Spartacist Canada No. 163
Victory to Vale Inco Strike!
More than 3,500 United Steelworkers (USW) members remain on the picket lines in a strike against mining giant Vale Inco that began in July. The strikers, who work in the company’s nickel operations in Sudbury and smaller facilities in Port Colborne, Ontario and Voisey’s Bay, Newfoundland, are resisting the company’s demands for massive concessions. These include the gutting of pension plans for new hires as well as attacks on seniority and a steep reduction to production bonuses, effectively a wage cut. Now the strike is at a pivotal stage, as Vale Inco has moved to restart production in Sudbury by using scab labour. Such strikebreaking is unprecedented in the long history of unionized mining in the Sudbury area.
This is a crucial battle for the entire labour movement. Miners in the Sudbury Basin have long been a bulwark of the union movement, since they first stood down company thug attacks to win union recognition in 1944. The 1978-79 nickel strike, which saw miners walk the picket lines for eight and a half bitter months with broad support from the community in Sudbury and beyond, was the largest in Canadian history in terms of worker days lost. Through such struggles, the union won important gains like health and safety protection and fully indexed pensions after 30 years of work.
Three years ago Vale, a Brazilian company which was already the world’s largest iron ore producer, bought out the largely Canadian-owned Inco. (The Swiss conglomerate Xstrata purchased Inco’s main local competitor, Falconbridge, at the same time.) Awash in cash from its operations in Brazil and elsewhere, in the first two years after the takeover Vale Inco made more than $4 billion in profits from its Canadian operations. Then when nickel prices collapsed last year amid the capitalist economic crisis, Vale Inco seized the opportunity to go after USW wages and working conditions in the name of “global competitiveness.”
Today Sudbury miners face a difficult situation. Years of savage job cuts have reduced the workforce by more than 25,000 to slightly over 3,000 today. After the 1978-79 strike, the capitalist rulers moved to “diversify” the local economy, seeking to reduce dependence on the mines and their traditionally militant workforce in favour of jobs in education, health care and government services. The Sudbury area used to generate 90 percent of the world’s nickel supply, giving miners there tremendous social power. But with “diversification” and the depletion of mine sites, workers in the region now produce only 5 percent of world supplies, while nickel production has surged elsewhere, including in Indonesia where Vale Inco also has extensive facilities.
For International Class Struggle, Not Nationalist Protectionism!
The global nature of today’s mining industry underlines the need for united struggle by the workers internationally to throw back the attacks of the capitalist ruling class. But all the USW bureaucracy has to offer is a toothless “global campaign for justice,” chiefly consisting of meetings and joint statements with union officials from other countries where Vale has operations. The USW issued a statement in support of Vale workers in Brazil, who waged a two-day strike in late October. These workers have virtually no job security or access to union representation. In turn, Vale unions in Brazil and Indonesia co-signed a statement vowing to support the USW as “a part of union solidarity.”
But at home, the USW leadership’s bottom line has been to push flag-waving patriotism and complain about “foreign takeovers” of Canadian industry. An article in the November 2009 issue of the union’s USW@Work magazine complains: “Our major industries and resources are being bought up and shipped out of Canada at an alarming rate.” Signs at strike rallies attack Vale for “giving away Canada’s nickel,” while one picketer in Sudbury told CBC Radio’s The Current (16 November): “The old Inco was pleasant compared to these people, and it’s wrong what they’re doing. This is not Brazil, it’s Canada.”
The idea that Inco was a benevolent friend of the workers is absurd and pernicious. Every gain that Canadian nickel miners have won came through class struggle against the Inco bosses. It was Inco management in Toronto, not Vale bosses in Rio de Janeiro, who slashed tens of thousands of Sudbury mining jobs over the decades in a relentless drive to maximize corporate profits. Internationally, Inco worked closely with military dictatorships in Guatemala and Indonesia to ensure that workers in the mines it owned there would toil for a pittance amid terrible safety and environmental conditions.
Today, Canadian mining companies control nearly 45 percent of all global mining exploration. As detailed most recently in a Toronto Star feature article (“Canadian Mining Firms Face Abuse Allegations,” 22 November), these companies face numerous allegations of bribing government officials, using paramilitary “security” forces and forcibly relocating entire communities in Third World countries like Ecuador, the Philippines and the Congo. As the article noted, “The word ‘Canada’ is so reviled in some places that travelling Canadians mask their citizenship by wearing American flags on their caps and backpacks.”
The campaign to “defend Canadian industry” waged by the USW bureaucracy and its parliamentary allies in the NDP is 100 percent counterposed to the strategy needed to fight against the capitalists’ attacks on the workers. Nationalism is inherent to the capitalist profit system, which operates by setting one national capitalist class against another, constantly creating unevenness and crises. The international character of the working class, on the other hand, gives it a potentially enormous superiority over the bourgeoisie if mobilized across national and other divisions to coordinate its struggles. A class-struggle strategy means unleashing the unions’ social power to fight for the burning needs of the working and poor masses independently of and against the interests of the various national capitalist ruling classes—starting here “at home.”
The union tops’ cringing legalism before the bosses’ courts is also undermining the Vale Inco strike. The company has obtained injunctions against USW pickets and is seeking $25 million in damages from the union for lost production. Under an agreed picket line “protocol,” trucks and other scab vehicles are allowed through the lines in Sudbury every 12-15 minutes.
Even worse, the USW bureaucrats are allowing union members to scab on their own strike! Some 50 members of a non-striking USW local representing Vale Inco office and technical staff are among the scabs being used to break the strike. When the company announced its plan to restart production, a USW statement, “Vale Declares War on Sudbury,” complained: “By forcing members of USW Local 2020 to perform striking workers’ jobs Vale is trying to drive a wedge between workers.” But, as reported in the Sudbury Star (27 August), Local 2020 president Dan Serre “agreed Local 2020 members cannot refuse their new work orders…. His best advice to his members is, ‘Look, just do the work and do it safely. Do it slowly’.” Outrageously, the president of the striking USW Local 6500 told Serre that “he and his union understand the position Local 2020 members are being placed in.”
It used to be a watchword of the labour movement that picket lines mean don’t cross. Back in 1966, 17,000 Local 6500 members staged a wildcat strike against Inco that saw mass pickets aimed at shutting tight the mines and other facilities. When the company tried to fly managers in, strikers threatened to disable their helicopter. It was militant tactics like mass pickets, “illegal” strikes, occupations and hot cargoing (refusing to handle) struck goods that built the unions in the first place. They must be revived today for the working class to turn back the bosses’ one-sided war on labour.
Smash Vale Inco Union Busting! Victory to the USW!
Four months on, the strike is clearly having an impact on Vale Inco’s bottom line. The company is losing over $7 million a day in production. Even with the scabbing, production in Sudbury is nowhere near normal levels, while the Voisey’s Bay facilities and Port Colborne refinery remain shut down.
A taste of the kind of internationalist class-struggle tactics needed for victory came when USW strikers traced a ship carrying stockpiled copper concentrates from Voisey’s Bay to Germany in October. A contingent of strikers and other unionists met the ship when it arrived. But the union did not raise the necessary call for the labour movement internationally to refuse to handle all exports from struck facilities. Instead, according to a report on the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions website (www.icem.org), the delegation merely urged the ship’s captain and owner to “raise the issue directly with Vale-Inco and with the metal companies that were purchasing the Brazilian company’s resources.”
The fight for a winning strategy in the Vale Inco strike is linked to the fight for a class-struggle leadership of the labour movement. This is part of the struggle for an internationalist workers party that—in sharp contrast to the pro-capitalist NDP—will fight down the line for the interests of the workers and the poor against the Canadian capitalist rulers. A class-struggle leadership would sharply oppose all nationalist protectionism, which pits the workers against each other in the interests of the respective national capitalist classes.
The millions in profits that make it into the pockets of the mining bosses, whatever their nationality, come from the surplus value created by the blood and sweat of the workers. Under a rationally planned economy, social wealth would go to benefit all, including the masses of the capitalist neocolonies in Latin America, Africa and Asia. To attain that we need a workers revolution led by a multiethnic revolutionary workers party that smashes the capitalist system and replaces it with an international, egalitarian socialist society. In the words of the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world, unite!”