Monday, March 22, 2010

Why I Support United Steelworkers Local 6500 - And Why Other Greens Should Too

I attended this evening's “Bridging the Gap” rally here in Sudbury, in support of striking United Steel Workers Local 6500, who have been on strike now against their employer, Brazilian-based Vale Inco, for about 8 months now, without an end in sight. To me, it feels as if things are starting to come to a head here in my City, as accusations are flying all over the place. Tonight, I heard that Vale had accused the Union of being racist, because the union had referred to Brazil as a “developing nation”. Say what you will about Local 6500, but they are not racists. It's this kind of pot-stirring, though, which is starting to be problematic for my community.

A couple of weeks ago, Vale took an offer directly to the employees, and a vote was held. 89% of striking Steelworkers voted to reject Vale's offer. You have to understand, these people are hurting (who wouldn't be after 8 months on a picket line?), yet still they rejected the offer, claiming that there was little new in the deal. Negotiations broke down. Now, the Steelworkers are claiming that temporary workers being housed on Vale property are being done so in defiance of municipal by-laws, and the City is investigating. More temporary workers are expected to be put on the payroll. Striking Steelworkers have been fired, in some cases without explanation, and without the benefit of union representation through the agreed-upon labour dispute mechanisms, which aren't in place, because the union is on strike. It's downright Orwellian here at times.

“Greater Sudbury is a wounded community,” stated Mayor John Rodriguez tonight. I believe it. Rodriguez told the crowd that those on strike are losing their homes. Families are under stress. Yes, that's for sure. The strike, though, is affecting our community in other ways, too. My wife and I used to go to this great little restaurant in the downtown; in fact, it's where we got engaged. It was just a small operation, but the food was great, the service was wonderful. It was the kind of place where it was always a pleasure to go. It closed down on St. Valentine's weekend. Not enough business. Another little place which I didn't visit enough, a little tea shop nestled amongst the Artists on Elgin, gone. One after another, little businesses are disappearing. This recession is wearing enough on our community. Having thousands of miners receiving only strike pay is hurting us even more.

And the company doesn't really give a damn. To them, the strike is a nuisance, at best. They're so big, they can continue to absorb the losses from idle facilities here in Sudbury. It's not as if the ore body is going anywhere. Nickel prices have started to climb, though, so maybe they're feeling a bit more of a pinch right now, and they've begun to salivate a touch thinking about the profits they're not making. But it's not as if they're hurting. In fact, Vale continues to make huge profits. The problem with their operation here in Sudbury (and in Port Colborne, Ontario, and Voisey's Bay in Labrador) is that with wages, pensions and benefits previously negotiated by the workers, Vale isn't going to make enough profit for their liking. So they sideline a whole community in the process.

I believe that's what's called “corporate greed”. Frankly, it's not sustainable. When our governments let these massive international corporations call the shots in our communities, based not on profitability, but on profit margins, it's a problem. I've heard this kind of internationalization of our resources referred to as “branch planting”. The decision makers, who used to be located in the same communities as the workers, have left, and sold the shop to a faceless corporation based somewhere else in the world, with no ties to the communities which they operate in. Local businesses which were once used to service the industry can't renew their contracts, and are cast aside in favour of other businesses from outside which have pre-existing relationships which the corporate giant. What was once a community building endeavour between local capital and local labour becomes simple exploitation in the name in profit. Sure, with a few sops thrown our way every now and then to be sure, so that the multinational can keep up the appearances of being a community builder, rather than a pillager of our natural resources.

NDP Leader Jack Layton was back in town. He's a favourite of the Steelworkers, and why not? The NDP has done a very good job supporting the position of the union. They've been asking questions in Parliament of Stephen Harper and especially Industry Minister Tony Clement. You see, a deal was made to allow the Canadian company INCO to be sold to the Brazilian Vale a few years ago. When the deal was made, the Conservatives told Canadians that this sale of a Canadian asset was in the interests of Canada, that there would be a net gain for Canadians as a result. With layoffs occurring early in 2008, with middle managers being let go for redundancies now that their jobs can be handled out of corporate offices in Sao Paolo, and now with an 8 month strike, it's difficult for us here in Sudbury to see what the net benefit of this sale has been. And it's even more difficult because the agreement Vale made with the Canadian government is secret; Clement won't release it. Says that there are laws prohibiting him from doing so. But trust him, Sudbury would have been a “valley of death” had not Vale stepped up to the plate and purchased INCO.

So we have a secret agreement which the Conservatives claim was made in the interests of Canada, but they can't tell us how, so we have to trust them on this. Did I mention that at times, things around here seem a little Orwellian?

Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Provincial NDP was also here. She, too, has been a voice for Steelworkers, although I think that her singular focus on the Ontario NDP's anti-scab legislation could use a bit of a makeover. Not that I'm against anti-scab legislation, which is a good thing, given that the Green Party of Canada is also in favour of such legislation, at least as it would apply to Federal workers. Otherwise, this is largely a provincial issue. And that's why the Liberal MPP for Sudbury, Rick Bartolucci, who is usually the first announced winner on election nights in this province, will be in a world of trouble should he run again. Although Horwath lacks Layton's ability to rile up a crowd, the NDP will have a ready-made machine to fight the Liberals in the 2011 election here. The rumour-mill says that Bartolucci might step down from McGuinty's cabinet, and maybe even toss his hat into the ring for Mayor in time for this coming fall's election. His lack of position on the strike will be problematic for him to overcome against Rodriguez, who has been a strong supporter of USW 6500, and who has successfully bootstrapped most of his Council into taking the same position as his. Of course, it is an election year, and opposing the Steelworkers doesn't appear to be a smart move in this community.

Local businesses and even residences have begun sprouting “I support USW 6500” signs. One local business I frequent was threatened by an anonymous letter, told to remove their sign. The local press found out about it. The next day, the business ran out of food at lunch time, with Steelworkers lining up to show their support.

Sure, not everybody supports the striking Steelworkers here, but I believe that most do. Even those who believe that the Steelworkers are over-compensated for the job they do (a view I don't share, given how dangerous a job mining can be; if you don't believe me, you should come to Sudbury and see the Miner's Memorial in Bell Park) have a hard time siding with Vale on this one, given their corporate greed. Even if you don't believe in the greed, when you look around and see what's happening to our community as a result of the strike, well, it's very hard not to get worked up about these things.

Look, I'm the furthest thing from a union activist as there is. Sure, I belong to a union, and yes, I participated in a strike back during the Mike Harris years, and walked a picket line for 7 weeks. I remember how hard a time that was for me. I can't imagine what the members of USW 6500 are going through, though, being out for 8 months. At today's rally, an Australian union announced that they had passed a hat out to their members to collect donations for Canadian Steelworkers, and as a result, they'd be donating $50,000. Every little bit helps, but there are over 3,000 workers out on strike here, and hundreds more in Port Colborne and Voisey's Bay. Even $50,000 can only be stretched so far.

In the past when I've written about this strike, or about labour issues in general, I've made some Greens uncomfortable. Yes, I agree, labour issues are pretty much owned by the NDP, given that the NDP itself is largely a creature of organized labour. Plus, many Greens are simply uncomfortable with a labour/company dynamic. We'd prefer to work with small-ish business owners to achieve the results we call for. The reality is, though, we live in a world where there is friction between labour and capital, and that's not likely going to go away any time soon. In fact, if what's going on in Sudbury proves to be the tip of the iceberg which so many involved in the labour movement believe it to be, we can expect even more problems in the future. As corporations merge and power is consolidated into the hands of a few truly giant international corporations who are able to dictate their own terms to national governments who have either an ideological predisposition to go along with the Corporation's dictates, or else have little other choice, we can truly expect to see more friction. Corporations will naturally want to maximize their profits, and that will mean renegotiating wages, benefits, pensions, any external costs. And if they don't get what they want, well, they'll be big enough to find other ways of managing costs. Clearly, unions are going to be targets. Remember what happened to those Wal-Mart employees in Quebec who voted to form a union so that they could collectively bargain with their employer? Wal-Mart got around Quebec's stringent labour laws by declaring that the store which certified the union was unprofitable, and closed it, throwing everyone out of work. And if you believe that a Wal-Mart wasn't turning a profit, than maybe you'd believe that Vale can't profit either in Sudbury by paying their workers the wages they had previously negotiated.

Although the NDP have owned this issue, they have done so by looking at the capital/labour dichotomy through their own “left-right” lens. But there is so much more to it. I heard Jack Layton say a few things this evening about labour, and what collective bargaining has accomplished. He said that when miners were dying, they went together to their employer, and those dangerous practices stopped. He said that when the worker's working days were done, they retired to live in poverty, and collectively the workers told the companies that wasn't right, and retiring workers received pensions. Layton said that when the workers went to the companies and said you're destroying the environment in which we live, collective bargaining helped get things back on track. Here in Sudbury there is clear evidence of that. Inco and Falconbridge both contributed quite heavily to the on-going re-greening initiative which is one of the biggest success stories that Sudbury has to tell. The number of trees planted on previously devastated lands is fantastic. This isn't your grandparent's Sudbury.

But Layton and the NDP don't get the full story. Layton went on to say that in Parliament today, he invited Minister Tony Clement to join him on a Bearskin Airlines flight to Sudbury, so that he could speak at this evening's rally. Clement declined, rightly in Layton's opinion, for the crowd might have torn him apart.

As I said earlier, Layton, Horwath and the NDP have done a good job for standing up for striking Steelworkers here in Sudbury, and in Port Colborne and Voisey's Bay. But, on a few things, the NDP still don't quite get it. Yes, collective bargaining has clearly accomplished so very much for workers, and for their communities. But, the missing piece of the puzzle for the NDP is the one which makes the puzzle whole. As the NDP continues to compartmentalize the environment as a discrete issue in and of itself, which is what it must be if viewed through a left-right lens, then it will only ever be treated as an externality. It can never become a core issue.

We Greens understand that environmental, social and economic matters are rolled together into an inseparable whole. And although labour issues may not resonate with some Greens, I'm here to tell you that they are a part of that whole which we can not ignore. The solutions to the problems which our society is facing must consider the balance between labour and capital, despite this being seen as an “NDP issue”. Our Party gets this, although it makes some Members uncomfortable. Sometimes, though, we need to move out of our personal comfort zones.

We Greens would certainly see the irony in the Leader of a national political party praising the environmental successes achieved through collective bargaining in one breath, while with the very next breath chastising the opposition for not joining him on an airplane to fly to a rally.

At tonight's rally, a Steelworker turned to me and said that he was surprised to see someone from the Green Party in attendance. He asked if I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I confessed that I did, a little bit, not being a union activist. I told him that I was here tonight, though, because it was the right place for me to be.

I hope that other Greens start coming to the same conclusion, given what is at stake.

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