Mine re-opening may be ill-advised

Some unionized technical workers may be used underground

Vale Inco has announced plans to train about 1,200 employees in order to re-open its Sudbury nickel mine, despite the on-going strike by 3,100 of its production employees. Represented by the United Steelworkers Local 6500, the workers walked off the job on July 13 after rejecting (by 85 per cent) what they saw as an overly concessionary proposal for a new contract. This is the first time in 60 years that the plant will attempt to operate during a work stoppage. Not surprisingly, union officials are angry that the Brazilian-based company has decided to resume production.

According to the Sudbury Star, about 50 members of sister union Local 2020, representing the office and technical employees, have been earmarked as having enough mining training to do the work of underground production and maintenance workers. The union is concerned they are being asked to do work they have not done in years. The company said they will be trained for their new duties. Refusal to work — or cross the picket line — may result in discipline.

While the short-term gains for the company will mean an increase in nickel production as stockpiles shrink, the long-term losses may be more significant. Using replacement workers will undoubtedly cause a backlash in a city heavily unionized for many years. Picket-line confrontations are inevitable. The decision could put the safety of the newly trained workers at risk (interestingly, in its final settlement proposal to the union, the company suggested lengthening probation for new workers to six months “to allow new hires to be oriented, trained and evaluated on the job”). It also places the members of Local 2020 in the invidious position of having to cross the picket line of a sister union.

The major issues leading to the strike were a proposal by Vale to convert the defined benefit pension plan to a defined contribution plan and to change the Nickel Price Bonus. In the previous contract, the latter was triggered at a price of $2.25 US per pound for nickel, which the company wants to raise to $5.00 and to go up by the annual CPI. Also it wants the bonus capped at 20 per cent of regular straight-time pay. It is paid when the price of nickel is high and is offset by lower wages (0.7 per cent in each of the last two years of the previous contract for an average wage, excluding COLA, of about $28 per hour). The price for nickel at the end of August was about $8.7241 per pound (down from

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