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Nickel, Neoliberalism, and Nationalism


More than 3300 employees of mining giant Vale Inco are on strike in Sudbury, Ontario, and in other Canadian communities to defend decades’ worth of gains. Beyond that, the strike by members of Locals 6500 and 6200 of the United Steel Workers of America also raise important questions about how unions orient themselves towards their communities and towards the nation-states in which their members live.


There are a number of "very provocative issues for the men" in the company’s demands, according to a 21-year veteran of Inco’s transportation division who requested to remain anonymous when interviewed at a picket line in the Sudbury community of Copper Cliff.* He pointed out, "There’s absolutely no monetary raise in this contract" and no expectation by the members that there would be one, given the low price of nickel and the state of the global economy.


However, he said, "We’re not going to go back thirty years." He pointed to hard-won victories in past strikes, including the massive one in 1978-79 — "My dad went on strike for 9 months… They fought real hard for this thing." Key issues include pensions, seniority rights and what is called the "nickel bonus."


For the moment, the company is not touching the pension plan of current retirees and workers, which pays a guaranteed, regular amount upon retirement. However, it is demanding that all new hires starting in 2010 be enrolled in a plan in which the amount paid in is defined but the actual amount that workers receive when they retire is not, and depends heavily on fluctuations in the stock market.


The same worker quoted above calls it a "lose-lose situation" in which the current workers have the choice of agreeing and knowing "we’ve sold out the next generation" or standing up and fighting and getting labelled "spoiled union workers" by anti-union voices in the media.


The nickel bonus is an additional payment beyond base wages received by employees only when the price of nickel is above a certain level, with the amount of the bonus proportional to the price. This mechanism was won in the 1980s at a time when the company was doing poorly. According to a striker who gave his name only as "Gates," who has worked for the company for 22 years, this was accepted by workers in lieu of a raise, and he thinks that if the company wants to tamper with it they should raise basic wages in exchange.


"They’re not taking it away from us," he continued, "but they’re dangling the carrot so far from the end of our noses that we can’t reach it" by significantly raising the price at which the bonus kicks in.


The attack on seniority rights would prevent workers from bidding for other jobs within the company any more than once every three years. This would lead to situations in which workers with decades of seniority might be laid off before newly hired workers.


Given these company demands, workers in Sudbury and Port Colborne, Ontario, voted more than 85% in favour of strike action. Vale Inco workers in Voisey’s Bay, Labrador, will also be on strike starting at the beginning of August.


The Company


In 2006, Canadian-based transnational Inco was bought by Brazillian mining transnational Companhia do Vale Rio Doce (CVRD) and renamed Vale Inco. The company’s position so far in the strike, in this case voiced by company spokesperson Cory McPhee, has been that "until the union accepts the fact that change is required for our business to be competitive in all price cycles, there’s little for us to talk about." They are also blaming costs associated with environmental regulations for the need to cut other expenses.


The CEO of Vale, Roger Agnelli, has gone so far as to describe mining operations in Sudbury as economically "unsustainable," a comment that some company spokespeople have since claimed was taken out of context.


Another anonymous picketer, this one with three and a half years of experience with Inco, argued, "There’s been no explanation of how we have become an ‘unsustainable’ industry in the last three years," when Vale decided it was good business to spend $19 billion to buy Inco. He pointed out that Inco was managing to make money with significantly lower nickel prices just a few years ago.


He continued, "They want to never have a loss. That’s not realistic in the mining industry." He said that the history of Inco has been one of occasional losses alternating with periods of huge gains. In the current market, the company is going to briefly lose money "unless we come in here and do volunteer work."


In addition, workers point out that two of the three biggest rollbacks demanded by the company have absolutely nothing to do with making the company profitable during economic downturns. Eroding seniority rights has little directly to do with profitability, and nickel bonuses are not paid at all during bad times.


Possible insight into Vale Inco’s deeper goals comes from a former Inco executive quoted anonymously in a recent Globe & Mail article, who said, "They just want to break the union. They want to completely hit the reset button on the entire labour situation and the agreements that have been put in place in the past."



Critical Solidarity?


For many union officials and some workers, as well as plenty of commentators and letter writers responding to local news outlets, the non-Canadian ownership of the company is a key issue and the strike is frequently being framed in patriotic terms. The emphasis, in many of these instances, shifts focus from the company’s treatment of workers to its "foreignness." While this appears to have resonance for some, others in the community have deep misgivings about this strategy, as well as concerns about the long-term approach of the leadership of Local 6500 in relating to other unions and other struggles for social justice.


Gary Kinsman, a Professor of Sociology at Laurentian University in Sudbury, is one of the people with these misgivings. He is a long-time activist himself and has written extensively on Canadian social movements, including co-authoring Mine Mill Fights Back, a book about an important strike in 2000-2001 by the other main union of mine workers in Sudbury, Mine Mill/Canadian Auto Workers Local 598.


He said of the current strike, "I certainly support it. I certainly don’t want those workers to be defeated." He sees the situation as Inco "taking advantage of the economic crisis to impose a series of rollbacks." A loss by Local 6500 would be "a bad precedent for other mine workers and other workers more generally."


However, he is skeptical of the choice made by the union leadership to organize much of its rhetoric around nationalism. "It doesn’t actually make sense, because Inco itself, when it was not foreign owned, was doing horrible things to these workers. It’s about class and capital, not foreign companies." He pointed to unions in the United States, which have made extensive use of flag-waving and foreigner-blaming rhetoric, but have failed to prevent the decimation of the manufacturing sector or the historic decline of the strength of industrial unions south of the border — "American nationalism hasn’t got those workers anywhere."


Instead, he urged strategies that emphasize international solidarity among workers. As one small example of what might be possible, he pointed to Mine Mill/CAW Local 598’s success during its 2000-2001 strike in building relationships with a Norwegian union that resulted in a sympathy strike at a plant in Norway owned by the same company.


Steps in this direction are already being made in the context of the current strike, with the recent signing of a strategic partnership agreement between the international leadership of the Steel Workers and the leadership of the Brazilian CUT, to provide unspecified support for workers in negotiations with Vale. However, Kinsman worries that these efforts may be undercut by the extensive use of nationalist rhetoric to mobilize support in Canada: "’Canadian equals good, foreign equals bad’ — that sets up a precarious position if you are trying to build long term relationships among working-class people around the world in the context of global capitalism."


Local 6500 also has a very mixed relationship with other unions and with struggles in the community. Its very existence is because of a major raid on the Mine Mill local in the 1960s, which at that point was an independent, left-leaning organization that represented all mine workers in Sudbury. "There are still reverberations of that split today," according to Kinsman — people who won’t talk to one another, for instance, and people who refuse to read the Sudbury Star, which supported the raid by Steel so many years ago.


The massive strike in 1978/79 by Local 6500 was under a more progressive leadership, and it won important gains. Along with contract improvements, the magnitude of the workers’ struggle forced Inco into a number of measures to try and salvage its reputation, such as making major investments in initiatives to re-green the city of Sudbury. The strike also lead indirectly to the opening of French and English women’s centres in the city, the expansion of employment opportunities for women at Inco, and the federal government’s decision to locate the national taxation centre in Sudbury to diversify the local economy.


However, the progressive leadership of the Local in that era was soon marginalized. During the Days of Action campaign against the Conservative provincial government of Premier Mike Harris, Local 6500 used its dominance at the Sudbury and District Labour Council to prevent that body from sponsoring the Sudbury Days of Action. This furthered splits between private and public sector unions and between the labour movement and community movements in the city, in the context of a longer term trend in which Local 6500 has done very little to support other forms of struggle in the community.


Despite these misgivings, in the context of the current strike, Kinsman said, "I think it’s important to join picket lines and show support for Steel. But I think in the name of solidarity we need to ask them to get out and support our struggles."


With the strike only two weeks old, the impact on the community has so far been minimal. According to the picketer who gave his name as "Gates," "So far, from what I can tell, the community is backing us up 100%." However, his sense is that things are just getting warmed up: "It’s going to be a long one."



Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and parent who lives in Sudbury, Ontario. For more of his writing, visit scottneigh.blogspot.com.

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