The stakes are high. Their voices must be heard.

On July 13, 2009, contract negotiations broke down between Brazil-based mining giant Vale Inco and employees at one of its newest acquisitions – the nickel mines and smelters in Sudbury, Ontario (my hometown).

By all accounts, it has been an acrimonious strike, but this labour struggle is not limited to Sudbury and the consequences of this strike stretch far beyond my city’s borders.

At an information session on June 25, organized and hosted by the Toronto chapter of the United Steelworkers, Vale employees from Manitoba, Brazil and Mozambique shared stories of great promises made and broken, and hopes for a better future dashed. One worker, a coal miner in Mozambique, broke down in tears as he spoke. He told the audience that houses built by Vale are intended to stand only for two years, and that 50 per cent of the coal that will be extracted from the mine has already been sold, most likely to international buyers. Where, he asked rhetorically, are the benefits for the host community? The audience was moved. Several of us cried quietly into shirt sleeves or tissues.  

Another miner from Thompson, Manitoba spoke about unsafe working conditions, including excessive heat and sub-standard parts that are jeopardizing the safety of employees. In just one week in June, six people passed out because of the heat and one fellow quit. Vale, he said, is creating ghost towns as families seek work elsewhere.

“They’re destroying our people,” he told those assembled. He believes Vale is trying to set a precedent in Sudbury, because, “if you take down the big dog first,” the others will follow.

But strikers and their supporters are fighting back, and on June 26, United Steelworkers Local 6500 took it to the streets.  

“Essentially, Vale is the poster child for everything for which the G20 is criticized,” Jamie West, a flash furnace operator for the past eight years, told me in Toronto. “They have a horrendous environmental record; they treat their workers without dignity or respect; their treatment of indigenous people is embarrassing – especially in Brazil. Their corporate agenda, along with the complacency of government legislation, is the root cause of all of this.”   

With all eyes on Toronto, and more than 4,000 media delegates on the ground to cover the G20 summit from all angles, Local 6500 sent two busloads of strikers to march in the People First community rally. 

“We've vowed to shine the light on Vale’s corporate misdeeds wherever people will listen,” West said. “Let's face it, 3,000 people have been out of work unnecessarily for 11.5 months. The time for Dalton McGuinty (Ontario’s premier) to represent the people of Ontario – and not only the wealthiest shareholders in the world – is long overdue.”

West is proud to stand on the picket line with his co-workers and proud to be a Sudburian. Humbled by what he has seen over the past 11 months, he believes it absurd that some people think the strikers are being greedy. They are simply fighting for status quo.  

“It's a true testament to (the strikers’) commitment to keep the gains that were earned by our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” West said. “I feel honoured to be included in that group.”

Not surprisingly, the strike has been difficult; however, West told me he has fared better than some of his colleagues, including one who, as of May, had lost his marriage, his house and all of his savings.

“At that time, he said he was $20,000 in debt,” West said. “How can sacrifices like that be considered greedy? How long will it take for these people to recover financially? How long will it take them to recover their personal lives?”  

He admits Inco was an imperfect employer, but says at least the company, acquired by Vale in October 2006, cared about the community of Sudbury. West calls Vale heartless and says he feels bitter-sweet about its recent decision to drop the word Inco from their name in Sudbury.

“I lived in Sudbury for 38 years and Sudbury has always been synonymous with Inco and Falconbridge,” he said. “While I'm disappointed that Vale has chosen to drop the Inco name and end that strong history, I think it is appropriate too. Let's face it, Vale is not Inco. I think they've disguised themselves as the old Inco for too long and I'm happy that they've chosen to peel off that mask and show their true face. I sincerely hope that Sudburians wake up and recognize that Vale is not Inco.

“That's not hyperbole. I recently attended the First International Conference of Those Affected by Vale. It was a two-week conference held in Rio de Janeiro with 180 participants from 13 different countries. Whether the speaker was from Australia, Peru, Mozambique, Canada or Brazil, the story was consistent – Vale’s quest for greater and greater profits leaves workers, communities and the environment suffering.”

According to West, the company has a shockingly poor safety record in Brazil.

“Did you know that Vale averages 80 rail deaths a year in Brazil? Last year they killed 108 Brazilians with their trains,” he pointed out. “Their families’ only compensation was a free coffin.”

Make no mistake – this is not simply a labour dispute for better wages, better pensions and more statutory holidays. This is about life, limb and livelihood.  

Carolyn Egan, president of the Toronto District Council of the United Steelworkers, said hosting the Local 6500 crew is a matter of solidarity. She believes the final contract will set a precedent for workers’ rights and describes the strike as ‘a line in the sand,’ with the potential to set international labour standards.      

“You have a situation in which a very profitable company – whether it’s Canadian or foreign doesn’t matter to me – has come into a town and is trying to make massive changes,” she said. “They want to bring down the pensions and the wages of the Sudbury workers. We know the G20 leaders are coming and that they will be making huge decisions that will affect all of our lives. … I think it’s very important that the people who are affected, (who are) trying to maintain a standard of living, are here to show their concern. They want to make sure everybody is treated with dignity and respect. That voice is hugely important on the international stage.”

The strikers are resolute. They will not concede. They know what is at stake.

Steve Ball, a spokesperson for Vale, had no comment on the march, saying only, “this was nothing to do with us.”

Photos and story by Mary Katherine Keown
June 27, 2010

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