Tuesday, January 12, 2010
VALE INCO STRIKE APPROACHES 6 MONTHS:
The strike of the United Steel Workers Against Vale Inco in Ontario and Newfoundland is now approaching six months duration. As such it seems set to become a record breaker in terms of duration. Molly has blogged many times abour this strike. The following items both come Molly's way via the strike support site Fair Deal Now. The first is originally from the Sudbury Star.
Unhappy anniversary: Vale Inco strike approaches six-months:
Posted By CAROL MULLIGAN
For 30 years, the 8 1/2-month strike by United Steelworkers Local 6500 against Inco was the yardstick by which all labour disputes at the nickel company were measured.
The only strike that even came close to that historic 261-day battle lasted 121 days in 1969.
There was a 91-day strike in 1958, but it can't be included in USW record books because workers then were members of Local 598 of the Mine, Mine and Smelter Workers Union. They wouldn't become Steelworkers until three or four
years later after the fabled Mine Mill raid.
In 2003, USW Local 6500, led by president John Fera, took to picket lines for 89 days in the third longest strike in the union's history.
As the strike by 3,000 USW Local 6500 members in Sudbury and 130 in Port Colborne's Local 6200 nears the six-month mark Jan. 13, observers and insiders fear a new record for longest strike will probably be set.
It is not a milestone that either Steelworkers or the new owner of the company, Vale Inco Ltd., will take pride in achieving, but it seems virtually inevitable given each side's position in the labour dispute.
"It almost seems like each party doesn't understand what the other guy is saying," said Fera, who remains president of the local after winning by seven votes earlier this year over challenger Patrick Veinot.
"It's a different language," charged Fera. "I don't think this company, this Brazilian company, understands negotiations."
The union is asking Vale Inco to put aside "pre-conditions" that were on the table in three months of bargaining and start from scratch to negotiate a new deal.
Vale Inco spokesman Steve Ball says that is not about to happen.
"They (USW) want to go back to the table as if the first three months of negotiations (never happened) ... they want to dismiss all of that and say, 'Let's start again from scratch.' "
The biggest hurdle is the union's refusal to accept the company's "proposal" to replace a defined benefit pension plan with a defined contribution model. To make that pill easier to swallow, the company is proposing existing employees continue under the guaranteed, define benefit plan and only new hires be enrolled in the new plan.
"In the rest of the province, USW members are accepting DC plans," said Ball in an interview with The Star. "It seems to be one a month right now. It only seems to be in Sudbury where it's a non-starter. And that is a big barrier, regardless of what the Steelworkers are saying.
"They are not willing to go back to the table while the DC plan is still there, and the DC plan is going to be there."
(Despite repeated requests by The Star to interview Vale Inco president and chief executive officer Tito Martins or Ontario operations manager John Pollesel, only Ball was authorized by the company to speak on its behalf.)
The new pension is just one of the proposals the company calls "changes" and the union calls "concessions" that have them stuck at an impasse.
Unlike other strikes in the company's history, no bargaining has been conducted since Steelworkers walked off the job July 13 at 12:01 a.m.
Unlike other strikes as well, Vale Inco has restarted some operations -- notably Garson Ramp, Coleman Mine in Levack and the Clarabelle Smelter. It is also gearing up to run the Copper Cliff Smelter Complex.
In its final offer, the company also proposed changes to a nickel bonus that paid off handsomely for workers in three of the last 10 years when nickel was at record prices. It also wants to increase the time during which Steelworkers can transfer from one job site to another.
If Ball says the word "change" once in a 90-minute interview, he says it a dozen times.
It is a word that causes Fera to raise his voice during an interview at his office at the temporary Steelworkers' Hall on Pine Street.
"People can accept change," said Fera, growing angry. "Unions can accept change. But why the hell would you lay down and accept negative change? If change is not good for you, why would you say, 'bring it on.' "
Fera gets angry with people who say defined contribution pension plans are "the way of the world ... well, that's the way of the world. Is it good? Is it better than defined benefit? Do you think I should accept that?
"They say, 'Yeah, you should because that's the way of the world.' That's bullshit," said Fera.
"That's a lot of bullshit.
"If we had accepted those arguments 50 or 60 years ago, where would we be now?"
But Ball said Vale Inco it is not interested in the past, saying it is a different world today.
"Let's face it. We've seen the kind of changes in the world that none of us have ever seen," said Ball. "Almost overnight there have been changes."
In boom times, when nickel prices were high, "it's really been about, 'produce as much as you can.' "
The world has changed dramatically, "not that our team and company don't acknowledge the role of the USW in the past" and the "tremendous gains" they have made in safety and in the quality of life of its workers.
"We really appreciate that. I've seen a lot of that myself ... that's fully acknowledged."
The fundamental difference now is "our business needs to shift gears. The model of operation in the past cannot be the model of operation in the future. Things are extremely different in terms of where we forecast nickel to be going forward."
When Companhia Vale do Rio Doce purchased Inco three years ago, the nickel forecast was "very, very promising," said Ball, drawing an upward 90- degree angle with his hand.
"Now it's like this," he said, gesturing a flat line. There's a "huge discrepancy" between where the nickel price is today and where CVRD thought it would be now.
And despite not producing for more than six months, "our strike here has had almost no effect on the supply of nickel in the world market ... it's grow," which reflects "how things have changed," he said.
There is still about 130,000 tons of nickel stockpiled on the London Metals Exchange, "equivalent to what we produce in Sudbury in a year."
Fera admits the time was not ideal for a strike, but said the union had no choice.
USW insists Vale Inco earned $4 billion in the 2 1/2 years after it purchased Inco and is using the worldwide recession to justify seeking concessions from workers.
"If we lost stuff in this contract, do you think we would have gained it back in 2012?" Fera asked.
After more than 30 years, Fera is nearing the end of the career he started at the Coniston smelter as a skimmer, moving on to become an electrician.
"This is a fight about our young people," said the third-generation Inco employee.
He and his generation won't leave behind a defined contribution pension, the loss of seniority transfer rights and issues relating to contracting out as a legacy for the next generation of miners.
"Where do you go from here?" asked Fera. "Our alternatives are few, but you can't pick your times (to strike)."
Fera charged that, from the beginning of bargaining with Vale Inco's negotiating team, there was no give and take.
The company virtually said, "Here's our offer ... don't change a word of it because that's our offer. 'You accept it 100 per cent or there's no deal.' That's not negotiations."
Ball insisted progress was made on some issues.
"Several subcommittees worked on elements of the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) that were agreed to. In that period, there were a significant number of changes that occurred."
The outstanding ones -- the "flashpoints" -- are ones "that didn't change or maybe didn't change to the satisfaction of the Steelworkers."
Fera said his bargaining committee tried to address the "timing" issue by offering to renew the old contract exactly for three years or even a year.
Looking back, he is convinced "we were dealing with a committee that did not want to get a contract."
After the negotiating period was extended, first for five days, and then for five weeks, and it was becoming apparent contract talks were not going anywhere, Vale Inco posted its offer to Steelworkers on its website.
"What an insult that was," said Fera. "That kind of gave us an indication of what kind of company they were."
USW has repeatedly expressed its displeasure that Toronto labour lawyer Harvey Beresford is leading negotiations on the company side. Beresford has sat on Inco's bargaining committee for 30 years, but the team was always led by an Inco decision-maker.
USW international president Leo Gerard is bullish on the subject.
In 40 years, he has never negotiated with a company that "didn't have somebody at the table who was able to make a decision," said Gerard in a telephone interview from USW headquarters in Pittsburgh.
A former Inco worker and USW staff representative in Canada, Gerard remains a member of USW Local 6500 in his hometown Sudbury to this day.
He echoed Fera's observation that "we can never talk to the decision-maker. We only talk to the hired mouthpiece."
Ball pointed out Beresford has been an Inco negotiator for decades and that Vale Inco's current bargaining committee is comprised of people known to the union.
But Fera and Gerard charged Vale SA president and chief executive officer Roger Agnelli is making the real decisions at the company's Brazil headquarters.
Several strikers' actions and campaigns have been targeted at Agnelli in the last six months.
It is beyond frustrating, said Fera, to "talk to public relations people reading a script."
Vale kingpins such as Agnelli did not understand the resolve of his union "because Vale does not negotiate in their workplaces around the world as we do here. I don't think they understood how big a deal negotiations is and how big a deal a strike is because that's the only recourse we have."
Gerard spent time in Sudbury over the Christmas season and met many strikers while he was here.
"They're angry, but they're very determined," he said.
Vale Inco's refusal to return to the bargaining table is infuriating members.
"It is clear when the union, at every level from the international president to the members of the bargaining committee, say we're prepared to negotiate with no pre-conditions, and the company keeps behaving in the way it has in provoking dissension and in trying to intimidate individuals, acting like they were trained in a military dictatorship, it says a lot," said Gerard.
He, Fera and other union officials are angry about Vale Inco's lawsuit against individual strikers, the first time that type of legal action has been taken in an Inco strike.
"Imagine a company like Vale suing a picketer personally," said Fera. "Not only have they taken his wages away, now they're personally suing him for his home and everything. That is disgusting."
Ball acknowledged the "vast majority of strikers" are law-abiding. "The people that have had lawsuits filed against them are people who have demonstrated the kind of behaviour that is breaking the law."
Police have been called to picket lines on occasion. If officers have laid any criminal charges against strikers, police have not made them public.
Vale Inco is saying "it's not OK for people to do what they're doing," said Ball. "The courts will decide."
Six months into what is likely to become the longest strike in Inco's history, it may be pointless to predict what the atmosphere may be like when the labour dispute is eventually settled and Steelworkers return to work.
Fera was on the picket line in that fabled 1978-79 strike. It turned him into a union activist, he says.
"Most of us who became activists did so after that strike because we lost a lot of respect for Inco."
Fera recalled getting a call from his boss about his return to work and telling him he needed two weeks' holidays.
"He said, 'You've been on holidays for 8 1/2 months.' I said, 'No, I've been on strike. Now I need two weeks' holidays.'
"He said, 'I don't understand you guys.' And I said, 'That's right. No, you don't, and you probably never will.' "
Ball admitted there will be a social cost to the strike, however long it lasts.
"As time goes on, maybe the social cost is going to be greater in terms of repairing relationships."
For now, Ball continues talking the company line about its settlement proposal to Steelworkers. "We see it as fair, and what's needed for today and tomorrow's world."
Fera admits his union hasn't changed its position since contract talks began April 7.
"No, we couldn't. We offered to negotiate and they said, 'No, here's the offer.' That's why I don't think they understand negotiations here."
The following notice from the United Steel Workers is abour a solidarity rally due to be held tomorrow in Sudbury.
Rally to Show Union Standing Strong After Six Months
The United Steelworkers Local 6500, representing workers at Vale Inco who have been on strike since July 13, will be holding a Standing Strong at Six Months rally on Jan. 13.
The march begins at 9 a.m. at the new United Steelworkers hall at 66 Brady St., followed by a hot meal after the rally.
The rally will also include a balloon release, with each balloon “representing 4 million dollars in Vale profits that have left the community,” stated a release from the union.