In July, 2009, more than 3,000 Steelworkers walked off the job in Sudbury after failing to strike a deal with Inco’s new owner, the Brazilian mining giant Vale. A decade later, we look back at how it all started and what it all meant
In the months leading to the strike at Vale in 2009, a major confrontation seemed both impossible and inevitable. There was talk almost immediately in the mining industry that, having purchased Inco in 2006, the only way the deal made sense for the Brazilian multinational was to undo the benefits package the Steelworkers had fought for in collective bargaining that ensured retirees a guaranteed income.
Defined benefits, as it was known, protected workers from inflation, from the ups and downs of markets. The nickel bonus, too, which saw workers paid more when nickel prices were high, was also a major obstacle in Vale’s view of things, as were restrictions on using contractors. For the company, these sorts of benefits represented unacceptable long-term costs and risks that threatened the viability of their Canadian purchase.
Anyone who has ever been in a union can tell you that heading into negotiations for a new contract, improvements are the goal, and concessions are the red line that can’t be crossed. For a union such as the United Steelworkers of America, headed by Sudbury’s own Leo Gerard, such concessions were unthinkable.
And so a powerful international union with deep roots in the community was headed for a collision with a powerful global corporation with resources and motivation to win the fight. For the rest of Greater Sudbury, there was a sinking feeling something bad was coming. The unstoppable force was about to smash into the immovable object and that was that.
1942: The year a little firm called CVRD was born
Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (the Sweet River Valley Company) was founded in 1942, at a time when Brazil was led by a revolutionary government intent on boosting industrial production and nationalizing its resources. Two private companies were merged to form the government-owned and controlled CVRD, as the Second World War increased demand for iron ore to historic levels.
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