Canada Nickel Miners Strike Solid

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‘Vale Inco should get back to the bargaining table if it wants to start delivering nickel to its customers again’, according to Wayne Fraser, director of District 6 with the United Steelworkers of America.

The mining strike in Canada by members of the United Steelworkers (USW) against Brazilian Vale-Inco intensified on 1 August when 450 staff at Voisey’s Bay in the eastern province of Labrador and Newfoundland struck work.

‘What will happen now is that declaration of force majeure by Vale means that some of their customers will need to start looking for nickel sources from other suppliers,’ said Fraser.

The Voisey’s Bay nickel, copper, and cobalt mining and processing workers join 3,500 USW nickel and smelting staff of Vale, who have been on strike in Ontario since 13 July.

There, USW Locals 6500 and 6200 in Sudbury and Port Colborne are resisting affronts to their work standards by Vale, including deep reductions to pension benefits, downgrading a production bonus, loss of value in cost-of-living increases, and greater company flexibility on outsourcing, something that stands as a serious threat to job security.

The same set of concessions is before USW Local 9508 in Voisey’s Bay in talks over a separate labour agreement.

Although no formal talks have been held, USW and Vale-Inco in Ontario came to a picket-line protocol ten days ago that gives union officials on-site monitoring of contractors in order to protect bargaining-unit work.

With the strike in Ontario hitting its one-month mark this week and global nickel prices starting to creep upward due to the walkout, the USW has launched a global campaign to pressure profitable Vale to drop demands that most certainly would bring social depravation to Canadian miners and their communities.

The USW has rapidly activated the 150,000-worker Vale Union Network, a workers’ network started in 2006 with the ‘Sudbury Accord’ that linked then-CVRD trade unions in Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Mozambique, and New Caledonia with one another.

The network has expanded since, and with the start of the Canadian strike, mining and other unions in Australia, Germany, Peru, Sweden, South Africa, and within other countries have picked up the call of support.

The ‘Sudbury Accord’ contains six basic priorities, including stronger collective agreements, capitalisation by the company to ensure job security for miners, and the elimination of outsourcing and contract labour.

In the company’s home country, the Brazilian labour federation Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) reaffirmed its support of the unity accord by issuing a strong statement condemning Vale’s corporate conduct.

‘With the current international financial crisis, workers don’t need to pay for a crisis they didn’t create,’ said CUT President Artur Henrique da Silva Santos.

CUT, the USW, and the entire Vale Union Network designated 14 August as an International Day of Struggle on behalf of the Canadian strikers.

The USW has dispatched teams of strikers to Brazil to explain the stakes, and the Canadians have been convincing in questioning Vale’s rationale in its proposed social cuts.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also weighed in on the company social conduct.

In a news magazine article, he scolded CEO Roger Agnelli for Vale’s job-slashing and investment curtailments. Lula threatened to unleash the state development bank’s investment arm and state-run pension monies on Vale in order to force better corporate behaviour.

In northern Ontario, public sentiment around the Sudbury and Timmons mining towns is running strongly in favour of the strikers and of the belief – in the words of USW’s lead negotiator and District Six Director Wayne Fraser – that the USW and local communities will not ‘walk backwards’ with Vale’s plans to negatively change the social culture of the region.

Several Canadian unions have sent delegations to join picket lines in Ontario.

Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Mine, Mill Local 598 in Sudbury, a union itself in a jobs dispute with Xstrata and one with a contract expiration coming early in 2010, marched alongside USW strikers in a 24 July manifestation and contributed C$5,000 to the local USW strike fund.

A public employees union in Ontario joined picket lines and contributed C$2,800.

Delegations from another USW branch representing Vale-Inco workers in Canada, Local 6166 in Thompson, Manitoba province, arrived last week in northern Ontario and lent valuable support.

The same outpouring will now be extended to USW Local 9508 in Voisey’s Bay.

As for the ICEM, which closely monitored last spring’s negotiations and then the extended contract talks in both Ontario and Labrador from May to July in unsuccessful USW efforts to move Vale off the destructive proposals, it calls on global unions and all of civil society to resist Vale’s agenda in Canada.

Noting the company’s overall profitability and its role with two other major mining houses to ratchet up iron ore prices worldwide, ICEM General Secretary Manfred Warda said, ‘We demand that Vale return to negotiations and retreat from this harsh social agenda, an agenda that is socially irresponsible of a national company that is aggressively entering global mining markets.

‘The ICEM and its global family of trade unions worldwide say “no” to Vale’s assault on the living standards of Canadian workers and we call on Vale to fulfil the social promises that it made when it acquired Inco in 2006.’

Further, the ICEM notes that Vale boasts of its reduced operating margins, as measured by earnings minus tax and interest.

In the first quarter of 2009, operating margins have decreased a full 12 per cent.

That is just one reason why Canadian miners have drawn a line in this struggle by refusing to accept social cuts and contractual take-aways.

As markets now begin to be affected by these Canadian strikes, the ICEM reaffirms its global support to the 4,000 strikers of Vale-Inco, and encourages all unions to provide visible help.

The fight by USW Locals 6500 and 6200 in Sudbury and Port Colborne, Ontario, and USW Local 9508 in Voisey’s Bay, is a flash-point inside the financial crisis … and more specifically, recovery.

Preserving social benefits that protect people is a fight, at this particular time, that deserves broad support.