on July 13th at the Sudbury mine in northern Ontario, Canada, after employers Vale Inco refused to alter its original demands for concessions. United Steel Workers union members (USW Local 6500) in Sudbury and Port Colburne in Ontario and Voisey Bay in Labrador responded by voting 85% in favor of strike action.
The strike affects 3,073 employees at Vale's integrated mining, milling, smelting and refining operations in Sudbury, 116 employees at the Port Colborne refinery and over 200 at Voisey Bay. The concessions demanded by the company include a drastic change in pension benefits for new hires (the pension Fund is $725 million in deficit), changes to seniority rights and a cap on the "Nickel Bonus". "This bonus was negotiated in earlier years to allow the company to benefit from relatively lower wages when nickel prices were depressed and workers to benefit when the price was high. Nickel bonuses – once used to placate underpaid unionised workers – in recent years suddenly paid off ‘big’ – averaging as much or more than the Canadian full-time median income of $41,000 – as nickel prices rose three-fold to over $25 dollars a pound. Miners became six-figure earners and bought new houses, cars, trucks, and boats."
The area is the richest ore region in the world. The mine has made $4 billion in the past 2 years, yet the company is demanding a reduction in wages and conditions. Vale Inco is a subsidiary of the Brazilian Vale mining conglomerate (pronounced 'Vallay'), the world's 2nd largest mining company and active in 35 countries (including the UK). Vale is the No 1 producer of iron ore, an essential component of steel production. (More than two thirds of all global iron ore comes from just three companies: Vale, BHPBilliton and Rio Tinto.) There has recently been a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the industry, with Vale expressing it's desire to become the dominant power in the business. This has led to recent expansions and cost-cutting, including attacks on workers' conditions. As the competitive acquisitions grew, large companies often saddled themselves with heavy debts - and then were were hit by the global recession and subsequent decreased demand from major customers in China and India.
Success in the global mining industry depends on also dominating related markets (known as "vertical integration") such as shipping, smelting, refining etc. Those top companies with the widest control set the price for all others; they are the "price makers" while the rest are "price takers". Vale now control most of the docks and freighters that move iron ore around the world's oceans and its competitors are dependent on Vale for shipping access.
“If that (resuming production) means a war in Sudbury, it's going to be a war in Sudbury,” - Wayne Fraser, director of District 6 for the USW. (Sudbury Northern Life, Aug 19th.)
"The president of Steelworkers Local 6500 said his members will be “respectful” of those crossing the picket line when Vale Inco resumes partial production, something which could occur as soon as the end of this week.
“My guys have been respectful all through this strike, and I'm sure they'll continue to be,” said John Fera, whose 3,100 members have been on strike against Vale Inco since July 13." (Sudbury Northern Life , Oct 1st.)
Vale had hinted that they may at some point bring in scab labour to restart production. But this week smelting operations have restarted at the Sudbury Clarabelle mill with USW members of non-striking (USW) Local 2020; representing office, clerical, and technical workers who work under a separate labour agreement not affected by the strike, they being used to do the work normally undertaken by the strikers. So they are effectively scabbing on their fellow union members. Such is the legalistic logic of trade unionism; the USW leadership response is to "file a grievance" on safety grounds.
The company has already lost one contract due to the strike. The miners had managed to blocking contractors' trucks from crossing their picket lines at the mining complex; but following a court injunction, pickets are expected to not hold up trucks entering and exiting company property for more than 15 minutes at a time.
The USW has sought to compromise with multinationals for some years now, with diminishing success;
... the past record of the USW (in the USA and Canada) in protecting jobs or wages is hardly auspicious of future success.
Over the past thirty years, in the steel industry, a sector that went through numerous restructurings, bankruptcies, and closures, the steelworkers sought to protect job security through consistent and patterned wage reductions in the 1980s and 1990s. However, while productivity increased, and by early 2000 profits improved, steel manufacturing experienced record job loss.
More recently, in the United States, the USW has pressed for ‘international champions’ to takeover failing plants, and then sought partnership agreements that typically traded wage and benefit concessions for job security. They have also sought to have U.S. governments uphold tariffs on steel imports from China and Western Europe, claiming ‘illegal’ dumping of low-priced products was responsible for the multiple bankruptcies in the U.S. steel industry. But the results have often been poor.
Tariff restrictions were quickly lifted. While new conglomerates failed to maintain employment and new investment, and union cooperation with management has only meant more contracting out, the speedup of work, job-loading, and more overtime for a few.
Mining dominates the economy of the town; after 50 years of struggles the Sudbury miners still enjoy some of the best conditions in the global mining industry - and Vale clearly want to change this. Vale's practice in their native Brazil (and in other countries where feasible) is to lay off workers every 3 years or so and then re-employ new workers under reduced conditions and wages. USW workers have been visiting Brazil regularly to publicise the strike and have also contacted miners in other countries. Union leaders from various countries and international bodies recently attended a USW in Sudbury and pledged solidarity, without specifying commitment to any particular action; http://therealnews.com/t/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=4300 This is expected to be a long, drawn out strike. But it will take more than vague promises and excessive respect for the legalities of union procedures to win victory for the Sudbury miners.