Union, Vale Inco face off over use of scabs (AKA: 'replacement workers') in Sudbury

By Neil Clark

Members of United Steelworkers Local 6500, Sudbury, Ontario, July 13, 2009

TORONTO, Canada — The United Steelworkers says Vale Inco is undermining the union and creating an unsafe workplace by forcing some non-striking members to do the work of picketing employees in Sudbury, but the company says it's acting within its rights.

The union and the company pleaded their cases at the Ontario Labour Relations Board on Monday after the Steelworkers filed a grievance regarding Vale Inco's use of 50 members of Local 2020, representing office, clerical and technical workers, to do the work of striking mine and mill workers represented by Local 6500.

Steelworkers lawyer Rob Healey told the board that the company's actions have had a "chilling effect" on the strike by forcing non-striking union members to do the work of their striking peers under threat of discipline from the company.

"Compelling (Local) 2020 members to be replacement workers... demonstrates to the strikers that the union is powerless to stop these abuses and that the company has unlimited power to stop the strike," Healey said.

The company's actions are undermining two bargaining units at once by applying the striking workers' collective agreement to the non-striking workers, he said.

"The scope of (Local 6500's) representational rights is being whittled away by unilateral company action," Healey said.

However, labour board arbitrator Kevin Whitaker questioned this, pointing out that Local 6500's collective agreement is expired so it can't be breached.

Healey also expressed concern that sending office workers to do mine work is creating an "inherently hazardous workplace."

Although Vale Inco says the replacement workers have previous experience doing mine and mill work, the union questioned whether all 50 of them are adequately prepared to go underground.

Company lawyer Tim Liznick said Local 2020 members have the right under their collective agreement to refuse to do work if they feel it endangers their safety, but no one has yet exercised this right. He added that no grievances have been filed by individuals under the Occupational Health and Safety Act or under the union's grievance procedure.

Liznick argued that the union has the right to "exercise its economic strength by striking," but the company in turn has the right to protect its bottom line by finding replacement workers.

He said there is no clause in Local 2020's collective agreement that prevents them from doing the work of striking union members.

"If the union was seriously concerned members of 2020 would be used to perform struck work, they would have included a struck work provision," Liznick said.

Vale Inco is simply doing what's in the best interest of non-striking workers by continuing to give them meaningful work, he added.

"If the company is not producing profitable product, then there is not money to pay wages and Local 2020 workers will be idled," he said.

The Steelworkers asked the board to issue a cease and desist order to Vale Inco, forcing the company to stop using 2020 members to do the work of striking employees.

Whitaker is expected to issue a decision by Tuesday.

Local 6500's more than 3,000 unionized workers have been on strike since mid-July, along with Vale Inco workers in Port Colborne, Ont., and Voisey's Bay, N.L. Late last month, Vale Inco announced it would restart a mill and a mine in Sudbury using replacement workers.

At issue in the strike are proposals by Vale to reduce a bonus tied to the price of nickel and to exempt new employees from its defined-benefit pension plan, moving them instead to a defined-contribution plan.

The two sides have not formally met since the strike started.

It is the first major strike at Vale's Canadian operations since Brazil-based Companhia Vale do Rio Doce bought the former Inco Ltd. for $19 billion in October 2006. Previous work stoppages at Inco have been lengthy, including a three-month strike in Sudbury in 2003 and a two-month strike at Voisey's Bay in 2006.

Vale's Canadian operations include six nickel mines, a mill, a smelter and a refinery in Sudbury; a refinery in Port Colborne; a nickel-cobalt-copper mine in Voisey's Bay; and three nickel mines, a mill, a smelter and a refinery in Thompson, Man.

Vale has more than 100,000 employees around the world and is a global leader in the production of iron ore pellets, aluminum, coal, nickel, copper, steel and other resources.

It was set up by the Brazilian government in 1942 but is now privately run and trades on the Brazilian and New York stock exchanges.

October 19, 2009 — Return to cover.