[Vale Inco Miner’s Income] Where upper-class incomes are earned underground – by Tony Van Alphen (Toronto Star-May 18, 2008)

Tony Van Alphen is a business reporter with 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. This article was originally published May 18, 2008.

SUDBURY– Jack (Coco) Simons could retire today with a good pension. But he’s having too much fun making a whole lot of money underground.

Riding the boom of all booms here, Simons collected about $152,000 in gross pay last year as a top-notch production miner at Vale Inco’s Coleman Mine in the northwest end of the city.

This year, Simons says he could crack the $165,000 mark with a little more overtime. “It would be foolish for me to quit now,” says the fit, 53-year-old Simons, relaxing on his couch after a 12-hour shift. “I love this. The money is just too good. It’s motivational. Why not go for it.”

Sudbury miners are making more money than ever because of soaring nickel prices and worldwide demand for the mineral, a key element in stainless steel and other alloys. Simons receives a base rate of $27.81 an hour but earns a great deal more because he’s a member of one of numerous elite crews that each extract thousands of tons of ore every week.

The “partners” in the seven-member crew get extra pay for overtime, a shift premium for afternoon or overnight work, a special production incentive for the amount of ore the group extracts, vacation pay, and the mother of all compensation sweeteners, a “nickel bonus” tied to company profits or the price of the metal, whichever is higher. The bonus, negotiated by the company and the United Steelworkers union in 1985, when nickel prices were depressed, has turned into a windfall for employees.

In the first three months of this year, the bonus generated in excess of $7,000 for Simons. Last year, he collected more than $37,000 when nickel prices and profits hit new records (the metal peaked at $24.59 U.S. in 2007).

Bernie Whitmel, 36, one of Simons’ younger co-workers, earned about $148,000 in gross pay in 2007 and thinks he will exceed $150,000 this year. (Some miners are even topping $180,000 because of extra overtime.)

“I work a little less overtime than Coco, but the money is unbelievable,” says Whitmel, a graduate of the three-year mining program at the Haileybury School of Mines in Northern Ontario. “I could be doing something else in the industry, but I enjoy the physical labour. It’s challenging and interesting.”

Simons, a 33-year-mining veteran who could get a monthly pension of $3,600 tomorrow, says the extra pay will likely lengthen his underground career until the end of 2010 and possibly longer.

“I’m in pretty good shape, so why not,” says Simons, a married father of two who still plays oldtimers’ hockey. “It keeps me going. I also like the variety of jobs.”

Members of Simons’ crew drill holes in an ore face, pack them with explosives, blast the ore into smaller pieces and then “muck it out” with rumbling load-haul-dump (LHD) vehicles to ore passes for delivery up to the surface. Once the ore is removed, they reinforce the ceiling of the new tunnel with steel rods and screening. Then they move along the rock face and start the process all over again.

Simons’ task changes all the time. He’s currently using a bolting machine to install rods in the tunnel’s ceiling, 1,280 metres underground. Next week, he might be driving an LHD vehicle or “scoop tram.” Its cab includes air conditioning and a stereo system.

Mining has changed dramatically since Simons graduated from high school here in the `70s. Advances in technology and equipment have greatly reduced physical labour, jacked up productivity, improved safety and reduced emissions.

“I would never be able to last this long underground without the improvements,” he says. Whitmel, a father of three who snowboards, plays hockey and rides horses, says he can imagine working underground when he’s in his 60s.

“We’ve got a very good situation.”