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 5 of 5)

Post-Merger Events

In the years following 1967, both unions went their separate ways, each respectful of the other. In 1969, Inco tested the mettle of the Steelworkers, resulting in a 128-day strike. Unlike previous strikes, this one was quiet and orderly. With no nickel stockpile at hand, the Steelworkers outlasted Inco. The strike ended on November 15, 1969, with the union winning major gains in wages and, for the first time, a cost of living allowance (COLA). The union made progress on issues such as the “contracting out” of jobs, training and apprenticeship opportunities, and an evaluation of all job classifications at Inco. The last act resulted in major monetary gains for numerous positions. Falconbridge workers went on strike around the same time and reached a similar settlement, albeit without a contracting out provision.

The signing of the 1969 contract set a positive tone for the next three years because of Inco’s desire to project a revamped company image. The setting was advantageous for the Steelworkers as well, and its membership rose to a peak of 18 224 in July of 1971. Over the next six months, however, the situation changed as Inco announced cutbacks, layoffs, and the closing of the Coniston smelter. Despite this gloomy setting, the union signed a contract that introduced a new clause allowing workers to retain their seniority throughout any of Inco’s operations. Formerly, workers who moved from one department to another lost their seniority. For the first time in mining history, a Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee (JOHC) was negotiated. During the 1970s, the Steelworkers promoted the concept of mining as a trade, and in cooperation with company officials and Local 598 at Falconbridge, created a “common core” training program for basic underground hard rock mining.

One of the major struggles for the Steelworkers in the 1960s and 1970s involved the status of health and safety legislation in the mining industry. Many Steelworkers continued to support the activist work of Mine Mill member Jean Gagnon, who had worked in Copper Cliff’s sintering plant in the 1950s. For his pioneering efforts over the years, Gagnon received the Order of Ontario on January 28, 2010.46 At the time, responsibility for these issues rested with the Ontario Department of Mines, later the Department of Mines and Forests. One of the serious problems with this administrative authority was that virtually all of the government officials were previous mining executives; former union officials were rarely hired. An intimate relationship thus existed between the provincial ministry and the local mining companies. While such collusion was vehemently denied by government officials, it was well known by union officials and workers that whenever there was a health or safety issue in any of the mines or plants that required investigation, the mining companies were notified in advance about when an inspection would be taking place.

This gave mine officials plenty of time to clean up any messes prior to inspection. This collusion was proved in the provincial legislature by Elie Martel, NDP representative for the Sudbury East Riding from 1967 to 1987. In a brilliant manoeuvre, Martel showed that a letter purportedly written by the Ontario Department of Mines and Forests in 1970 concerning serious gas and dust conditions in Inco’s Copper Cliff Roaster was actually a rewrite of an Inco letter previously sent to the ministry. This revelation made it perfectly clear that the ministry was working on behalf of the mining companies.

The Steelworkers were likewise concerned with the difficulties that workers had dealing with health issues in both the mining camps of Elliot Lake and Sudbury. An existing problem was that there were several provincial agencies responsible for health and safety. This allowed officials to diffuse blame and create major bureaucratic delays. In many instances, when cases went to court, provincial lawyers did not show up, forcing judges to throw the case out. While Bill 70 was eventually passed to address this issue, its long-term effects were questionable. In the area of workers’ compensation, a significant achievement was the establishment of a local branch office of the Workers’ Compensation Board, which grew to become the busiest office in Ontario. In line with the provisions of a contract signed in 1975 (following a ten-day strike), and the recommendations of the Ham Commission report issued in 1976, a major epidemiology study was funded by the Joint Occupational Health Committee (JOHC) regarding employees who had worked in the Sintering Plants at Copper Cliff and Coniston.

The Sintering Plant at Copper Cliff operated from 1948 to 1963 before it was closed. The Coniston plant was closed in 1972. The study noted the higher incidence of various illnesses, such as silicosis and cancer, experienced by workers in the plants compared to the population as a whole. The report also documented a high number of accidental and violent deaths among Sudbury miners.

Following a massive layoff of 2 800 in 1977 and the accumulation of another large inventory by Inco, the company again assumed a hard bargaining stance in 1978. This resulted in a 261-day strike lasting from September 16, 1978, to June 3, 1979. The strike, the biggest one in Canada’s history in lost man-days, proved to be costly for both the union and the company. For Inco, the strike turned out to be a public relations disaster, and a turning point for its corporate image. This was exemplified by a scathing article in Canadian Business magazine accusing the company of corporate arrogance. A Laurentian University study published in the same year found considerable community support for the strikers; this support included Mayor Jim Gordon, who claimed that the company was holding the city to ransom.

A major gain won by the union in the contract was the “30 years and out provision,” which allowed workers to retire with a full pension after three decades of work. This provision proved to be important, as it encouraged union workers to
remain in the area and support the Sudbury community.51 Another layoff, strike, and contract agreement cycle took place in 1982. This time, a one-month strike was followed by a nine-month shutdown due to low demand for nickel. Inco undertook further workforce reductions in 1984 and 1985. This brought the number of Inco’s layoffs that had taken place since 1971 to almost 6,000. In 1986, the office workers Local 6855 at Falconbridge staged a successful three-day strike.

Events proceeded well for the Steelworkers, as they signed three-year contract agreements with Inco in 1985, 1988, 1991, and 1994. It required a 26-day strike in 1997, though, before another agreement was reached with Inco, one that the Steelworkers proclaimed provided the “best industrial pension in Canada.” Changes in the labour scene then occurred at Falconbridge Ltd. and Mine Mill Local 598.

During the 1990s, two events took place that changed the setting considerably. The first was the merging of the Mine Mill local with the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) in 1993, a step that allowed it to become a member union in the CLC under its new name, Mine Mill/CAW Local 598. The second was the takeover of Falconbridge by Noranda Inc.(owned by Brascan). After its first acquisition of stock in 1989, Noranda’s ownership increased to more than 50 per cent in 2000. By this time, Noranda had started to implement a managerial model called Six Sigma, which required the removal of all personal considerations and the use of statistics to guide the company’s operations.

In line with this new philosophy, Noranda became one of the first companies in Ontario to realize the potential of the Harris government legislation in 1995 that reversed the anti-scab laws contained in the Labour Relations Act passed by Ontario’s New Democratic Party government in 1992. With these two considerations in mind, Falconbridge Ltd. introduced a different strategy for its bargaining stance with Mine Mill in 2000. When the company presented a new collective agreement demanding several concessions twelve hours prior to the expiration of the old contract, the union was caught off guard. In the past, there had been a well-understood collective agreement process, based to some degree on personal relationships. It was clear that this was no longer the case.

On August 1, 2000, the company’s intent to bring about a strike became a reality. Falconbridge attempted to undermine the local by emphasizing the censure of the CAW by the CLC, and by referring to Mine Mill as a “yellow union.” In another dramatic move, Falconbridge elected to scab the legal strike by using nickel concentrate from its Raglan operation in northern Quebec to feed the strikebound smelter in Sudbury. Both management personnel and outside labour were used to run the smelter. The plant’s output was then shipped to Norway, raising the ire of the workers at Falconbridge’s refinery there and resulting in a five-day support strike. A conciliatory attempt by the union to resolve some outstanding issues was rebuffed by the company. This was a move designed by Falconbridge to prolong the strike beyond six months, at which time the workers would no longer enjoy legal job protection. After the six-month deadline passed, the strike ended on February 20, 2001. While costly for Mine Mill, it emerged from the battle as a still-proud union. In 2004, another strike took place that lasted only three weeks. Events took a more favourable turn in 2007, when, for the first time since 1987, Local 598 managed to negotiate a contract without going on strike.

It was déjà vu in 2009 when more than 3 000 Steelworker workers went on strike against Vale Inco on July 13. Following the pattern set in 2000 by Falconbridge Ltd., Vale Inco opened negotiations by taking an aggressive bargaining stance, demanding pension, nickel bonus, and seniority concessions. Likewise, the company attempted to start bargaining “with a clean sheet.” This position was posited by the company because of the existing economic downturn, and its desire to remain competitive even in poor market conditions. In stark contrast to the optimism expressed by company officials at the time Inco was acquired in 2006, Vale Inco management claimed that the Sudbury operations were unsustainable.56 Adding fuel to the fire, federal Industry Minister Tony Clement uttered the politically damaging quote that without Vale Inco, the Sudbury area would be a “Valley of Death.” Other issues of concern for the company were the decline in nickel prices and the realization that perhaps it had paid too much money ($19 billion) to acquire Inco.

As the strike carried on, the company announced in August that it would resume production using members of the Steelworkers Local 2020, representing office, clerical, and technical workers, its non-union staff, and some outside workers, mainly for training purposes. A limited production schedule was introduced at two mines (Garson Ramp and Coleman), and the Clarabelle Mill. With no willingness on the part of union negotiators to participate in any form of concessionary bargaining, the stage was set for a prolonged strike. If the union thought Inco was large, it turned out that Vale Inco was massive. The Ontario operations, the be-all and end-all of old Inco, constituted only asmall proportion of Vale’s global operations. As the chief union negotiator stated, “it was their game. It was their rules.”58 Vale Inco, knowing that it could afford a long strike, simply waited for the mandatory six-month period to pass, at which point the company would no longer be compelled to rehire its former employees.

An interesting aspect of the strike was that many Sudbury residents and the two senior levels of government only showed ambivalence to the workers’ situation. So concerned were the Steelworkers about the lack of local support that Leo Gerard, the International President of the United Steelworkers union, felt compelled to deliver an ultimatum to thebusiness community: “you’re either on our side, or you’re on Vale’s side.” This threat fell largely on deaf ears. More than eleven months of failed bargaining and mediation attempts passed before the provincial government began to show any real concern. In a press release dated July 2, 2010, the Ontario Labour minister stated that “the impasse … is not acceptable to the communities nor the government.”60 Spurred in part by this growing provincial concern, the two parties struck a tentative deal. The longest strike in the history of the 108-year-old company officially ended on July 8, 2010. While the contract involved numerous concessions on the part of the union, it found solace in the fact that some improvements were made with respect to Vale Inco’s original bargaining stance. An end result of the strike was a reshaping of Sudbury’s image as a union town.

Whereas there had traditionally been strong community support for the two unions in their contract negotiations with the mining companies, the situation had now changed considerably. By 2010, support for the union had clearly waned. In many instances, the lack of sympathy was open, with residents expressing little concern for the workers’ predicament and even anti-union sentiments. The growing diversity of opinion was especially apparent in the content of bloggers who responded to strike articles published in The Sudbury Star. As well, there was what Michael Atkins called a “sea change” within the labour scene itself, illustrated when Steelworkers Local 2020 declined to support its brethren at Local 6500 who had been on strike for nearly nine months. Another indicator of the weakened union position was John Rodriguez’s defeat in the 2010 mayoralty race, despite having the support of the local labour council.

The ebbing of union support shown by the community during the Steelworkers’ strike notwithstanding, Sudbury’s past experience with mining companies clearly dictates the need for a strong and ongoing union presence within the industry. This future, however, will be complicated by challenges related to foreign ownership, globalization trends, and less support from both levels of government. Whether or not the union movement can continue to show the same resiliency in the mining industry that it had in the early and middle years of the twentieth century remains to be seen. Perhaps the time has come for the union movement to return to its earlier philosophy of fully engaging its member’s families and being a more active participant in the community, as Mine Mill did so well during the halcyon decades of the 1940s and 1950s. The opportunity to take this approach has been enhanced by the opening of the multipurpose Steelworker’s Hall in January of 2012 and its impressive Leo W. Gerard Hall.62 The symbolic value of this new building to the future image of the Steelworker’s union should not be underestimated. Recent actions undertaken by United Steelworkers Local 6500 bode well for this community reorientation.

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 4 of 5, click here: http://republicofmining.com/2013/06/28/excerpt-from-meteorite-impact-to-constellation-city-a-historical-geography-of-greater-sudbury-by-oiva-w-saarinen-5/#more-22737

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