Vale Still Bitter Over Year-Long Sudbury Mining Strike – by John Fera

John Fera is the president of United Steelworkers Local 6500. He is retiring on August 1, 2010.

While United Steelworkers in Sudbury and Port Colborne are returning to work, it will take considerable time for many in our communities to overcome the pain and hardship of the year-long strike against Vale.

Indeed, over the last couple of weeks there has been consensus from all corners that it is essential for Vale to build respectful and productive relationships with its Canadian workers and their communities.

In this light, it is profoundly disappointing to see Vale’s top executives going out of their way to make public statements that show no interest in fostering trust, goodwill and respect with workers.

Vale’s CEO Roger Agnelli claims the strike was so prolonged because “the United Steelworkers has a long record of conflicts and strikes.” Well, I’m sorry Mr. Agnelli but the USW has been representing the miners in these communities for generations and in Vale’s first negotiations it has managed to extend their strike to more that 100 days longer than the longest ever strike at Inco.

Contracts for good wages, pensions and benefits typically have resulted from hard-nosed negotiations, short strikes and goodwill, until this unprecedented aggressive Vale approach.

Agnelli conveniently ignores the role played by Vale’s recruitment of replacement workers. Research in Canada shows the use of replacement workers during a strike produces a longer and a more acrimonious strike. Provinces that have legislation prohibiting the use of replacement workers have consistently smoother labour relations.

Vale’s Executive Director Tito Martins declares the importance of the new contract is “that it limits the power of the USW in the relationship between the

employer and employee,” and gloats that now “the union will stand by and not get between the employer and the employee.”

Far from building peace, such statements, in addition to being factually wrong, demonstrate an arrogance and contempt for our working families. They also suggest a continuing need by Vale executives to justify their actions and results, and a need to point the finger at someone else.

Mr. Agnelli continues the finger pointing by characterizing the Steelworkers strike actions as attempting “to export the conflict to other Vale operations.”

This apparently is a reference to the global solidarity campaign launched during the Canadian strike, which Vale’s CEO dismisses — with typical arrogance — as unsuccessful.

As a result of this strike, the USW has strengthened international alliances and formed partnerships in numerous countries, including several where Vale operates. Through international trade unions and organizations such as the “International Movement of Those Affected by Vale,” we continue a collective struggle to improve the lot of workers, communities and the environment in all countries where this company operates.

If Vale executives see that as a failure, so be it.

Juxtaposed to the union’s “export of conflict,” Agnelli portrays Vale’s rigid demands as simply “aligning” Canadian operations to their “successful system that exists in other countries where we operate.”

Once again, I’m sorry Mr. Agnelli, but everyone recognizes this translates into “lowering standards and conditions to the lowest level possible,” whether it’s found in Indonesia, Brazil or Mozambique.

It is interesting that Vale’s justifications of its demands are never in terms of specific profitability of the Canadian operations, but always in terms of whether they meet Vale’s worldwide system of lowest common denominator.

Vale also boasts that its “successful system” in other countries has brought a long-standing tradition of labour stability.

In reality, workers in many other countries are ill-equipped

to stand up to Vale’s massive wealth and its demonstrated willingness to wield its immense power to quell collective action.

Many countries in which Vale operates lack the labour rights and health, safety and environmental regulations Canada has. Without such safeguards and a strong union, communities like Sudbury and Port Colborne would quickly look very different.

The strike is over. It’s time for Vale executives to get over the bitterness and start repairing the relationships they so callously ridicule.