The strike that went on and on
The exploration program got its first real taste of the High Grade Zone in 1995. When negotiations for a new labour contract began the next year, members of the United Steelworkers of America local at the mine asked for a bigger piece of the pie. Goldcorp management, however, was not interested in maintaining systems that chairman and CEO Rob McEwen felt had nearly driven the mine out of business. The strike began in June 1996.
According to Kerry McNamara, manager of environmental services, who was chief engineer at the time, “No one thought it would go on for long. It was about a dozen people leading the others. The media blew it all out of proportion. We [management and hourly employees] continued to see each other outside of work, in the stores and everywhere. During the strike, we still thought of the people as our coworkers.” She adds: “The strike was really in Toronto [between the company and union executives], not in the community, but the effects were felt throughout the community.”
All production ceased during the strike, but the mine went on care-and-maintenance to allow exploration to continue. The salaried staff did double and triple duty, covering their own work as well as the essential jobs usually handled by the hourly workers. Staff morale ebbed, as there was a high turnover among managers. Eventually the human resources manager, Dennis Brown, became interim general manager. He was very worried that there might be violence. “During the strike, I got into the habit, like brushing my teeth, of walking around my car every morning to see if there were footprints near it. There never were.” No one was hurt, although one striking worker took his own life.
McNamara describes the transformation that took place. “In May 1998, Bruce Humphrey joined Goldcorp [as vice-president of gold operations]. He had the skill set to push through the feasibility study. Bruce gave the staff lots of support,” something they badly needed. “We picked the systems in-house with our staff. We wrote the scopes of work and the tenders.” She adds: “We began to focus on being successful. We learned to work together under duress.”
The strike eventually stretched to 46 months, the longest strike in Canadian mining history, ending in April of this year. The union agreed to cease representing the mine’s employees, in return for a severance package for the 146 striking employees (as of April 2000) totaling US$5.7 million, and job offers for at least 45 former unionized employees when the mine reopens.
“One of the huge benefits of the strike,” says McEwen, “was that it gave us the ability to reflect on our business plan. With the scale of our operation, there are no economies of scale to be garnered” in doing some tasks. Therefore, many of the non-core aspects of the operation will no longer be handled in-house. The laboratory analyses are all being done off-site, most of them at an independent lab in Red Lake set up this year by SGS X-Ral. Similarly, the maintenance may all be done by a third party. When asked what aspects of the operation must remain core, McEwen replied, “Ownership of the property.”
What about the hourly employees? The mining operations are currently being handled by contractors from Dynatec Corp., and the mill by Merit Consultants International Inc. employees. Most of them have come from different parts of the country, but there are some former Red Lake mine employees among them.
“There will be a transition between contractors and company employees,” says Mark Tessier, the underground manager. “Where the dividing line will end up hasn’t been decided yet,” although Tessier is sure there will always be some contractors doing underground development.
Of the mill operators, Merit’s manager of mill commissioning, Klaus Tietz, says: “They came because of the lengthy strike here. I am sure a majority if not all of them will be given the opportunity to be hired on as Goldcorp employees, because now the strike is settled everything is smoothed out there. The operators are already trained and know exactly what’s going on.”