A hot day in a hot year is not the best day on which to settle the most economically devastating strike in Canada’s history. Yet settle— tentatively, in Toronto—the 17-member bargaining committee of Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers of America did. Early this week, amid grumbling and rapidly evaporating dreams of summer days spent fishing, 11,700 Inco miners took some first steps toward the long-abandoned plant gates of Sudbury’s mines. They had been out nearly eight months to the day.
It was a lesson in international economics for everyone. As nickel prices rose (to $2.95 a pound) and Inco’s heap of stockpiled nickel dwindled (to 75 million pounds), the company and the union came closer and closer to the final agreement reached in the small hours of May 4, worth $3.50 an hour over three years to each miner: 51 cents more an hour in wages in the first year; a norestrictions right to full pension after 35 years service; and cost-of-living increases of $1.65 an hour over three years. “I thought it was a good agreement,” allowed weary and defensive Dave Patterson, 30-year-old Local 6500 president, after emerging from his first set of negotiations.
But Patterson hadn’t reckoned on the reaction of his 300 union stewards, the men whose job it is to police the contract and who will viciously contest the militant Patterson’s presidency in union elections to be held within 60 days—some say with the sanction of the Steelworkers’ international executive, whose election Pattertson opposed two years ago. “We made a lot of gains, there’s no question about it,” says Brent Palmer, a union steward, “but it hasn’t been worth the eight-month wait.” Lohbying publicly and privately in the myriad small rooms of the Steelworker hall on Frood Street, complaining that the cost-of-living increase would not be rolled into wages, that 30 years and out was a better pension goal and that a 51-cent-anhour increase was nothing when one took the losses of an eight-month strike into account, the stewards voted against ratification and set out last week to convince the rank and file to do the same. “The length of the strike has
put them into debt,” says Dick Destefano, a sociologist at Sudbury’s Cambrian College, “but it has also given them a sense of power.”
Whether or not they used it rested in the ratification vote held late Saturday night. The price of nickel will be $4 a pound within a year, claims limar Martens, nickel consultant to Toronto stockbrokers Walwyn Stodgell Cochran Murray. “If we have only a mild recession next year, we will see nickel shortages for three, maybe four years.” Debt-ridden Inco wants in desperately on that seller’s market, and the union is finally in a
position to call some shots of its own. But the nature of a one-industry resource town is as unadventuresome as the economic mentality that put it there. Inco has been Sudbury’s sole livelihood for too many decades. It will produce nickel for those nickel-short next four years and a cycle of prosperity will begin. Beer deliveries to Sudbury will recover the 60-per-cent of sales lost during the strike; a proportion of the alarming number of marriages strained by the strike will rediscover marital accord; Juley Rantala,owner of KingTaxicabs, will recover the $5,000 she lost every month the strike was on, and may, but probably won’t, move somewhere else. But more lastingly, union representatives and NDP federal MP John Rodriguez will continue to deride any attempt to diversify Sudbury’s economic base, just as they laughed at a
recent announcement that Sudbury 2001, an alternate technology group, will spend $100,000 to raise Angora goats. All the while Sudbury will respond to Inco’s responding to world nickel markets that have reduced the company’s unionized work force by 8,000 jobs in the past 10 years, and that may reduce it by another 2,000 within the next three years. Eventually, in 30
years, Inco will employ 3,000 people in Sudbury—less than a fifth of its current work force—and people will finally see what potential Sudbury had all along for economic diversity. Until then Inco’s towering, soon-to-be belching smokestack will mesmerize Sudburians and keep them from helping themselves. Ian Brown
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