The other side of the podium – by Michael Atkins

Michael Atkins is president of Northern Life

I remember chairing a meeting of an economic self-help group in Sudbury 30 years ago called Sudbury 2001. We were at the Cambrian College boardroom and a group of union members and politicians burst into the room to bust up the meeting. We were in about month eight of the last debilitating, vengeful, violent, desperate conflict between Inco and its union, and Sudbury was not only suffering through the strike, they were suffering through the knowledge of massive layoffs on the way. In those days there were 20,000 or so Steelworkers, not 3,000.

The interlopers were livid that David Patterson, president of the Steelworkers Local 6500, would sit at the same table as an Inco executive during the strike. You see, Sudbury 2001 was a community group. We all swore to leave our politics at the door, no matter how dismaying the conflict. David stood up; pushing and shoving, screaming and yelling ensued. When David came back in, and the uninvited guests retreated, the meeting reconvened.

I was co-chair of Sudbury 2001. Elmer McVey, the president of the Labour Council, was the other co-chair. We trusted one another. Sudbury, at that moment, became more important than ideology.

It was the beginning of a renaissance in Sudbury. What was the renaissance? Well, it was many things but the core of it was simple. It was the arrival of the “Age of Reason.” Sudbury had a rough and tumble history. It featured the struggle between the Mine Mill Union and the companies for minimum wage increases and health and safety procedures. It was a battle between David and Goliath and, over time, David won. And then came the ideological battle between Mine Mill and the Steelworkers with full participation of the Catholic church and the CIA. Those were the communist scare days, which featured violence, emotion, fear-mongering, character assassination, kidnapping, car bombs, rage and retribution.

Today’s machinations on both sides are child’s play, although the company’s commitment to bringing in replacement workers is very aggressive.

Sudbury’s first gift to the new Vale Inco president Murilo Ferreira a few years ago was prescient. It was a hockey jersey. We Canadians are all for peace, order and good government, but then we play hockey and then something happens.

You cannot compare The Sudbury of 1978 to the Sudbury of 2010.

There are some 70,000 jobs in Sudbury, of which 3,000 are in the ground at Vale Inco.

You can compare the bitterness, however.

Why is this war so intractable?

  • The balance of power has shifted. The company holds the cards. It wants to take stuff away. The union refuses to appreciate its bargaining position.
  • Old DNA dies hard. The union movement is still stuck in the glory days when God was on their side.
  • The company is inexplicably ham-handed. The most recent letter (well, the only letter) from the company president to the members is inflammatory, defensive and unbecoming of a company with such a worldwide imprint. The reference to “ethnicity” and Canadian values is extraordinary and a major clue to the tactics and demeanor of the company.
  • There is no political will. Canadian mining companies do business around the world and the last thing they want their governments to do is play the nationalistic card. It is potentially short-sighted as Canadian assets get bought up by the Chinese who are spending their American dollars before they depreciate.
  • Emotion has run amuck at the highest levels of this conflict. It is personal and therefore all of this is very dangerous.

Cooler heads must prevail. Is the union prepared to prolong the suffering of many to protect the 10 men who were fired during the strike? It is cheaper to put them on the union payroll for the next 10 years than continue this madness. Is the company prepared to continue to hold a community hostage for 10 men they fired during the strike? Send them to Stobie Mine with a box lunch and forget it. Split the difference. The people of Sudbury must find a way to put an end to this psychosis which is shared by both parties.

It is time once again for Sudbury to put itself first.