Inco’s Sudbury Nickel Mines were Critical During World War Two (Part 2 of 7) – by Stan Sudol

Inco World War Two PosterIncreased Nickel Production

In 1941 the Allied governments asked the company to increase production. International Nickel complied by committing $35 million to expand nickel output by 50 million pounds above 1940 production levels, reaching this goal by 1943 without any government subsidies. However, the Canadian government did allow the company to amortize within a five-year period, instead of ten or twenty years, $25 million worth of expansion expenditures.

That enormous task fell to American-born Ralph Parker, who at the time was the general superintendent of the mining and smelting division at Sudbury. It was one of Mr. Parker’s greatest achievements to organize the enormous program of enlarging the Sudbury mining and plant facilities without any loss of production.

To increase production of extraordinary war-time demands, Mr. Parker had to resort to “high-grading” which entails using above average ore grades and leaving behind lower grades that would have normally contributed to a longer, more profitable mine life. There was a real fear that the company would use up most of its reserves and have little to mine after the war.

Combined with an expansion program that would leave the company with excess capacity and labour, International Nickel’s actions demonstrated its commitment to the Allied war effort.

During the war about 40% of the Allies’ nickel came from the legendary Frood-Stobie open pit. However, with accelerated mining operations, it was evident that the mineral resources of the pit would be mined out ahead of schedule.

According to Inco archives five thousand jobs were created between December 1939 and April 1944 in a community with a population of about 32,500 in 1940.

Ralph Parker would go on to implement the use of aerial magnetometers in International Nickel’s exploration activities. The result was the discovery in Northern Manitoba of the Thompson ore body – at the time the second largest source of nickel in the western world. He has been honored in the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame for his many other contributions to Canada’s mining industry.

In the spring of 1940, the Sudbury Basin’s second largest producer Falconbridge Limited had its Norwegian refining facilities at Kristiansand overtaken by German invasion forces. For the duration of the war, International Nickel refined all of Falconbridge’s matte – an intermediate nickel product the needs further processing to produce the pure metal.

After  invading Norway in April 1940 and taking over the Falconbridge refinery, the Germans also had access to the nickel mines at Evje and Flat, the latter being the largest nickel mine in Europe before the Petsamo operations were built. Germany also helped ease its own nickel shortages by seizing the nickel coinage of occupied countries.

C.D. Howe and the Fear of Labour Turmoil and Shortages

On a visit to Sudbury to promote the victory loan campaign in February 1942, the Hon. C.D. Howe, Canada’s famous minister of munitions and supplies, said, “Those of you who live in Sudbury and are employed by one of your nickel companies need not feel that you are not taking part in this war. … But I can say this, that if anything should happen to interrupt the production of nickel in the city of Sudbury, the whole character of the war will be changed. I know of no important munition of war that doesn’t have a nickel content.”

The other main reason for the visit was to ensure labour relations were harmonious. He wanted to avoid any labour disruptions as occurred at the very important aluminum refining centre in the Lake Saguenay region. A recent five day shutdown resulted in the considerable delay of airplane production in England and greatly reduced the stockpiles in the United States.

Labour shortages were a constant struggle during the war years. Hardrock miners from Kirkland Lake, Timmins and Sudbury who enlisted in the armed forces were in high demand for their expertise working with explosives – an integral part of the mining process. Canadian miners were used to blast tunnels and excavations in the Rock of Gibraltor to house medical facilities, repair shops, storage areas and defensive works. In the early fifties, Sudbury miners helped Toronto build its first subway tunnel.

In October 1941, wages were frozen by the federal government, the union leadership were discouraging strikes and many factory employees were routinely putting in 48 to 56 and even 64 hours per week.

The following March, the federal government established the National Selective Service (NSS) within the Department of Labour to help deal with the severe labour shortages throughout the entire economy due to the rapid expansion of war related industries and military demands on manpower. This initiative made it illegal for healthy males between seventeen and forty-five to work in any occupation deemed nonessential. These jobs included bartending, sales clerk, real estate agent and taxi drivers.

The first industry identified as an essential occupation was the nickel industry. Workers could not leave the employ of Inco or Falconbridge without the permission of a National Selective Services Officer. Hard-rock mining in the 1940s was a tough, dirty and dangerous job. Regardless of government regulation many men did leave for less strenuous jobs in southern Ontario that were also desperately short of workers.

In a 1979 pamphlet about his union organizing activities, Bob Miner wrote about working at Inco during the war, “Inco was a literal hellhole.…We were working under the damndest conditions I ever saw. A nickel mine is extremely hot. The rock gives off heat once it is broken. If you leave it broken for two weeks, you find is solid again and have to blast it. The temperatures are terrific. The rock is enormously heavy.”

Nickel workers in 1943 laboured for 56 hours a week with no overtime pay. They earned 51 cents an hour for surface work, 61 cents for underground labour while miners made 71 cents and first-class trades earned 78 cents an hour. There were no fringe benefits except a one week paid vacation.

From August 1942 to May 1943, Government initiatives had sent 4,159 new employees to the Sudbury mines yet in that same period 4,908 had left. When CEO Stanley wanted to reduce nickel production by ten per cent, the American government became involved in the labour problems expressing their series concerns that eventually caught the attention of Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

It was estimated that by 1943, 10 million pounds of nickel were being lost every quarter as a result of labour shortages. Various ideas to resolve this issue ranged from using prisoners to prosecuting violators of the National Selective Service regulations – many left the mines without the required permission – but ultimately none of these plans were adopted.

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