SUDBURY, Thanksgiving Eve, 2013—During a recent discussion with a prominent Sudbury Steelworkers’ Union leader I asked his opinion about the prospects for a negotiated settlement with Vale in 2015 without a strike. (Reports from the job front are not good.)
His reply surprised me: “There’s a lot of talk we’ll be bought out before then, anyway.”
Few here would lament the passing of Vale from the local mining scene. (I’ve taken to calling the Gang from Rio the “bronze-balled Brazilian bastards” for their ham-fisted handling of the Steelworkers’ militant Local 6500 during the last round of negotiations in 2009-2010.) Vale’s decision to deploy strikebreakers rather than negotiate a fair Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was both provocative and dangerous, and the Brazilian-based mining giant’s Canadian managers have publicly declared their intention of scabbing the union again and again!
By all accounts the wounds from that epic battle are still healing. The most recent Inco/Vale strike surpassed even the length and vitriol of the legendary 1978-79 Inco strike (then the most costly strike in Canadian labour history).
My Steelworker friend, not surprisingly, spoke of a buyout almost wistfully, to which my response was “be careful what you wish for.”
The only potential purchaser with sufficiently deep pockets to close such a deal that I could envision was the Chinese, and, brother, if you think the Brazilians had difficulty functioning in Sudbury’s militant labour milieu, a Chinese takeover would bode even more poorly… from one low-wage developing national frying pan…
But there was one other potential suitor that I could envision, namely Glencore, the Swiss-based metals trader which had become a mining operator when it bought Sudbury’s other major nickel operation, Falconbridge Nickel Mines Ltd.
That marriage may prove as happy as the Vale-Inco union has been disastrous.
While Vale was stubbornly playing hardball with the USWA’s Local 6500 to the detriment of nearly everyone, Xstrata was quietly negotiating a successful CBA with its union, Mine Mill Local 598 /CAW, soon to become Mine Mill Local 598/Unifor.
They’ve since negotiated a subsequent CBA without a strike, proving once again it can be done, with two sensible parties engaging in good faith bargaining at the table. Vale, meanwhile, lurches toward another knock-down, drag-out confrontation with its union in 2015, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing from taking on Local 6500 nearly five years ago.
A timely Glencore buyout might just avert such disaster.
Which has me turning wistful at such a prospect on this Thanksgiving Eve, 2013. Merging Sudbury’s two biggest companies should create beneficial new synergies, especially in accessing underground ore bodies. As both company’s smelters are already running flat-out, I foresee little likelihood of either being shuttered, which was bruited the last time an Inco-Falco merger was rumoured, back in the 1990’s.
Still to be determined in a Glencore buyout, however, would be the thorny issue of which union would represent the workforce of the new corporate colossus. Even with its much-diminished size, the production and maintenance contingent of the Vale/Inco workforce will prove a rich. prestigious plum for whichever one of Canada’s two largest private-sector unions wins a certification vote…
Hmmm… We live in interesting times here on the Nickel Range.
But then, whenever didn’t we?
Sudbury-based journalist Mick Lowe has covered the nickel industry since 1974. His first novel, “The Raids: A Novel of the Cold War,” due out next spring, is set against the background of the USW-Mine Mill battle of the 1960s.