Canadian News

In union there is risk

Angela Ferrante October 2 1978
Canadian News

In union there is risk

Angela Ferrante October 2 1978

In union there is risk

Ontario

Winter came unseasonably early in Sudbury last week, but the chilly grey skies were the perfect backdrop for what were unmistakably preparations for a siege. Two old enemies—the giant nickel producer Inco and its 11,700 unionized workers—were hunkering down for what may be a long, bitter and ultimately futile strike. Pickets dappling the 19 mining and plant sites huddied around campfires. The men were there to keep anyone from getting in or out, but Inco-hired helicopters buzzed over their heads and delivered nonunion workers behind the lines for five days at a stretch to protect the massive equipment. The union, Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers of America, was busily organizing wholesale food distribution for the pickets. Credit union officers told workers to hold off on mortgage payments. “This isn’t just a battle between this union and the company,” said Local Vice-President Ronald MacDonald. “This is a battle for survival of the community.”

Unfortunately for the workers, the union stand merely plays into the hands of Inco’s corporate strategists. Right from the start of negotiations last April, Inco made it clear it had no money to offer. The multinational giant which once bullishly hogged the world nickel market is now faltering, overloaded with debt, with no place to sell its growing inventory while prices keep steadily dropping (to about $1.75 from $2 a pound last year). Last fall, the company “retired” 2,200 jobs in Sudbury, then shut down operations for six weeks this summer. Only last-minute strongarming by Ontario Premier William Davis forced the company to offer any wage increase at all. With improved benefits, the one-year contract would represent a six-per-cent rise and would cost Inco $15 million—all of which would have to be borrowed. “We reluctantly accepted the government proposal,” admitted Inco Vice-President William Correll. “But we were getting such pressure—we had to do something to show our good faith.”

The decision to strike—described even by former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis as “madness”—gives the company a chance to sell off its eightmonth stockpile while saving $2.5 million in weekly wages, but the union felt it had little choice. It saw company attempts to alter longstanding grievance and overtime procedures as mere provocative tactics. Said Ontario district union representative Maurice Keck: “They have defied us to go on strike. They have nothing to lose.”

However justifiable the workers’ anger, at week’s end there were already signs of nervousness and division in the ranks. Inco supervisors’ wives, whose husbands were working inside the

plants, attracted threatening telephone calls and there were promises that “heads will be bashed” if Inco even tries to get an injunction against picketers (“When you start off a strike like that, you know the union guys are as insecure as hell,” said one union member). A photograph of Stewart Cooke, the Ontario union district director who publicly advised against the strike, has been pointedly removed from the local union hall but older unionists continue to complain openly that the bargaining unit is too young and inexperienced. The worst blow came when the 750 nickel refinery workers at Port Colborne—an older group—accepted the company offer. Complained 30-year-old steward 'Jim Kmit: “Everybody has turned against us.”

What makes the situation doubly grievous is that the workers are in fact fighting the inevitable decline of Sudbury as the nickel basin of the world. Since 1971 Inco has reduced its union-

ized staff from 18,700 to present levels and long-term projections call for a force of 9,000. With competition from Inco’s own mines in Guatemala and Indonesia and the prospect of limitless amounts of nickel from sea-bed mining, the workers want a hedge against a dim future. For Sudbury, which already has 13.6-per-cent unemployment, the sight of 1,000 people lining up in front of the Manpower office looking for non-existent jobs was not simply reminiscent of the bitter strikes of 1958 and 1969. Then, at least, Sudbury could hope for an economic rebound. For oldtimers like Merlin Steinke, an Inco electrician for 25 years who has already stocked his freezer for the long strike ahead, it’s hard to imagine that things won’t get better once again. “We’ve always gone ahead,” he says with assurance. “We just can’t go back now.”

Angela Ferrante