Union members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9508 in the Canadian province of Labrador / Newfoundland last week voted by 80% to accept the recommendations of a government Industrial Inquiry Commission to end an 18-month strike and return to work. But the conciliatory move won’t get the 124 copper and nickel miners any closer to their jobs.
The attack by U.S. Steel against 900 members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1005 and even more retirees – 9,000 in total – will receive a boost 29 January when thousands of Canadian trade unionists converge on Hamilton, Ontario, for a Day of Action. A lockout was derisively imposed by the American steelmaker there on 7 November after Local 1005 refused to vote on steep cuts proposed in a renewal contract.
The Industrial Inquiry Commission on the Voisey’s Bay labour dispute is overwhelmingly damning of Brazilian mining giant Vale.
If Vale does not accept the commission’s recommendations to settle the 17-month strike, the Newfoundland and Labrador government must act immediately in the best interests of our province’s working families, the United Steelworkers (USW) union says.
“The inquiry commission’s report is unequivocal in its conclusions,” says USW staff representative Boyd Bussey. “The report confirms that the union made considerable efforts to reach a settlement, but those efforts were not reciprocated by Vale.”
More than 40 businesses, restaurants and financial institutions are donating services, food and money for a Christmas for the families of locked-out steelworkers.
The party will be Friday at the Hamilton Convention Centre in support of Local 1005 of the United Steelworkers, locked out by U.S. Steel since early November. It’s just one example of support the workers are getting both on and off the picket line as their dispute carries on.
Sixty-four production and maintenance employees walked off their jobs at Midway Lumber Mills in Thessalon, setting up pickets last Saturday at 8 a.m.
Their contract expired at midnight Friday and despite four days of meetings facilitated by a conciliator from the Ontario Labour Relations Board, the union and company have been unable to resolve their differences.
Rob Mercer, president of United Steelworkers Local 9260, said the company and union had scheduled five days of meetings but the company cancelled one of the days.
He said the company is asking for concessions from the workers that would allow the introduction of a generic drug plan and a cap on benefi ts with the expectation that the Ontario Trillium Drug Plan would cover some shortfalls, and Midway wants to maintain wages and pensions at their present level.
Hope of avoiding a lockout of 900 U.S. Steel employees in Hamilton has all but vanished.
Rolf Gerstenberger, president of Local 1005 of the United Steel Workers, admitted in a hastily-called news conference Wednesday he’s expecting the gates to be locked against 900 workers after the collapse of a mediation effort Tuesday.
The company will be in a legal position to do that at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. It would be the first steel labour confrontation in Hamilton in 20 years.
“If we don’t give in to what they want then we’re going to be locked out,” he said.
Brazilian mining giant Vale and the United Steelworkers union are blaming each other for failing to halt a long-running strike at the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine in northern Labrador.
Talks collapsed within an hour Wednesday in St. John’s, with Vale and the USW headed for an almost-certain industrial inquiry into why about 200 workers have been on picket lines since August 2009.
A commission of three lawyers is poised to start work on Friday in the industrial inquiry, which Premier Danny Williams said would start if the two sides could not meet a provincial deadline for a resolution.
The industrial inquiry cannot compel the two sides to reach a deal, but Williams has acknowledged that such inquiries can make public details that could be embarrassing for both sides.
The Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) is renewing its support for United Steelworkers (USW) on the Vale Inco picket line in Voisey’s Bay, Labrador with a donation of $3,000 to the USW District 6 strike fund.
This strike is about to enter its 15th month and is now the longest-ever labour dispute in the history of the mining operations in Canada that were previously owned by Inco.
Until July, when the Brazil-based mining corporation finally settled with its employees in Port Colborne and Sudbury, Ontario, 3,000 USW members had been on strike for nearly a year because they refused to accept deep concessions.
“Just last week nurses united with workers from across Ontario to block scabs from entering an Engineered Coated Products plant in Brantford where United Steelworkers members have been fighting for good jobs for two years,” said ONA President Linda Haslam-Stroud, RN. “Our three-day blockade was successful at forcing that employer back to the bargaining table.”
“There’s no good reason that workers anywhere should have to go without work for so long just to maintain the middle-class standards that their parents and grandparents achieved,” said Haslam-Stroud. “Registered nurses in Ontario call on Vale Inco to start negotiating a fair deal with its employees in Voisey’s Bay today.”
The clock is ticking toward a U. S. Steel strike or lock-out in Hamilton.
The company triggered the countdown Wednesday by asking for a provincial conciliator after four months of negotiations with the United Steel Workers Local 1005.
In an announcement on its web site, the union advised members of the development, explaining once a conciliation officer is appointed he will try to bring the sides together. If that effort fails the officer will issue a “no board” report. That puts either side in a strike-lock-out position after 17 days.
That means if a no board report is issued next Friday, there could be picket lines in front of the company’s Hamilton plant by Oct. 17.
In the last week of July 2010, workers of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9537, who have been locked out of their workplace and on the picket-lines for nearly five months, found a big pile of shit sitting right smack-dab by their picket-line outside of a warehouse in Vaughan, just north of Toronto. One could not ask for a better symbol of retail-capital’s attitude toward their workers. Workers at this supply warehouse have been locked-out since April Fool’s Day after rejecting a concessionary offer. They have been fighting an uphill battle against a nefarious employer who has not shrunk from hiring scabs and pitting the warehouse workers against the retail workers. The workers have consistently held the line; they defeated a government-forced ratification vote on May 28, and continue to show anger at their employer. Sears, not unexpectedly has continued to ‘wait it out’ (following the lead of the year long battle between Vale-Inco and USW in Sudbury) predicting that that sooner or later the energy of an isolated union local will dissipate. And the workers will be forced to come back to work with an offer not quite as concessionary, but certainly not a victory.
What is the symbolic value of shit when Sears has already hired 500 scabs ‘to replace’ the locked-out workers? A Sears representative acknowledged to Toronto Sun columnist Joe Warmington that they had dumped the crap on the line but claimed it was part of regular lawn maintenance. Striking a collegial pose, USW staff representative Terry Bea maintained that the union wasn’t accusing Sears, merely claimed that something odd was going on. But Sears worker Paul Taylor spoke more angrily and bluntly: the picketers believe that the dumping was the work of a “strike breaker from Tennessee.” This episode for Sears workers captures the central issue that is facing the Canadian labour movement: how long will the labour movement continue to take shit from an aggressive union-busting employer before fighting back?
Sears Canada and Local 9537 had been in bargaining through the early months of 2010. Like in the case of Vale-Inco bargaining with USW, Sears was demanding the type of concessions that even the most conservative business unions wouldn’t accept: rollbacks to pensions, health care and other benefits, vacation days and so forth. According to USW’s external communications, the sticking point making the offer unacceptable was that the contract would stipulate with regards to benefits that they would be “as per the company policy.” Such language would give management control to set and alter benefits on their own as ‘company policy.’ This would, in all likelihood, force the benefits of the unionized warehouse workers down to the level of non-union Sears workers.
Such contractual language would defeat the very purpose of a union. The implication here is that unionized workers would lose out on the improvements to their contracts, not simply monetary gains in wages, since unionizing little over two years (in January 2008) before the round of bargaining. The union rejected the concessionary offer, although it signaled a willingness to continue bargaining. Sears, in contrast, abruptly walked away from the bargaining table on March 23, 2010, and locked-out its workers on the first of April, and continue to avoid bargaining. Why would Sears – or any firm – be so brazen with their union?
Three reasons present themselves: Sears’ desire to remain non-union; the availability of strikebreakers; and their calculation that there would be limited resistance from USW, particularly in light of how USW was stumbling through the major strike at Vale-Inco, and the wider labour movement was all but invisible in its support.
First, Sears Canada has a record of opposing unionization. Sears warehouses are basically unorganized, by USW or any other union. Winning democratic collective bargaining rights can only be seen as a victory, in any component of the distribution network connected to the retail sector. Unionization was proving especially beneficial in reversing the ratio of full time to part-time workers, with part-timers moving into full time work. Those who remained part-time were also entitled to bargaining unit representation. In a moving video interview for Basics News service, a Caribbean-Canadian worker, Michael Smith, speaks with enthusiasm about how much better life is with the union, and using the union’s slogan “we’ll be out one day longer than them.” As Smith points out, this is a precedent that Sears fears. With only 500 of its 30,000 workers unionized, a successful fightback will send a message to the other workers that sticking with the union is a good idea.
Second, it seems clear that Sears assumed that in a lockout they would be able to find scabs to come in to do the work of the locked-out workers. In the midst of a recession and rising unemployment, in an area of Greater Toronto with high migration, a very fluid labour force searching for work and no tradition of unions, Sears clearly determined that if it decided to use strikebreakers, there would be a pool of labour willing to take the work up. In an isolated suburb of Toronto, there was also very little danger that the wider labour movement would organize themselves to block scabs from getting in. The locked-out workers would be on their own, and it was easy enough to work out the logistics of getting them in and out, with nothing in the way of community reprisals to worry about. Indeed, like Vale-Inco, Sears Canada is using AFI International Group, “North America’s leader in crisis management and response,” which is essentially a strike-breaking and scab-firm, to ensure that scabs can get to the workplace. Even in Sudbury, the USW discouraged reprisals against scabs. One can imagine the same messaging is occurring in Vaughan.
Third, when looked at from the perspective of an aggressive employer, it would be easy to make an assessment that in the current period USW has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to successful fightbacks. It is unclear, for instance, how well this new local is being supported and how well the new union members are being educated on union issues and, indeed, even on the lockout. One locked-out worker interviewed by me stated that he was better informed by management than the union. This was even to the point of hearing about the lockout and contract details from management. Yet, this worker was clear that life improved at Sears when the union came in. He said many found the culture of the union very distant, repeatedly mentioning distance between the rank and file and the stewards, even implying that there was more distance between workers and stewards, often off for training sessions, than between workers and management. While understanding of the union and its purposes, this worker feels in the dark about his own union’s demands, tactics and strategy. On the other hand, he feels informed by management, which sends regular “official” information to the workers. Sounding a note of dismay, he said that he felt the lockout could go on for another couple of months, “like Sudbury.”
Observing the fallout of the Vale-Inco strike in Sudbury, the academic and queer activist Gary Kinsman warned of the Steelworkers as too much acting like a “business union.” This was specifically in reference to USW 6500 (and one could also point to the problems that driving instructors of USW 9511 found themselves in, with also an unclear strategy to widen the strike effort and keep members informed). It seems that the description that Scott Neigh applied to USW 6500 might well apply to USW 9537 – “an internal culture that has not always fostered participatory governance or spaces and resources devoted to facilitating social movement-like mobilization of rank-and-file workers.” In Vaughan, as in Sudbury, there is no strategy to politicize the lockout more broadly, draw out community and labour movement support, in the hope that conventional collective bargaining by a few leaders will be enough to defeat an aggressive employer today.
This is not at all to say that the USW’s record is completely bleak. USW Local 1005 at Stelco in Hamilton did a fine job in helping the workers resist concessions and layoffs via developing a more participatory union structure. Through broad community and labour support, they were able to go so far as to ensure that Stelco and U.S. Steel not only got mud in their face, but actually was found to be legally fraudulent. The struggle was waged with broad community support, and was framed not merely as an economic struggle, but a political struggle that united communities across Hamilton. The experiences of the workers of USW 9537, however, are quite different from the Stelco workers.