The Vale-Inco strike comes to a close
On July 7 and 8, 2010, striking members of United Steel Workers Local 6500 in Sudbury, Ontario, voted 75% in favour of a contract that ended a bitter strike against transnational mining giant Vale Inco. The 3300 strikers had been on the picket lines for almost one year (along with members of Local 6200 in Port Colborne, Ontario, who voted in favour by a similar margin).
Despite the immense effort and sacrifices made by workers over the course of the year-long ordeal, the settlement marks a defeat for a local with a reputation for strength in a town with a reputation for solidarity. It is a hard moment for those who are returning to work — who endured so much and still lost significant ground — but as the world faces the renewed neo-liberal assault promised by leaders at the recent G20 summit in Toronto, it is important to ask critical questions that might strengthen all of our struggles in the difficult times ahead.
Though it was rarely framed this way during the dispute, this strike was all about neo—liberalism. The components of that agenda that are about reorganizing work, tying people’s lives ever more tightly to the market, and taking gains away from ordinary people to the benefit of elites were reflected in the company’s demands.
As has so often been the case with neo-liberal demands the world over, ordinary people could have chosen to acquiesce, but instead they chose to fight. Yet as has also happened in many places around the world, elites responded to this resistance by inflicting suffering on the bodies of those who resisted. For thousands of working-class families in Sudbury, this meant a year of doing without in significant ways. Some workers lost their homes. Other workers saw their relationships crumble.
It was also clear that the company intended to mount a serious attack on the union. In the earliest days of the strike, a former executive of Inco (as the company was known before being bought by Brazilian transnational Vale in 2006) was quoted anonymously in the Globe & Mail as saying, “They just want to break the union. They want to completely hit the reset button on the entire labour situation and the agreements that have been put in place in the past.” There were occasions later in the strike where articles in the Canadian business press included in their headlines references to Vale trying to break the union, indicating that the business class in Canada did not take seriously the protestations by Vale spokespeople in those same articles that they were doing no such thing.
The company made skillful use of court injunctions in concert with the sophisticated surveillance, harassment, and legal capabilities of strikebreaking firm AFI to limit the possibility for effective, militant picketing. This was the first time since union recognition in the 1940s that a mining company in Sudbury has attempted to use scab labour to restart production during a strike. Though production remained significantly impaired throughout the strike, speculation was that within another two or three months, Vale would have been able to come close to full production using scabs.
Nobody on the union side is happy with the contents of the settlement. It represents, according to one community activist I talked to, “a significant defeat.” It contains some improvements over the offer made before the strike in a number of areas, but only very modest ones, and in the overall context of the company winning the substance of all of its major demands.
Though there is a small wage increase over the five-year life of the deal, the nickel price level at which the nickel bonus kicks in has been raised substantially and for the first time there will be a cap on the percentage of a worker’s income that can come from the bonus. One rank-and-file worker that I talked to calculated that the new rules around the nickel bonus could lead to him losing as much as $30,000 per year compared to the height of the boom earlier this decade. The company was also successful in imposing new restrictions on seniority rights, greater freedom to contract out some kinds of work to non-union contractors, and a streamlined grievance procedure that will be less fair to workers. As well, all new hires will now be placed on a defined contribution pension plan, rather than the defined benefit plan in which current workers and retirees are enrolled. Some union activists see this is as one step in a larger plan by the company to get all of its current and former employees on the defined contribution scheme.
Beyond the deal itself, the back-to-work protocol has enraged many workers, not the least because it was not made available to them until almost the end of the voting on the deal. The terms include a six week period at the start of the contract in which the union has conceded immense power to the company to restructure the workforce. During this period, most union work can be done by non-union people and the company has great latitude to reassign and transfer workers. Most shockingly, the union has agreed to what one union activist, in only a slight exaggeration, has described as “no grievance procedure whatsoever” for those six weeks.
The company has also persisted in its attempts to weaken mobilizations by the union in future disputes by attacking its ability to protect members who have been active in strike activities. Though the back-to-work protocol called on both sides to drop all legal measures related to the strike, the company appears still to be proceeding with criminal charges against three individual workers and contempt proceedings for alleged violations of the picketing injunction against a number of others, claiming that the protocol only referred to legal actions against the union and its officials. Also, for what appears to be the first time involving a major union in recent Ontario history, nine workers who were fired during the course of the strike were not rehired as part of the deal. While the union has succeeded, with considerable effort, in getting the labour board to hear the cases of these workers and intends to pursue a constitutional case based on freedom of association, the refusal to rehire sets a dangerous precedent for other unions.
Raising critical questions at such a difficult moment is a risky venture, particularly when they are being raised by someone like myself who is not one of those most directly impacted by the struggle. Yet it is also a moment in which learning from recent victories and defeats is crucial. Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney recently predicted a global “age of austerity,” which was confirmed by the elite consensus announced at the G20 meetings in Toronto in June. Workers, communities, indigenous nations, women, queers, people living in poverty, the environment — all will soon be facing reinvigorated neo-liberal assault.
Since the acceptance of Vale’s offer I have interviewed a number of (mostly activist) members of Local 6500 as well as community activists who worked in support of the strike — all of the former and some of the latter requested anonymity as a condition of the interviews. I have added this to the observations and informal conversations I had over the course of the strike. The picture that has emerged is of a struggle that was waged with traditional assumptions and tools in an environment and against an enemy that had changed in significant ways. One of the union activists told me, “We went into a gunfight carrying a pencil and they had laser beams.”
At the very least, the loss of this strike at Vale Inco can teach us not to trust old assumptions about resistance in the current environment. And it may also point not just union and community spaces in Sudbury but also those across North America towards some of the questions that we must ask as we brace for what is to come.
The dominant tactical orientation of Local 6500 seemed largely drawn from the mainstream traditions of industrial unions, particularly those with a more “business union” orientation, to borrow a label that one long-time community activist applied to the local. The kinds of preparations made by the leadership and their relationship to the other tactics that emerged over the course of the strike imply an assumption of the primacy of picket-line militancy and of a much more marginal role for other kinds of mobilizations.
There are a number of reasons why circumstances today mean that such tactics, which may have worked in decades past, could no longer seal the deal in Sudbury. For one thing, though Inco has long been a corporation with global reach (and a history of atrocious practices in the global South), Vale is simply a much larger company with much deeper pockets. Though the strike did impair production significantly and did cost the company money, the operations in Sudbury (and elsewhere in Canada) are such a small part of the company’s empire that the level of harm that one group of workers can inflict by withdrawing their labour remains quite limited.
As well, the evolution of labour law in Ontario creates conditions that favour companies. While much local attention focused on the lack of legislation preventing the use of scabs — something that was in force in the province briefly in the early 1990s, and has proven effective in other provinces as well — it is far from the only problem. The combination of injunctions restricting picketing with firms like AFI, which specialize in strikebreaking and the harassment of workers, make the possibility of truly effective picketing even more remote.
Unions, including North America’s remaining industrial strongholds, need to recognize that while picket lines are important, they are no longer the one and only site for struggle. As one union activist I talked to put it, “You won’t win a strike on the picket line, but you sure can lose a strike on the picket line.”
The question becomes how to respond to this reality. What tactics will work? What changes in organizational form, practices, and culture would support more effective tactics? Some of the questions in the following sections point towards some possible avenues for discussion by workers and other activists as we move forward.
Over the year that the Steel Workers were on the lines, at least two overlapping but distinct networks of rank-and-file activists emerged, as well as networks among the wives and partners of strikers. One of the worker-based networks was catalyzed as a result of some spaces and resources that came from the international level of the union and the other was a more spontaneous local formation.
These networks experimented with a range of tactics. They drew public attention to scabs. They protested at the hotels where AFI strikebreakers were staying. They successfully campaigned to get the city council to call on the province to pass anti-scab legislation. They rallied repeatedly against provincial and federal politicians, both from the city and farther afield. They mounted fast, short blockades of specific work sites at unexpected intervals. They participated in the G20 labour march. They protested businesses that were crossing the picket lines. Some wives and partners of strikers took on increasingly militant roles, both in some of these actions and in a few autonomously organized actions, as they were not vulnerable to the same threat of consequences as workers.
Discussions about what was effective and what was not still need to happen among the activists in question as the strike is debriefed, but what is clear is that ordinary members applying their energy, knowledge, skills, and willingness to take risks in creative, autonomous ways offered a greatly expanded scope for struggle compared to picket lines alone. There was a great hunger to try new things and to find approaches that might shift public opinion, political positions, and consequences for the company.
There are plenty of indications that much more could be done to make the most of this kind of struggle, whatever specifics workers decide are appropriate in a given instance. It was Gary Kinsman, a long-time activist and a scholar who has worked extensively on the history of Canadian social movements, including some work on Sudbury’s labour movement, who described the local historically as a “business union” and also as “top-down” in its organization. One consequence of this is 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, though there have been moments of exception to this.
From the people I talked to, there seems to have been little attention to building this kind of capacity either in general in recent years or specifically in the lead-up to the strike. The international-sponsored training that lead to the formation of one of the networks happened shortly after the beginning of the strike, but from its content appeared to have been designed for use six months to a year before a strike was expected to occur.
During the strike itself, though the union had the information to mount all of the picket lines it needed from the beginning, it did not produce a coordinated means for mobilizing all of its members for other sorts of actions until several months into the strike. As well, at no point does there appear to have been anyone assigned to coordinate the strike-related activities originating from different spaces within the union. Information flow to and among members was another problem that activists identified. Despite the approval and even resources provided by the local leadership for rank-and-file activities at various points, activists I talked to identified a strong and consistent disconnection of the leadership from the activities organized by the rank-and-file networks.
What can be done to build on the experiences of ordinary members who became active in this strike? What can be done to create spaces and resources during non-strike periods that can build an ever-growing base of members with skills, political knowledge, and confidence to engage in the kinds of actions beyond the picket lines that can help unions win? What is the best role for leadership in doing this? What is the best role for rank-and-file networks? For the families of members?
Another key element in struggles against global companies (or other global institutions) is making links among those who face the same enemy in different places. North American unions are still in the early stages of figuring out how to do that effectively. The international level of the Steel Workers is, by all accounts, deeply involved in trying to make such linkages, and appeared to be doing a lot of that kind of work in relation to this strike. However, the knowledge among both community and union activists I spoke to in Sudbury was often vague on the details of this work. My sense is that a lot of good things were happening, but that, even when a few members of the local were directly involved, most members had little opportunity to learn about what was happening internationally or to get a practical sense of being involved in a global struggle in alliance with sisters and brothers half a world away.
It is also unclear what kind of barriers to effective solidarity might have been created by the choice at the beginning of the strike to politically frame it in strongly nationalist terms — as Canadian workers and a Canadian community fighting a Brazilian enemy. Official statements after the initial period seemed to pull back somewhat from the blatant nationalism of the earliest period, but never completely, and it continued to exert a powerful influence over at least a segment of the membership. This is, of course, deeply connected to the troubling tendency of much of the broader left in North America to respond to neo-liberalism in nationalist ways.
How can substantive global links be forged among workers? How should international work be integrated into local struggles? What barriers do nationalist politics present for such work, as well as to developing deeper understandings of what neo-liberalism is and how it works?
In the current strike, there were a number of barriers to effective mobilizations in the broader community in support of the strike. The following section examines those related to the community itself. However, a key one was, as far as many of us in the community could tell, that the union was not terribly interested or able to cultivate such support. In the early months, there were a number of instances of social justice groups (and quite a few more of individual activists) calling the union to ask what they could do, and never hearing back. Individual demonstrations of support were certainly encouraged, whether that was donating money or taking coffee to a picket line or putting a supportive sign in your window, but building relationships of alliance with activists and social justice groups in the community did not seem to be a high priority.
Again, this has some basis in history. Local 6500 does not have a strong record of building relationships of solidarity with social justice and community groups outside of the labour movement. For many community activists in Sudbury, this was epitomized by the decision of Local 6500 during the Days of Action campaign which swept across Ontario in the late 1990s in opposition to the right-wing provincial government of Premier Mike Harris to use its dominance at the Sudbury and District Labour Council to prevent that body from sponsoring the Sudbury Days of Action.
Given the importance of action beyond the picket line for winning against the neo-liberal agenda, how should unions relate to social justice groups in the community? What does reciprocal solidarity look like?
Beyond the Union
While the lack of attention to facilitating community alliances by the local was a significant factor, there was much less there to facilitate than in decades past. As one long-time community activist who requested anonymity sadly told me, this strike “debunked the myth that Sudbury is a union town.”
According to Kinsman, “There was a lot of support for the strike, but a lot of it remained incredibly passive and inactive.” This may explain why all of the union activists I talked to were moderately positive about the level of support they received in the community, while the community activists were uniformly negative.
Laurie McGauley is another long-time activist in the community, with many years of experience in the feminist movement and other social justice spaces. She said that in January, seven months into the strike, there was still “absolutely no community-lead support initiatives going on. Which is unusual for Sudbury in a big strike like this… It just blew my mind.” So she and a few other people called together old contacts and allies, including many with roots in the Women’s movement, and put together a group called CANARYS, short for Community Activists Need Answers Regarding Your Safety. For the balance of the strike they held weekly meetings and regular events and protests, often highly theatrical ones, focusing on opposition to scab labour and the danger that under-trained workers posed to the community given the nature of the facilities they were operating. While community response to the group showed a hunger for ways to be more actively in support, no other centres of activity emerged in the community outside of the labour movement.
Even within the labour movement, the response was less vigorous than it could have been. While traditional forms of strike solidarity, like declarations of support and financial donations, began to arrive from other unions from Sudbury and from across the country soon after the strike began — indeed, many unions were very generous over the course of the year — it was also many months into the strike before a support committee focused on mobilizing people was formed at the local labour council.
The community activists I talked to offered a number of theories as to why the level of activism in support of the strike was so low in the broader community. Certainly the disinterest or inability of the union to engage with activism in the community was one. Another was the changes in the shape of the local economy — once upon a time, the mining workforce involved tens of thousands of people, but the local was only 3300 strong at the start of the strike, so the impact on the community was much less.
McGauley also talked about the loss of a culture of activism in the city, which as recently as ten years ago was very vibrant. She noted that the incredible influence of the company, including its generous funding of many local recreational, cultural, and environmental initiatives, meant that many people were hesitant about coming out publicly against Vale. Other community activists pointed towards the material and cultural impacts of neo-liberalism. The former means that more people are having to put more time into making ends meet and so have less time for activism, and the latter tends to push a more atomized and individualistic view of the world that has little space for solidarity, social justice, or social change.
This seems to be consistent with the experience of many other communities across Canada. While there are signs in Canada’s largest cities of the beginnings of a modest uptick in social movement activity, at least in specific sectors, this does not seem to have reached much beyond Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.
What must be done to recompose sites of struggle in Sudbury and across the continent? What can we do to reconstitute a culture of activism? What questions do we need to be asking and what conversations do we need to be having to begin preparing for the renewed push for neo-liberalism promised by the G20?
It is difficult to ask questions arising from a defeat without encouraging pessimism. Some community activists are worried that this defeat for Local 6500 — an organization with a reputation for strength greater than any sort of people’s organization that most of us in North America can dream of belonging to — might discourage others in Sudbury and others in the larger labour movement from actively resisting when neo-liberalism comes knocking. This is certainly possible. But it does not have to be.
At the most basic level, the company wanted to break the union, break the workers, and it failed. The union lost, but it remains a powerful tool that the workers can use to fight another day.
Another consequence of this struggle was that it created activists. One union militant that I talked to estimated that there was a core of between 200 and 300 activists who were consistently involved throughout the strike. Some of these will not stay involved, of course, but many will. They will become a nucleus of struggle against the company and, potentially, of struggles against neo-liberalism more broadly in the Sudbury community for decades to come. In this way, the strike has left Sudbury stronger.
The strike also presented glimpses of possibility, little moments of anticipation of what might be. One such moment was a mass direct action near the end of the strike. After talks broke down yet again, a segment of the rank-and-file networks put up blockades at the main entrances to two company facilities with several hundred participants that lasted for multiple days. Many members who had not before been active in the strike outside of picket duty saw this as a chance to do something powerful, and they joined in. The company and the police insisted the action was in violation of the picketing injunction, yet the angry strikers, their families, and supporters from the community remained, even with the threat of police intervention. Yes, when senior union leadership intervened to end the action, there was great anger from many of the rank-and-file workers who were participating, and significant demoralization and demobilization afterward. But it was also a taste of the power of ordinary people, of what resistance in a Sudbury of reinvigorated movements might look like.
What if this kind of tactic was begun not in the late days of the strike but early on? What if there was a longstanding culture of activism within the local to draw on, and vibrant, already-existing rank-and-file networks? What if there were strong links to a highly mobilized community? In such circumstances, it is easy to imagine not 300 people but 3000 people willing to be present even in the face of police disapproval, which would have changed the balance of forces significantly. And what if that was coupled to strong bonds with workers overseas? Coordinated action against Vale at multiple sites around the world becomes imaginable.
It is impossible to know in any definitive way what could have turned a defeat into a victory. However, in thinking about the future, it is important to keep in mind that the speculations in the previous paragraph are not just imaginable, but possible. In fact, not only is the capacity to engage in actions like that possible, it may even be necessary as the “age of austerity” descends. The only way to get there is to begin asking questions like those arising from the Vale Inco strike — questions about how to create participatory organizations; about how to build a movement by creating spaces and using resources such that all of us can grow in confidence, knowledge, and skills, to better act autonomously and creatively; about how to recreate an activist culture in smaller centres across the continent; about how to build real alliances around the world and across different sectors and social locations close to home. Wherever we are, we must begin talking about such things, so that we can move forward together.
- Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and parent who lives in Sudbury, Ontario. For more of his writing, visit his blog.