Monday, September 21, 2009

Sudbury Greens Attend "Global Solidarity Rally"

(originally posted at www.greenparty.ca)

I, along with nominated candidate Fred Twilley, and a number of others from the Sudbury Federal Green Party Association, attended the "Global Solidarity Rally" in support of striking Vale Inco workers and to support bringing an end to the strike. The rally, organized by the United Steelworkers and Local 6500, brought together union leaders from around the world for what was billed as an international day of solidarity.

First, some quick background (which will not do justice to the situation on the ground here in Sudbury). The strike by Local 6500 against Brazilian-based employer Vale Inco, is now into its tenth week, and there is no end in sight. Bargaining is not taking place. The company has been murmuring about outsourcing mining work while the strike goes on, including to Vale Inco workers in another USW "inside" union. At present, mostly things have been quiet on the picket lines.

Now, you may think it strange that the Green Party was in attendance at rally in support of striking mining workers. First of all, supporting the labour movement, while it often meshes quite well with the green values we share, hasn’t really been at the top of our list of organizations to actively engage in. That’s largely because the labour movement in Canada is so indelibly tied to the NDP. There is often an assumption that there is little ground to be gained by Greens in reaching out to labour.

Second, the strike here in Sudbury is being carried out by striking miners. Why would the Green Party be looking to support anyone or anything connected with mining, whether its company or union? Doesn’t mining tend to destroy our environment, in the name of capitalist greed?
Well, it’s true that the mining industry in Canada has a lot of sorry examples to have to answer for when it comes to questions about its environmental track record. But the modern mining industry here in Canada is not the same as its ancestors, as workers, communities, governments and the industry have been moving forward to address many of the past’s inequities. Here in Sudbury, the mining industry has does much to revitalize our local ecology, through tree-planting efforts which have revitalized this City’s natural environment considerably. Yes, there is more work to be done, but things are at least heading in the right direction. The days of the Sudbury moonscape are long forgotten here in town. Improvements to the water quality of lakes and the health of local soils will be the next areas where focus will be needed.

This has come about because the industry has committed to doing what is right for the health of the community in which it operates, and where its workers largely live. Yes, it helps that the industry has been incredibly profitable during these times too. The good news is that there remain expectations that the mining industry will continue to do well here in Sudbury.
Greens in Sudbury are fully aware that the mining industry has a strong role to play in the health of the Canadian economy. This is why we support the continued growth of a sustainable mining industry...as much as an industry based on non-renewables can be sustainable over the long term. And since the mining and processing of minerals is going to be something which our society will continue to need over the long term, it only makes sense to continue to look at ways which are improvements over past processes.

Recently, we Greens in Sudbury have become increasingly concerned with what we’ve been hearing from the Harper Conservative government and Environment Minister Jim Prentice regarding the proposed cap-and-trade system. In a nutshell, we are very concerned that Alberta tar-sands industries are going to be given a pass on participation in cap-and-trade, either completely or through the use of sham "intensity-based targets", while other industrial sectors, including the mining sector, will be on the hook for decreasing their own emissions AND those which tar-sands industries would have otherwise have had to reduce. More about this issue later in another blog. Suffice it to say for now that we Greens in Sudbury recognize the social, economic and environmental benefits to our community members from our mining companies, worker’s unions, governments and other community builders.

What’s happening in Sudbury with this particular strike, though, is unlike any other mining strike this City has ever seen. How so? Well, you may recall that a few years ago, both Sudbury mining giants INCO and Falconbridge were snapped-up by bigger international giants; Falconbridge is now a part of Swiss-based Xstrata, while INCO was purchased by the Brazilian-based company now known as Vale Inco (pronounced "Vol-ley", not "vale"). The company recently announced profits from its Sudbury operation as being in the range of about $4 billion this past year.

Despite Industry Minister Tony Clement’s earlier comments that Sudbury was facing a "Valley of Death" had Vale not stepped up and purchased Inco, mining in Sudbury has been and continues to be a very profitable venture. Given this situation, clearly it makes sense for greedy unionists with seniority to continue to want more from their employer, and hit the picket lines to achieve higher wages at a time of higher profits.

Only that’s not what is happening. Despite record profits, Vale Inco wants to roll-back the clock on their workers, using the "recession" as political cover. Reduced pensions, wages, bonuses, medical coverage. It’s all about re-aligning its Sudbury operations so that they are better able to address the emerging economy.

And by "re-alignment", largely what the company appears to mean is that in comparison to its mining operations elsewhere on the planet, Sudbury miners have it pretty good, and before other miners elsewhere begin to organize and demand a little respect from their employer, it’s best to tear down the previous hard-won gains made here in Sudbury.

Look, going underground to make a living is dangerous job. I’m relieved to hear that safety has become an increasing priority of mining companies, because it wasn’t always that way. But even the "safest" underground mining environment poses credible threats to the health and well-being of anyone working underground. In part this is why Sudbury’s life-expectancy rate is one of the lowest in Ontario.

The "Nickel Bonus", which many Sudbury miners had enjoyed up until recently, was a concession agreed to by the old INCO and the Union, which saw the union share in the profits in good times, and take a hit when times weren’t so good. This was helpful to the company at the time, as the Bonus has been used in place of the wage increases which other industries, such as the auto sector, have traditionally relied upon. Therefore, real wages have not increased to the same degree for INCO workers, but with sky-high nickel prices a few years back leading to a hefty Nickel Bonus, workers did quite well. The mechanism has worked here in Sudbury in the past. So needless to say it’s item number one on the Company’s list of things which have to go the way of the dinosaur.

Although I currently belong to a union and have walked a picket line in the past, I’ve never considered myself a strong advocate for organized labour, even when I could see the clear value of collective bargaining. But even if I was a staunch anti-unionist, I think that if I critically looked at what is going on here in Sudbury, I would be appalled. Keep in mind that these resources, located in the ground in Ontario, are now controlled by a Brazilian-based company which has a pretty poor track record when it comes to looking after its employees, and the communities where they live. Their environmental track-record certainly hasn’t been up to snuff either. I’m very concerned about whether Vale Inco will continue to invest in improving our local environment in the same way that the former INCO did.

Sudbury is currently one hurting community. Recently, double-digit unemployment numbers were announced for the first time since the early 1980s, and we’re quite a bit above the provincial average. Given that striking miners are technically still on the job, the 3500 or so members of Local 6500 aren’t included in these unemployment numbers. Local mining supply services have already experienced the "wrath" of Brazilian-based Vale Inco, as contracts are awarded to international firms instead of the locals here in Sudbury, all in the name of cost-savings (and even when it’s not clear that any costs have actually been saved. Vale, like many companies, though, have pre-existing relationships with other businesses, and of course they’re going to prefer to take their business to those they know).

The fight here in Sudbury is one which we all need to be concerned about. The internationalization of our resource sector is not something which is on the minds of most Canadians, but the fact is our resource sector, along with the business community in general, has seen Canadian companies snapped up by international firms at an alarming rate under the Harper government. And while guarantees of net benefits for Canadians have always been promised, I’m not sure that we’re seeing much in the way of results in general. And I know we’re not seeing them here in Sudbury.

Greens, there are many reasons to be concerned about what is happening with the mining sector in Canada. While the NDP have historically been leaders in working hand in hand with the labour movement, on specific issues where Canadian workers are taking a hit as a result of global consolidation within certain sectors, we need to start paying attention. While the Canadian mining industry historically had a spotty record on dealing with the environment, things had started to turn around. And frankly, in comparison to most of the rest of the world, we had been doing much better. Companies concerned only about their economic bottom-line are frankly not in keeping with Canadian and Green values. Yet they are having increasing influence in the lives of Canadians to the detriment of our communities and natural environment.

And that’s why what’s happening here in Sudbury deserves your attention.

One last thing: all of the striking Local 6500 workers we spoke with expressed that they were very happy to see the Green Party at the Rally. Only Jack Layton, whose hand we shook on the way in, seemed less than enthusiastic with our presence there.

2 comments:

janfromthebruce said...

"Only Jack Layton, whose hand we shook on the way in, seemed less than enthusiastic with our presence there."

I guess you missed the solidarity piece, with your backhanded compliment.
Too bad, I thought it was a well thought out post, but taking cheap shoots, and saying that you are really not a big union person or much of a supporter (wink, wink) perhaps reveals that the Greens were their for the show but not really there for the "solidarity" piece.

Sudbury Steve said...

No, that's not the case at all. All of the other members and supporters of Local 6500 were very open, warm and engaging to us. Mr. Layton, though, failed to look any of us in the eye, and said not a word to us as he shook our hands. If there was a lack of solidarity present in that line-up, it was on his side, not ours, as we thanked him for coming to our community.

As for identifying myself as not being a big union supporter, let me clarify: I have been paying my dues to various unions throughout all of my career (the past 12 years now, and for one summer during university). I walked a picket line for almost 8 weeks. I've always respected the picket lines of others. During this time, I attended some rallies on behalf of my local. I've been involved with the union, but not as actively engaged as many others. This was my first time attending a union rally hosted by another union, and I did so as a private citizen, not as part of my own union's presence. The cause, though, is a worthy one, and that's why I went.

So continue to take your cheap shots at my own integrity in the terribly partisan way that you are known for. Try to score your points off of me for the few readers of these blogs. I'll continue to go about my business with my head held high on this matter. I know where I stand on it, and I won't be troubled by your heckling from the sidelines.