SUDBURY, Ontario — “Everybody’s coming together more, including support from other unions — teachers, CUPE, Unifor and some government workers have come down,” Vale striker and United Steelworkers Local 6500 member Chris Banks told these Militant worker-correspondents on the picket line here June 25.
Over 2,400 USW members went out June 1 after voting down by an overwhelming majority the concession contract demanded by Vale bosses. Converted cargo containers were set up as picket shacks at Vale’s nickel mines in Greater Sudbury and beyond, as well as the Copper Cliff smelter and other processing facilities. They are decorated with union signs saying, “Local 6500 standing up for future generations.”
We spent 2 1/2 days here bringing solidarity to the picket lines, speaking with strikers and other working people in the region at their doors.
Strikers thanked us for the solidarity card we brought with us signed by 29 Walmart workers in Montreal. It said their strike “strengthens the struggles of working people everywhere.” They taped copies up on the walls of their picket shacks.
“My father fought for what we have. He worked for INCO before it was bought out by Vale. I don’t mind being on strike because I know what we are fighting for,” striker Ian Nebonaionoquet, a recently hired underground laborer who has yet to start his first shift, told the Militant at the Copper Cliff nickel smelter complex.
The bosses are demanding elimination of health benefits after retirement for all those hired after June 1, the day the old contract expired. This is the central issue in the fight with the Brazil-based international mining giant.
“If it wasn’t for the older guys, we wouldn’t have this stuff they’re trying to take away. You’ve got to fight,” Nebonaionoquet said.
Striker after striker, including young workers, told us that because of the diesel fumes, dust and foul air in the mines, as well as the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals they work with, they expect to face serious health problems after retirement and will need health benefits to cover medical costs.
The company is trying to create divisions among the workers, with different benefits for different groups of workers, to weaken the union, Brent Jackson said as he picketed at the Copper Cliff smelter. “We’re here for future generations,” he said.
History of strike battles in the mines
Memories of previous strikes over past decades are a significant factor in the determination of the workers and their supporters in the area. In a bitter yearlong strike in 2009-10, Vale bosses attempted to keep production going with the use of scabs backed by strikebreaking security goons.
Hundreds of unionized trades people who work for independent contractors that service Vale here are not crossing the picket lines.
The strike “affects all the contractors, not just the people at Vale,” Katelyn de Silva told us on her doorstep. She said her former partner is a contract worker and is on standby because of the strike. But “I support them,” she said, noting she works in a long-term care facility with no benefits after retirement.
On the Copper Cliff North Mine picket line we met Tammy Lanktree, a community-care worker who has organized two “pop-up” demonstrations by strikers, family members and others in Sudbury, with signs saying, “We stand by you as you fight for them.” Lanktree commented, “I couldn’t just stay home and do nothing.”
Lanktree’s mother, Lynda Ferguson, a retired member of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, picketed alongside her, wearing a union T-shirt. Like the miners, “we fought like hell to keep our benefits We lost lifetime benefits in the last contract. We went on strike twice for pensions, wages, and especially benefits, but we lost them. When you retire, when you need them, they’re gone,” Ferguson said.
The company claims the mines’ nickel deposits are running low, profits are falling and they can’t continue to pay postretirement benefit obligations to the miners.
Union officials, strikers, and workers we met in the area challenged the company’s statistics and its cynical effort to turn the victim into the criminal.
“Vale has underestimated the solidarity and intelligence of our membership,” Local 6500 Vice President Kevin Boyd told the Militant in front of the union hall. “Vale has the legal right to exploit the ore in the Sudbury basin. But in reality, it belongs to Local 6500 since we mine it. So, we say to Vale: ‘If you want it, come and get it. We will be here.’”
Messages of support and financial contributions should be sent to USW Local 6500, 66 Brady St., Sudbury, ON, P3E 1C8. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.