Excerpt: From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City: A Historical Geography of Greater Sudbury – by Oiva W. Saarinen

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Sudbury: A Union Town? (Part 4 of 5)

The Battle for Inco Begins

The District Two Convention held in Sudbury April 24–29, 1961, served as the scene of the first clash in the all-out battle for union supremacy. In contrast to the local’s meetings where it was the old guard leading the confrontation process, the new guard led by Gillis took this opportunity to harangue Chairman Solski and his supporters. Predictably, chaos resulted, and not a single resolution was passed. Since no progress had been achieved, the Gillis executive again did not remit the local’s dues to the National Office.

This move was supported by the majority of the local’s members, as shown by the third election victory of the Gillis slate on June 7, 1961. By this time, the new Local 598 leaders were exploring the option of seceding Local 598 from the National and International Union, and becoming a chartered local of the CLC.

When it became clear that the only way Local 598 could get into the CLC was by joining the Steelworkers, The Sudbury Star joined in the cause by printing a story under the headline, “Has Steel Begun Drive to Supplant Mine Mill?” Given the threat of losing Local 598’s buildings and finances, the National Office succeeded in acquiring a local injunction, allowing William Kennedy, its Secretary-Treasurer, to administer the local on the National’s behalf. On August 26, the Union Hall was taken over by Kennedy.

Thus began what became known as the Union Hall Riot, featuring a siege of the Union Hall by hundreds of pro-Gillis members. The hall was barricaded and defended with fire hoses by thirty Mine Mill supporters. Blow-by-blow bulletins from local radio stations ensured a growing crowd to witness the spectacle. The siege continued into the morning, until Sheriff Lamoureux literally read the Riot Act. According to one source, this riot was pivotal, as its public relations impact drove the final nail into Mine Mill’s coffin.

A later ruling by the Ontario Supreme Court restored control of Local 598 to the elected officers of Local 598. In the meantime, the National Office took the questionable step of signing a mutual assistance pact with the Teamsters in an attempt to bolster its coffers, which had been depleted by Local 598’s refusal to pay dues. This decision played into the hands of the Gillis team. They argued that if members had to choose between the Teamsters and the Steelworkers, they should select the Steelworkers. To gauge the feelings of the Local 598 membership, a mass meeting was held at the Sudbury Arena on September 11, 1961. In attendance were representatives of the CLC, the Steelworkers, and the Gillis executive. When Mike Solski and members of the National Office including Nels Thibault were denied entry, the boisterous crowd of some 4 000 began a huge melee, forcing the meeting to end early.

On September 11, 1961, the Steelworkers formally began their campaign, setting the stage for the most complicated application for certification in the history of the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB). At a meeting held later at the Mine Mill hall, the Steelworkers announced news of a grand coup—Bob Carlin had defected to the Steelworkers! Before long, the unsettled situation made it impossible to hold membership meetings. Mine Mill members were angry that while the salaries of the Gillis slate were paid by Mine Mill, these same people were openly working for the Steelworkers.

Attempts by Mine Mill to use the courts to deal with this conflict of interest were unsuccessful. Inco took advantage of the divisive situation and refused to bargain. A furious public relations battle ensued, involving the media and a barrage of leaflets. Finally, on November 11, 1961, the Steelworkers made formal application to the OLRB for bargaining rights at the Inco operations in Sudbury, claiming it had the required number of cards signed. Despite a number of seemingly valid objections from Mine Mill, a certification vote was set by the OLRB from February 27 to March 3.

This decision set off another flurry of activity, not only in Sudbury, but elsewhere. At Port Colborne, Mine Mill lost a vote to Steel in December 1961 with disastrous consequences, because it provided psychological support to the Steelworkers efforts in Sudbury. Other assistance to the Gillis faction was given by the deputy commissioner of the RCMP and federal Justice Minister Davie Fulton. Prime Minister Diefenbaker embraced Gillis, appointing him labour representative to a NATO conference in Paris. The Province of Ontario added political support by appointing Gillis as the labour representative on the Ontario Economic Council. Attention too was given to the ruling of the Subversive Activities Control Board in the US that declared Mine Mill to be a Communist organization, thereby linking the Canadian leadership to the Communist Party. In April of 1962, the Steel surge gained momentum with a resounding victory at Thompson, Manitoba that routed Mine Mill as the bargaining agent.

The Sudbury vote took place as ordered. When the results were announced on June 2, 1962, the Steelworkers won by a narrow margin of fifteen votes. This narrow victory, accompanied by the Steelworkers being denied of certification at Falconbridge Nickel because of numerous forgeries, caused many voices, including that of the Northern Miner, to call for a new vote. The OLRB refused to permit one, so on October 15, 1962, the history of unionism was radically changed when the Steelworkers were certified as the bargaining agent for all Inco workers in the Sudbury area. By the end of the year, the CIL workers joined the Steelworkers. Local 598, however, continued to be the bargaining agent for the workers at Falconbridge Nickel.

In the election held on October 24, 1962, the Gillis slate was defeated, but this was a shallow victory for Mine Mill supporters, given the certification won by the Steelworkers at Inco. The new slate at Falconbridge applied to have the Steelworkers’ certification at Inco revoked by the OLRB early in 1963. The OLRB denied the application, and refused to revoke its decision of October 15, 1962, or to order a new vote. It is nevertheless remarkable that Mine Mill, despite all of the forces that had been marshalled against it since 1947, was still able to put up such a strong fight—one that they arguably should have won.

Taking advantage of the chaotic situation, Inco laid off 2 200 employees in 1962, making it difficult for the Steelworkers to negotiate a new contract. Inco took the position that the existing Mine Mill contract was void and that the teelworkers had to start a new bargaining process. It was another eight months before a new three-year contract was signed in 1963. Undaunted by its loss in 1962, Mine Mill also found some consolation in the fact that Don Gillis, the Progressive Conservative candidate in the federal election that same year, suffered an overwhelming defeat after a controversial campaign involving a riot at the Chelmsford Union Hall with Prime Minister Diefenbaker in attendance. In 1965, Mine Mill tried once more to regain control of the Inco workers without success.

The Steelworkers victory at this time was aided by new employees hired in late 1964 and 1965 who had no past loyalty to Mine Mill. Many workers by this time had also become tired of the inter-union rivalry, and voted for the status quo. Other workers concluded that peace was more likely if the Steelworkers remained as the bargaining agent.

The Steelworkers celebrated these events by acquiring the imposing Legion Hall that had been erected in 1947 as its local headquarters. This was a strategic acquisition, as the building was associated with Canada’s military history, and commanded patriotism and respect from the public at large. The need for a Steelworkers hall was dictated by the fact that Mine Mill Local 598 still owned all of its previous assets and properties (Mine Mill kept its old home on Regent Street until 1999, when it was sold to the Navy League). After a wildcat strike almost a month long in 1966, and a brief legal strike lasting three days, another three-year agreement was reached between Inco and the Steelworkers.

With the softening of Cold War rhetoric, the discrediting of McCarthyism in the United States, and the growing understanding that a united union movement was more effective than one that was divided, a momentous step was taken in 1967, when the IUMMSW and the USWA in the United States and Canada agreed on a “non-raiding pact” and the merging of two unions. Suddenly, old enemies became new friends. Nels Thibault, for instance, became a successful organizer for the Steelworkers in Canada, and other Mine Mill officers were given staff positions. These actions undercut the validity of previous “anti-Communism” stances that had proved so damaging to Mine Mill.

The Steel Raids at Falconbridge Nickel

The 1967 merger was distinctive in that Local 598 at Falconbridge became the only local of the IUMMSW in North America that voted to remain outside of the agreement. While the events at Inco during the 1950s and 1960s were taking place, the Steelworkers also conducted a parallel campaign at Falconbridge Nickel. It appeared on the surface that there were two campaigns by the Steelworkers in the Sudbury area, but the reality was that the Steelworkers had Inco as its primary focus. The Steelworkers, however, eventually discovered that the organizational culture at Falconbridge was different from that which existed at Inco. Following certification as a Mine Mill local in 1944, the miners at Falconbridge expressed the desire for an autonomous local that would represent their interests first.

This did not happen, and until 1962, Mine Mill served as the bargaining agent for both Inco and Falconbridge; during this period, a tradition emerged that the Inco contracts would be first ratified, followed by a similar agreement at Falconbridge. This pattern meant many of the unique concerns at Falconbridge were rarely addressed. The situation was aggravated after the 1958 strike at Inco; the Falconbridge workers were tied to the meagre gains won there, when in fact they were in an excellent position to bargain with their own company because it had no financial difficulties. In this atmosphere, a referendum was approved by the Falconbridge workers for separate local status.

Since many of these workers were loyal to the National Office, its executive board issued a separate charter—Local 1025—to the Falconbridge employees. However, the OLRB dismissed Local 1025’s application for certification on May 4, 1960. Two weeks later, many Falconbridge workers staged a wildcat strike lasting almost a month, resulting in numerous penalties and discharges against union workers that were upheld by the OLRB. The National Office then withdrew its charter for Local 1025. The Steelworkers continued their membership drive at Falconbridge, and in late February 1962 made an application for certification to the OLRB. When a number of forged cards were discovered, the Steelworkers realized the weakness of their position, and withdrew their application. The officials of Mine Mill were jubilant over this rare victory. On August 20, 1965, the Steelworkers filed another application before the OLRB that was again rejected due to the lack of signed cards.

The Steelworker’s efforts to organize the Falconbridge workers in 1965 were not a complete failure. In that year, Steelworker’s Local 6855 was chartered to represent the company’s office and technical staff. On June 21, 1966, the Steelworkers filed their third

application for certification, only to again concede defeat. It was clear by now that the “raiding stick” would never lead to a successful campaign at Falconbridge; as a result, the Steelworkers decided to “dangle a carrot” before the Falconbridge workers in the form of a merger agreement with Mine Mill. This tactic did not work either. When the Canadian section of Mine Mill voted in favour of the merger in 1967, every local voted in favour with the exception of Local 598. In a surprise concessionary move, the president of Steelworkers Local 6500 made an announcement supporting the position taken by the Mine Mill workers at Falconbridge. While this effectively ended the attempt to merge Local 598 with the Steelworkers, it remained another two years before the legality of Local 598’s independence was established. As a result of these events, Local 598 managed to retain ownership of its union hall on Regent Street in Sudbury.

The question is: why were Falconbridge workers so adamant in their rejection of the Steelworkers? One reason for this stance was the higher proportion of miners at Falconbridge. At Inco, miners comprised about half of the labour force, while the comparable figure at Falconbridge was in excess of 60 per cent.41 The difference was important, as it was the miners who traditionally were the strongest supporters of Mine Mill and its National Office. According to Sheila Arnopoulos, another important but unappreciated factor was the francophone influence: “The French miners did not always figure so prominently in the union, but in the end they contributed an important chapter to Canadian labour history by saving Mine-Mill from absorption by the United Steelworkers of America.

Although not always widely recognized, the French were the soul of an historic fight to save one of Canada’s most avant-garde and controversial unions from passing into oblivion.” In supporting this conclusion, the author brought forward a number of intriguing propositions. First, she asserted that the French miners in Sudbury were traditionally alienated from their elite—the teachers, Jesuits, and professionals. For this reason, they were more loyal to their work and the concept of an independent union than they were to their cultural elite. The union was second only to their families.

Second, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the miners were fighting for Mine Mill against the Steelworkers, they received no support from the French elite. Indeed, many French workers felt that the Roman Catholic Church did everything it could to destroy the union. It was asserted by some that French miners could not obtain employment with Inco in the 1930s unless they had the approval of a local priest. Third, the French miners did not care whether their leaders were Communists or not; they judged them on their union record, not their personal politics. Fourth, Mine Mill was important because it made more effort than any other institution to recognize their French-speaking needs. One of the few places where miners could socialize in French was at the Mine Mill halls and summer camp situated on Lake Richard. For these reasons, there was nearly unanimous support among the French speaking miners for Mine Mill. While francophones played important roles in Mine Mill, it remained until 1974 before a Franco-Ontario miner—Emile Prudhomme—became president of the local. Since then, the French presence within the union has been strong.

End of Excerpt

The Book

From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City is a historical geography of the City of Greater Sudbury. The story that began billions of years ago encompasses dramatic physical and human events. Among them are volcanic eruptions, two meteorite impacts, the ebb and flow of continental glaciers, Aboriginal occupancy, exploration and mapping by Europeans, exploitation by fur traders and Canadian lumbermen and American entrepreneurs, the rise of global mining giants, unionism, pollution and re-greening, and the creation of a unique constellation city of 160,000.

The title posits the book’s two main themes, one physical in nature and the other human: the great meteorite impact of some 1.85 billion years ago and the development of Sudbury from its inception in 1883. Unlike other large centres in Canada that exhibit a metropolitan form of development with a core and surrounding suburbs, Sudbury developed in a pattern resembling a cluster of stars of differing sizes.

Many of Sudbury’s most characteristic attributes are undergoing transformation. Its rocky terrain and the negative impact from mining companies are giving way to attractive neighbourhoods and the planting of millions of trees. Greater Sudbury’s blue-collar image as a union powerhouse in a one-industry town is also changing; recent advances in the fields of health, education, retailing, and the local and international mining supply and services sector have greatly diversified its employment base. This book shows how Sudbury evolved from a village to become the regional centre for northeastern Ontario and a global model for economic diversification and environmental rehabilitation.

The Author

Oiva Saarinen received an Honors B.A. (1960) and an M.A. (1969) from the University of Western Ontario and a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of London in 1979. He retired from Laurentian University in 2003. He is the author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Historical Geography of the Finns in the Sudbury Area (WLU Press, 1999).

For “Sudbury: A Union Town?” Part 3 of 5, click here: http://republicofmining.com/2013/06/20/excerpt-from-meteorite-impact-to-constellation-city-a-historical-geography-of-greater-sudbury-by-oiva-w-saarinen-4/

To order a copy of “From Meteorite Impact to Constellation City”, please click here: http://www.wlupress.wlu.ca/Catalog/saarinen-meteorite.shtml

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