The Vale Inco Stike of 2009-2010 Leaves a Bitter Legacy in Sudbury (16 Tons and What Do You Get?)- by Michael Atkins

Michael Atkins is the president of Laurentian Media Group This column was published in the July 20, 2010 edition of Northern Life

The column was originally titled “16 Tons and What Do You Get” but was changed for web searches.

“Sixteen Tons” is a song about the life of a coal miner, first recorded in 1946 by American country singer Merle Travis and released on his box set album Folk Songs of the Hills the following year. A 1955 version recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford reached number one in the Billboard charts, while another version by Frankie Laine was released only in the United Kingdom, where it gave Ford’s version some stiff competition. Travis claimed authorship of the song, but a competing claim was made by George S. Davis.  (wiki)

Long strikes get forgotten everywhere except where they happen. Sometimes they get forgotten before they are over. The United Steelworker/Vale Inco fight to the finish this year had many twists and turns, some of them quite surprising. It will not soon be forgotten.

It became clear by mid-winter it was hopeless to try to introduce common sense. It was a strike over principal and neither party was prepared to give up their principal until they had won or had no choice.

It was an epic battle. To think that, after a year off work, and with tens of millions of dollars lost by the company, and the union suffering indignity after indignity (particularly the settlement of a sister union whose workers, in part, were doing the work of strikers), it took an eleventh-hour nudge (or was it an ultimatum) by the provincial Minister of Labour to get an agreement from both parties to refer their last issue (nine fired workers) to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for a decision.

It was clear from the very beginning the company had the upper hand and they were prepared to use it. Their language was tough and uncompromising. The company had been through more than a couple of presidents who either didn’t get it or chose not to get the new tone. They’d eliminated all sorts of management layers at the top end and at no time did they deviate from a “take or leave it” attitude. They brought in replacement workers without batting an eyelash and, more than once, felt the need to remind the union it was their business and they would run it they way they wanted.

It is impossible in the aftermath not to try to figure out what it all means.

I don’t know.

The company had the union on the mat. Their brothers at Local 2020 had not supported them. The community was strangely ambivalent about the strike this time round, the Federal Government was actually cheering for the company and, as the local MPP for the provincial Liberals put it, they took no side on the matter which is a proxy for the company. That ends the list of people who could have actually helped.

The union was all but alone, which could be measured by the increasing frustration of Leo Gerard, the international president of the Steelworkers, who lost his cool on more than one occasion.

And yet, although the union lost on every bone of contention (bonuses, pensions, bumping rights, back to work protocol) they didn’t lose as much as they would have without the sacrifice. They improved the kick-in of the nickel bonus, but gave it back with the 25 per cent cap; they lost the pension transformation to a defined contribution program, but it was improved in the end. They didn’t win the back-to-work protocol for the fired strikers, but they didn’t lose it either.

Basically what they did is survive. They were operating on vapour in the end.

For some reason the company took its foot off the union’s throat. We may never know why, but there is no indication the company couldn’t have outlasted this union and, for all intent and purpose, put it out of business in Sudbury. They were — and are — immune to the historic community sensibilities and financial constraints.

Anyone who can buy a company for $20 billion, without really knowing what it bought, can afford to do whatever it wants — and they did.

Sudbury will never be the same. The day Local 2020 abandoned its brothers on the picket lines the labour social contract in Sudbury was broken. And yet the union didn’t break.

The future is hard to predict. Actual mining will continue to diminish its footprint in Sudbury while the mining supply and services cluster should grow. Vale is unlikely to take much interest in Sudbury but, no doubt, will be smarter by taking less for granted. They have created, however, a new generation of activists in the union — an unintended consequence they may live to regret.

Sudbury is entering a post-mining period. It is entering a new era of globalization and different actors and trends will call the shots.

Someday we may look back on this year of angst, not as the war of attrition it was but, as the beginning of a new era — one where sustainable practices and community collaboration will replace debilitating win-lose battles that have defined our history and concluded with another senseless loss of trust and goodwill.

“Another day older” … and to whom will we owe our soul to tomorrow?

Michael Atkins is president of Northern Life. This column appears in the August issue of Northern Ontario Business.