Sudbury's Vale workers reject settlement by almost 90 per cent

Offer has rank-'n-file fired up

The Sudbury Star

On Saturday, thousands of members of the United Steelworkers union rallied against multinational giant Valeco Inc. during mediated talks at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. (Photo: Andrew Moran/
On Saturday, thousands of members of the United Steelworkers union rallied against multinational giant Valeco Inc. during mediated talks at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. (Photo: Andrew Moran/

If anyone was voting yes to Vale Inco's offer to settle the eight-month strike by United Steelworkers, they were not admitting it out loud in the halls, the basement and the parking lot of the Caruso Club on Thursday morning and early afternoon.

Up to 1,800 of the 3,000 striking members of USW Local 6500 attended a membership meeting and then cast their ballots on a settlement offer presented to them by mediator Kevin Burkett at exploratory talks on Sunday in Toronto.

As members poured out of the hall, many of them threw the offer from Vale Inco into a fire barrel burning in the parking lot, indicating what they thought of the proposal.

One striker rolled up the document, dipped it in the flames and used it to light his cigarette, saying at least the offer to settle was good for something.

To a person, those polled by The Star said they had rejected the offer as insulting, regressive and full of questions about whether any of their jobs would be safe if and when they go back to work for the mining giant.

Local 6500 and 130 members of USW Local 6200 in Port Colborne went on strike July 13 over pensions, nickel bonuses and seniority transfer rights.

It will be eight months on Saturday since they set up picket lines after three months of collective bargaining failed to produce a new contract.

A second shift of strikers was to vote Thursday evening, but union bargaining committee members, activists and rank-and-filers were predicting the result at the end of the evening would be an overwhelming rejection of Vale Inco's latest offer.

USW Local 6500 President John Fera said he was confident his members would deliver a resounding no when they cast their secret-ballot votes.

At the membership meeting before the first round of voting, many spoke about how "disappointed they were that the company decided not to make a fair offer," said Fera.

"After eight months of being on strike, they couldn't understand why the company would make an offer that they knew would not get passed."

Stobie miner Francis Roy has a pregnant wife who is not working and a 15-month-old baby.

He admits it has been "tough" getting by financially, although he is one of the luckier ones and has been receiving employment insurance.

He called Vale Inco's offer "a terrible contract ... I just think that it's an insult pretty much. It's nothing that we're looking for after eight months."

Roy said he has been volunteering many hours "at the hall," because this strike has made an activist out of him.

He is one of 200 members of Local 6500's executive — which includes its slate of officers and health and safety stewards — who voted unanimously to reject the offer the night before the membership vote.

"There are a lot of us volunteering our time. This has made the union tighter and it's backfiring big time on the company.

"We're fighting for our jobs," said Roy, who has eight years with Inco.

He has had offers to work elsewhere since the strike began, but said he has chosen to remain at home with his family.

"I'd rather fight for my job and stay here," he said. "It's an insult. I think they're just trying to see what kind of a no they're going to get, then throw us a couple of more bucks."

Like many other members The Star spoke with, the language regarding contracting out, particularly as it relates to capital projects, bothers Roy. Vale wants to purchase its own equipment for contractors, but Steelworkers fear that will allow outsiders to lower their bids on jobs.

"That clause alone" is worth rejecting it for, said Roy.

Rick Bertrand agrees.

Local 6500's vice-president said the settlement offer contains language that would virtually allow any type of work to be "capital-related," meaning contractors could perform such work.

It was no surprise that Rod Price voted no.

Another activist, Price has found himself in hot water during the strike for picket-line activities. He is one of nine strikers being individually sued by Vale Inco and has been named in two other lawsuits filed against the union and picketers.

He is unclear what the status of those lawsuits is right now.

Price said he has not been fired as several others strikers have been during the labour dispute. But he has been threatened with job dismissal at least twice, he said.

The offer to settle contained "no guarantees of nothing," said Price. "What am I signing? When do I go back to work if I did sign? There's no seniority. Who are they going to call back?"

Price, the union's bargaining committee and other strikers were insisting they could not accept an offer without a back-to- work agreement that would ensure all workers who went on strike eight months ago return to work at the same time.

Vale Inco spokesman Steve Ball said this strike has been different from previous ones in which Steelworkers all returned to work at the same time. The strike has been unusually long and Vale Inco has restarted some operations. To ensure continuity and the flow of business, workers will be required as the company needs them, depending on the operation.

12 March 2010 — Return to cover.