[Thompson, Manitoba Steelworkers President] Nychyporuk says ‘no’: USW rejects vision – by Ryan Flanagan (Thompson Citizen – May 21, 2011)

This article was originally published in the Thompson Citizen which was established in June 1960. The Citizen covers the City of Thompson and Nickel Belt Region of Northern Manitoba. The city has a population of about 13,500 residents while the regional population is more than 40,000.  news@thompsoncitizen.net

“We believe our community will not recover from the loss of our jobs or
any other related employment. We also believe this decision will change
the landscape of our community forever.” (Thompson Steelworker President
Murray Nychyporuk – May 21, 2011)

Almost exactly six months after Vale’s announcement that they will close their Thompson smelter and refinery by the end of 2015, the company and other local stakeholders have begun to turn their attention to what they want the city to look like after that point.

In a joint May 18 news release from the City of Thompson and Vale, the two groups announced the formation of the Thompson Economic Diversification Working Group (TEDWG), which will be chaired by the city and will also include representation from local business and aboriginal communities. Vale is funding the group, which is expected to last an initial 12 months for identification and implementation of a strategy.

“What I want this working group to do is go out there and really drill down,” said Mayor Tim Johnston. “Go out there and get the details of some proposals – I want them to be really detailed, looking at what are real opportunities.”

“What I’ll be saying to the working group is that I don’t want [them] to come back and give me some easy answers that we should be doing this or should be doing this, I want the working group to specifically identify what can be real opportunities in terms of creating jobs, and give us a real detailed plan on how we access the resources or the investment to develop those specific initiatives,” he continued. “I don’t want this to be a superficial report that says ‘oh yeah, you guys should be looking at this.’ I want the working group to work on a very detailed action steps for economic diversification.”

TEDWG is expected to hold their first meeting in the week after Victoria Day, at which the process of how the group will accomplish these goals will be discussed. Also involved will be rePlan, a Toronto-based consulting firm which regularly works with municipal governments on similar projects.

Although the release only specifically mentioned Vale and the city as taking part in the group, other groups that have been invited to join include the provincial and federal governments, United Steelworkers Local 6166, and aboriginal organizations such as Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the Keewatin Tribal Council, the Manitoba Métis Federation, and the Northern Association of Community Councils.

This is in part, Johnston said, because TEDWG will take a wider look at Thompson’s role with respect to other communities in Northern Manitoba and beyond – one of the major differences between this group and Thompson Unlimited, which has a similar mandate and will be available to TEDWG as a resource. “Thompson Unlimited is very Thompson-focused,” he said. “This [working group] is going to expand on that work – we’re also going to be looking at some of the other key players related to this economic development initiative and including regional players as well.”

Community feedback will be another important part of this endeavour, with a new website being created to provide the public with information and solicit the public’s opinions – but there will be other ways for the community to contribute as well. “We need to get moving on this part of the work as soon as possible,” said Johnston. “I’m going to bring this group together next week, we’re going to get to the community very soon, and I expect that the group’s going to start working immediately.”

The city’s Sustainable Community Plan, which was first presented to the public last October, will form the backbone of the working group’s direction. “The Community Sustainable Plan was always going to be moving forward with respect to economic development and diversification,” said Johnston. “I think this is an opportunity to move it forward a little bit sooner in terms of getting to those real detailed things, because we’re challenged by this decision.”

The Steelworkers, meanwhile, say that no amount of economic diversification can replace those jobs potentially lost in 2015. In a letter to union membership, also dated May 18, USW Local 6166 president Murray Nychyporuk wrote that the union remains focused on working with the province to maintain a fully-integrated operation in Thompson, and preparing for bargaining a new collective agreement with Vale – the current one expires in September.

“With respect for the process today to launch the Economic Diversification Working Group, we have, in the past, participated in discussions with Vale, the City of Thompson, and the provincial government,” wrote Nychyporuk. “Although ideas were shared and discussed, we believe our community will not recover from the loss of our jobs or any other related employment. We also believe this decision will change the landscape of our community forever.”

Nychyporuk’s letter also outlined the seven proposals that had been presented to Vale in February, which he said “answered the two key issues by Vale, which were SO2 emissions and feed shortfalls.”

These proposals included allowing for flexibility in regulations around SO2 emissions, through discussions with the federal government, providing a sustainable operating capacity for smelting and refining, accelerating exploration and mine development, creating support for metallurgical processing of magnesium oxide ore, building a new metallurgical facility, granting new mine status for future Manitoba operations, and selling the Manitoba Division outright.

“Presently, Vale’s plan to reduce our plant to a mine/mill operation has not changed,” wrote Nychyporuk. “We believe this decision has been made without due consideration of our proposals to keep the smelter and refinery open.”

The language in the joint press release was similar to language used by the city in the past. For example, the release says that the working group “will focus on initiatives that will strengthen Thompson’s position as a regional service centre with a strong mining pillar.”

Johnston said that this announcement should not be taken as a sign that the save-the-smelter campaign has fallen by the wayside. “We do not concede in any manner that the political process is or has been concluded,” he said. “Those discussions have to continue. This is just another added process that we’re initiating specifically on economic diversification – I don’t see this as in any way going on a different track than we we’ve been trying to do for the last five months.”

“Vale intends to be a major employer in Thompson for many years to come,” said Lovro Paulic, Vale general manager responsible for the smelter and refinery, in the release. “Mining is, and will continue to be, an important driver of the Thompson economy – as evidenced by our plans to invest more than $1 billion extending the life of the mines in Thompson and introducing new sources of ore. We’re confident the resource here continues to offer significant potential. At the same time, it makes sense for all of us to explore other means to secure the long-term success of our community and create additional pillars for economic growth.”

The release also stated that Vale has a “willingness to work collaboratively with the city on issues relating to the future of its annual grant-in-lieu-of-taxes payment, land transfers, and other matters related to Thompson’s long-term future.” Johnston noted that the province remains supportive of the city on these issues as well.