Truth time on Thompson, Manitoba smelter and refinery – Editorial (Thompson Citizen – October 26, 2011)

The Thompson Citizen, which was established in June 1960, 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.

It’s time for all the parties or stakeholders to tell the truth about Vale’s plan, announced almost a year ago, to close the Thompson refinery and smelter in 2015. And the truth is the smelter and refinery is closing. Vale has been consistent in their position on this since the day they made the bombshell announcement last Nov. 17.

You don’t have to like that piece of bad news delivered by Tito Martins, chief executive officer of Vale Canada in Toronto and executive director of base metals for the Brazilian parent company, or for that matter you don’t have to like Martins’ direct style or Martins’ himself even. That’s OK.

But you have to give credit where credit is due and Tito Martins has been nothing but a straight shooter on the company’s position on closing the smelter and refinery. He’s told people involved privately what he’s said publicly. And just in case anyone didn’t get the message Nov. 17, 2010 he reiterated it in person Jan. 26 at the Juniper Centre at the Thompson Chamber of Commerce annual general meeting.

Ditto for Murray Nychyporuk, president of USW Local 6166, when it comes to being a straight shooter on the smelter and refinery file. No surprise his members, who stand to lose 500 jobs and $65 million in payroll directly when the smelter and refinery close – which will possibly result in perhaps half that number of unionized members actually being laid off, although it’s too early to know for certain – spent 10 months vigorously opposing the closures. But, for all intents and purposes, the USW effectively signed off on the smelter and refinery closures in 2015 when they inked a new three-contract with Vale Sept. 15, although they will get one last kick at the can before then in 2014 contract negotiations.

The closure of the smelter and refinery, which opened March 25, 1961, as the world’s first fully integrated nickel operation at a cost of $185 million, was not considered a strike issue this fall, with the memory of two long and bitter labour disputes, both now resolved, in Sudbury and Voisey’s Bay, still fresh in everyone’s mind.

After almost a year on the picket line between July 2009 and July 2010, striking Steelworkers at Local 6500 in Sudbury and Local 6200 in Port Colborne, Ont. voted about 75 per cent to ratify a five-year deal with Vale, four days short of a year of going on strike. Striking United Steelworkers Local 9508 Vale workers at Voisey’s Bay fly-in nickel mine in northern Labrador voted 88 per cent in favour of a new five-year contract the end of January to end their bitter 18-month strike against, which began Aug. 1, 2009, and return to work.

“Obviously, the gains we have made are bittersweet, given Vale’s plans to close our smelter and refinery in 2015, eliminating 500 jobs,” Nychyporuk said last month. “However, we were able to negotiate new language to try to mitigate the impact on our members.”

The new language includes a “preferential hiring” clause for workers who are laid off as a result of the closures. Laid-off Thompson workers will have hiring preference for employment opportunities at other Vale operations in Canada.

While it’s not scientific by any means, our readers probably had as clear a take on the situation as can be expected when we asked a poll question earlier this month, premised with “Vale and the USW have a new contract. The NDP has been re-elected. No one talks publicly anymore about the save-the-smelter (and refinery) campaign, although vague talk floats around about ‘value-added jobs.’ What do you think?” What 70.5 per cent of the 271 readers who answered the question thought was “both (the refinery and smelter) are history as of 2015.”

The City of Thompson, for its part is getting on with the Thompson Economic Diversification Working Group (TEDWG), announced jointly May 18 in a joint news release with Vale. The company is funding the group, which is expected to last an initial 12 months for identification and implementation of a strategy to replace the smelter and refinery. In an interview last week on the question of the closures, Mayor Tim Johnston said, “When somebody tells me they are going to do something and continues to tell me that and doesn’t give any indication they are going to act otherwise, I have to take them at their word.”

The federal Conservative government has made clear it has no intentions of blocking the closures. Churchill riding backbench opposition NDP MP Niki Ashton’s bid last February to enlist American filmmaker Michael Moore in the save-the-smelter fight, with the “Our Community. Our Resource. Our Canada” YouTube video, is the kind of stunt the media-savvy Ashton specializes in. It made for great political theatre when Moore finally got around to using it and mentioning the issue on his blog and The Huffington Post re-blogged it. But that’s the end of that story.

That leaves Manitoba. Thompson NDP MLA and Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation Steve Ashton says he is meeting this week with Dave Chomiak, minister of innovation, energy and mines, about The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act, which was passed and received royal assent June 16, but which has yet to be proclaimed into law.

Section 4 (a) of The Thompson Nickel Belt Sustainability Act, with its reference to the Thompson Nickel Belt Economic Development Fund, specifying the “operation of the fund is to be supported by amounts appropriated by the legislature for the fund, which amounts are to be determined with reference to the taxes paid by Vale under The Mining Tax Act,” is of particular interest to the USW and the City of Thompson, which cautiously support the legislation. Vale, not surprisingly, does not.