Canada nickel miners strike to defend union
Reject concession demands on safety, health, seniority
Miners picket Falconbridge smelter in Sudbury, Ontario. Christmas tree is a message to the boss about how long workers are prepared to stay
out to defend their union.
BY ROSEMARY RAY
SUDBURY, Ontario--Some 1,250 nickel miners are on strike here against Falconbridge Ltd., having rejected the company's contract offer by an overwhelming vote of 97 percent. The workers, who walked off the job August 1, are members of Mine Mill/Canadian Auto Workers Local 598.
Falconbridge, one of the world's largest producers of nickel, is demanding sweeping contract concessions from the union that would essentially gut seniority, health and safety, and union representation on the job, as well as increase the use of nonunion labor.
Four members of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 5338 from Toronto traveled 250 miles north of Toronto to this mining city on the Labor Day holiday to express their support to the miners and learn more about their struggle. They joined hundreds of striking nickel miners and their families for a Labor Day picnic at the Mine Mill Campsite on Richards Lake.
The miners welcomed the visiting unionists to their picnic. They were particularly interested in talking to Delroy Whitely, a steelworker who is on strike in Toronto along with 33 other workers against T.G. Metal for better wages and benefits.
The miners explained that safety and defense of their union seniority rights are vital issues for them.
Falconbridge wants to divide its four mines and mill operation off from the smelter, making two independent business units with separate seniority lists for the miners.
Winston Richards, a miner with 29 years' service, said, "We can't accept losing our bumping rights with separate seniority lists. Older miners could get laid off or the particular mine they work in could close and they would lose the right to bump someone with less seniority. Falconbridge could get rid of the older miners this way and our pensions would be reduced." For Richards a loss of seniority protection would be "like not having a union at all."
Falconbridge asserts that it needs to make "changes" to the union contract so it can reduce production costs, invest in new mine development, and remain competitive on the world nickel market. This is despite the fact that in 1998 the cost of producing a pound of nickel at Falconbridge was $1.70, and just prior to the August strike had been reduced to $1.30 a pound.
The company also says its Sudbury mines have only about seven years of ore reserves left, equivalent to 20 million tons. It has discovered a larger ore mass below its current mines in Sudbury called the Onaping Depth project, which has an estimated 17 million tons of high-grade ore. Falconbridge is proposing to build new mine shafts to this ore to a depth of more than 10,000 feet, which would make it the deepest base metal mine in the world.
Safety is a crucial question in a mine of such depth, given that the temperature rises one degree Celsius for every 900 feet as you dig down as well as the fact that Sudbury's geology is considered to be less stable that other mining areas in the region.
Falconbridge has refused to commit to developing the Onaping Depth project unless the miners agree to its contract offer.
Ernie Taylor, who has worked at Falconbridge for 33 years as an electrician and is the union's health and safety coordinator, explained that the company wants to cut back on full-time union health and safety representatives at its Sudbury operations. It seeks to eliminate his job of coordinating safety among the four mines, mill, smelter, and shop trades.
Taylor said, "There were 200 safety infractions by Falconbridge as recorded by the Ontario Ministry of Labour in the last year. This is in operations that are half the depth of the proposed Onaping Depth project, so we can't allow the company to cut back on safety now."
He noted that more than 80 workers have died in accidents at Falconbridge since 1923. He added that the Falconbridge East mine was permanently closed in 1984 when a ground fall that rated 2.8 on the Richter scale killed four miners.
Support for the striking miners is widespread in the Sudbury area. USWA Local 6500, which represents 3,000 nickel miners at Inco here, is donating $1,000 a month for the duration of the strike. At the Labor Day picnic, the Wholesale and Retail Workers Union--a division of the USWA--as well as local businesses donated several thousand dollars to pay for the food and refreshments.
On August 24 the union organized a family day on the smelter picket line that drew families that for several generations have had relatives working in the mines.
Retired miners and widows aid strike
On August 10 union president Rolly Gauthier spoke to a meeting of the union's retirees and widows and urged them to visit the picket lines to share their stories and experiences from past strikes at Falcon-bridge. "You, as senior members of the union--you came through struggles to get the union in the workplace," Gauthier said. "The struggles were difficult.... You are retired from the job but you can't be retired from the fight."
During union meetings the retirees staff the picket lines and every Tuesday the widows prepare hot meals at the union hall. They are also on call for emergency picket line duty.
As the Labor Day picnic was winding down, a miner from the Lindsley mine offered to take the visiting steelworkers to the picket lines. Each of the lines has a decorated Christmas tree on prominent display with an "On Strike" sign on it. This is a message to the company about how long the miners are prepared to stay out to defend their union.
At the smelter the visiting unionists from Toronto were greeted by several miners. Janet Thomas, who has worked there as a process operator for three years, said she thought that defending seniority rights was the most important issue in the strike. "Seniority is the cornerstone of any union. There has to be respect for the older guy," she said.
Thomas voiced the calm confidence shared by many union members as she said, "We will continue the fight. We all know where we stand." Asked about the attempt by the company to keep the smelter running with management staff during the strike, Thomas said there wasn't much work getting done judging by the small number of trucks that were crossing the picket line carrying processed ore.
On September 6 the Toronto Globe and Mail carried the headline, "Falconbridge strikers vow no surrender." The article reported on the fact that the union's negotiating committee had rejected a new company offer. Union negotiators said the company wants to replace the 300 to 400 workers scheduled to retire from Falconbridge next year with nonunion labor.
To obtain more information about the strike or offer support, contact Mine Mill/CAW Local 598 in Sudbury at: (705) 673-3661.
Rosemary Ray is a member of United Steelworkers of America Local 5338 in Toronto.