Sudbury’s Mood Fiery as Furnaces (1977) – by Elmer Sopha (1925-1982)

This article was written by former Sudbury lawyer and MPP in October, 1977, in response to the then recent massive layoffs of 2,800 local workers by Inco. Ironically, some of the issues in his column will resonate with the recently laid off Xstrata workers in February 2009. The more things change, the more they stay the same!Stan Sudol

Once upon a time Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers of America was the vehicle for economic security of 18,000 hourly rated workers in Sudbury. Those were the salad days of high employment which marked feverish exploitation of the magnificent geological structure disposed, it is said, on the Sudbury basin by a vast errant meteor a couple of billion years ago.

It hosts 14 metals and the one most talked about is nickel and that is probably why the complex came to be known as The International Nickel Company of Canada Limited. But it is now an age of efficiency, the acronym is its phylactery, and the name perforce has been shortened to Inco Ltd.

Dave Patterson, young in years and not yet hardened against the realities of life, is president of the union, which by slow and steady attrition numbers only 11,000 these days.

As one listens to him speak in public one senses that his idealism is intact. He conveys genuinely and humanely the reflection of sorrow and uncertainty which beset 2,800 workers and their families who have received an impersonal slip attached to their time cards which told them tersely that their jobs no longer existed.

Perhaps Dave Patterson feels more deeply and bitterly, since as head of the union and its surrogate, he heard the news of the layoff on the radio. That is the way in which Inco does business and it has ever been so. The union is the adversary, even the enemy, which at all times must be parried, outwitted and circumvented by the canniness of management, lest its manoeuvrings impose inhibitions upon the efficient operation of the company.

Today in Sudbury, among the old hands who work at Inco one senses a deep and burning fury. The rain dance of pragmatism and economic rationalism sung to the lyrics of the business rhetoric of the bottom line, which Inco so skilfully orchestrates, no longer washes in the climate of recession which has created a pall over the community.

Beyond the union even the Chamber of Commerce is angry, and that marks a significant metamorphosis of attitude as the chamber, long financially subsidized by Inco, has traditionally been its most vocal apologist.

On the evening following the announcement of the layoffs Dave Patterson in public called the civic politicians “gutless” and when he said it, with fury, one conjured up Dante’s warning that the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who in a period of crisis maintain their neutrality. Nor are the political stewards of the people any longer neutral.

Douglas Frith, regional chairman, and James Gordon, mayor of the city, talked tough about Inco at last Sunday’s protest gathering. The Speaker of the House of Commons, the member for Sudbury, James Jerome, termed Inco’s actions “unforgivable”.

On the streets and in the corner stores, in living rooms and barrooms, people talk in a way that reveals that they think they have been had by Inco. For decades the company has successfully cultivated the myth of its benevolence to Sudbury. It tossed a herring here and there – a grant to a hospital, to the university, a concert on the greensward of the public park at Copper Cliff, and its local managers subtly and effectively built an aura of excellence in an elitist social hierarchy that cloistered itself in the environs of Copper Cliff and ignored the workers town of Sudbury next door.

To be invited to the general-manger’s house at New Year’s (God’s House as the irreverent plebeians of Copper Cliff dub it) meant that the selected few foregathered there has reached the apex of social distinction. No socialist politician ever crossed the threshold.

The reflection of the aura of bigness and management expertise flourished in the solicitude which the printed press and the electronic media bestowed upon Inco’s wellbeing.

This week the Sudbury Star, always slow to change an opinion, held steadfast in support of Inco but there were sharp criticisms of the giant on radio and television. Inco is never far from the consciousness of the community. The fingers of the awe-inspiring molten slag of Moloch scratch at the very boundary of the western side of the old city. In truth Inco created Sudbury as the precious ore-body created it.

Came the miners and the smelter workers, came the labourers and the artisans to pit their skills, their determination and their sweat in developing the lode, now three generations of them – from the steppes of the Ukraine, from the Polish littoral, from the sunny skies of Italy, and from the warm valleys of Croatia – and a great many other places.

The workers have been good to Inco. Preoccupied with their toil for the company, they were satisfied with modest homes, as can be seen today in the Donovan, in Gatchell, in Creighton and Coniston. The more commodious homes of management of all levels in Lively and Copper Cliff, the “company towns”, signified who was boss and there were never any articulate complaints.

The community in general has been good to Inco. It willingly suffered the pollution of air, stream and lake and even as Inco razed the countryside with its sulphurous fumigations, the desecration was accepted, if grudgingly. Few were those who reflected upon the monstrous irony that this company, having created a quasi-lunar landscape, should invite the astronauts to familiarize themselves to what they might expect upon a visit to our closest celestial neighbour.

Canada has been good to Inco. It has profited to at least $5-billion from the orebody and it has taken its money away in part to develop nickel deposits in Indonesia and Guatemala and in pursuit of sophisticated techniques of seabed mining of nickel. It is as if the workers of Sudbury by their toil have purchased their own unemployment.

 With the layoff of 2,800 comes to central focus the question of Inco’s intentions for further exploitation of the Sudbury orebody. The Inco spokesmen declaim against the heavy burden of taxation imposed by the federal and provincial governments and postulate the attractiveness of mining in jurisdictions where the hand of the taxgatherer is not so heavy.

Yet Inco has used our tax laws to sequester to itself some $380-million in “deferred taxes” – that is, it has got an interest-free loan from the people of Canada.

To underline the collective benevolence of the body politic the Government in Ottawa made it a further loan of $70-million at less than 6 per cent to assist its ventures in Guatemala. If indeed Inco intends to depart, as seems likely, for climes where labor is cheap, environmental controls are minimal, where the atmosphere of protection basks its operations in a roseate glow, then the assistance to a bid farewell given by the people of Canada is insurpassable.

For decades there has been built a syndrome among the people of Sudbury that criticism of Inco bordered on blasphemy. Those who raised their voices were met with the injunctior “Be quiet” or in more certain terms met scurrilous rebuke as being scaremongers and troublemakers.

But today there is a sociological episode manifesting itself in all sectors of the community of Sudbury in the wake of the layoff of 2,800 workers. There is a burning rage and it is fastened deep within the psyche of community consciousness.

For the first time Inco is being viewed as the multinational that it is whose business knows no borders and no loyalties.

The thrust to maximize its profits harbours no conscience. It will bestride like a colossus orebodies anywhere in the world which its magnificent technology can translate into production and profit. Like all multi-nationals Inco’s business is business and gratitude is an unwelcome stranger to the boardroom.

Either we as Canadians take steps to civilize these giants of international commerce or we pay the heavy price of severe economic dislocation and human despair.

This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail on October 26, 1977