Inside Sudbury’s Bitter Vale Strike – by Linda Diebel (Toronto Star-June 6, 2010)

Linda Diebel is a National Affairs Writer for the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. Linda Diebel is originally from Sudbury. This article was published on Sunday, June 6, 2010.

COPPER CLIFF, ONT.—My grandmother, Lillian Rose, was the sweetest person I’ve ever known. She gave up more than youth and beauty to leave England and come with her husband to the nickel mines of Canada’s Precambrian Shield. The Sudbury region, some 400 kilometres north of Toronto, is an unforgiving place for a fragile English rose.

During the last 40 years of her life, she had a disease that turned her once-pale skin red and left it blistered and scabbed. The constant flaking embarrassed her and, on bad days, the pain sent her to bed. My earliest memory — and I was no more than 18 months — was of being on her bed on Jones Lane in Copper Cliff, understanding even then I had to be gentle.

Doctors couldn’t help because they believed her allergic to the air she breathed, a soup of industrial pollutants. Sometimes the sulphur was so thick it seared the throat.

Move away, they said, and your skin will clear up. But they didn’t talk about that publicly. My grandfather Reg was an electrician at the Copper Cliff smelter and his job, and the livelihoods of the physicians themselves, depended on what was then King Inco, the world’s biggest producer of nickel.

Lately, Lillian Rose has been on my mind. Last Sunday, I was preparing to fly north to write about the 11-month-long strike against Inco, now called Vale, by 3,000 members of the United Steelworkers Local 6500. The pending trip evoked memories, and I found myself staring at a faded photo of my grandmother and me.

Still, I had no intention of writing about her.

My story would be about the culture of a company town from the perspective of generations of men who went down the mines, or worked in the smelter or refinery, at what used to be Inco. That seemed the best place to start, given that Inco’s owner since 2006 — Companhia Vale do Rio Doce — insists the working culture of its new operations must change.

By that, the Brazilian behemoth that bought Inco for $19.4 billion, creating Vale Inco (now simply Vale), means lower costs and higher production. Words of praise for Sudbury and its workers that flowed so freely after the enormous sale have morphed into terse complaints about a “sense of entitlement” among miners and veiled threats the whole operation could collapse.

A strategy document prepared by a Vale working group in Toronto last June, and leaked early this year to the Sudbury Star, brims with MBA-speak, upbeat in tone, deadly in intent. It warns: “Sudbury does not have the capacity to change organically. It will have to be done by us.”

Cory McPhee, Vale’s corporate affairs vice-president, says the language of a mere planning workshop has been misinterpreted. But people here are afraid. Although the two sides began bargaining with provincial mediator Kevin Burkett in Toronto on Friday and are scheduled to talk until Monday, the future remains wildly uncertain.

Worst-case scenario? The death of a company town and the end of the union as miners have known it. With their top bosses in Brazil, they worry about a loss of control over their future — as if they ever had control facing the swagger of the International Nickel Co., with its American executives and wealth pulled from Sudbury ground and poured into often ill-conceived global ventures.

“The Arrogance of Inco” is the headline on a brilliant 1979 story in Canadian Business magazine by the late Val Ross. The subhead elaborates: “ ‘If you don’t like it, take it or leave it,’ rumbled a company founder in 1886. That has been Inco’s attitude ever since — to customers, to labour unions.”

Could Vale be worse than that? Yes, says miner Michael O’Brien, 29, a proud Copper Cliff boy who has the smelter and the iconic Superstack tattooed on his arm. “This company’s so huge,” he says, of Vale. “To me, they’re nameless, faceless, unknown. The worst of globalization has finally hit us.”

Clearly, there’s a failure to communicate on a massive scale.

The Steelworkers are suspicious of the Brazilian owners and fear they want to crush the union and turn once mighty mining operations into a turnstile for temporary workers. The company counters with cries of foreign-bashing by the union and allegations of vandalism and dangerous tactics on the picket line.

There was no room in this story for Lillian Rose.

And yet, by a twist of fate on a muggy Monday, here I am, walking up the steps of the house where I used to live in Copper Cliff, a few kilometres west of Sudbury off Highway 17.

It’s on Power Street, a stone’s throw from my grandparents’ former house on Jones. It sits in the shadow of the Superstack and the Copper Cliff smelter. There’s a creek in the back that flows with runoff from ore processing at the nearby Clarabelle mill.

It’s the house I most associate with my grandmother in her last few years. My family moved in when I was finishing high school. After my first year of university, I worked a summer in the Inco offices, on the other side of the tracks.

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