The history of labour negotiations in Sudbury is long and adversarial. When talks broke down between Inco and the local Steelworkers union in 1978, the strike that began on Sept. 15 lasted until June 7 the following year. It crippled the city's economy.
Now the management of Vale Inco and members of the United Steelworkers Local 6500 have failed to reach a contract. Union members voted 85% in favour of job action; they headed for the picket lines on July 13. Operations at Sudbury, Port Colborne and Voisey's Bay are affected.
The strike is significant because it stems from a breakdown in the first labour talks between the union and Vale since the Brazilian miner swallowed Inco in 2006 amid promises that that the new owner would not undertake radical changes for three years. That promise went out the window when Vale Inco announced in April this year that it would shutter its mines and plants at Sudbury for eight weeks beginning June 1, 2009. That decision came on top of a three-week maintenance shutdown in May.
Part of the problem is that nickel prices have collapsed as did so much of the world's economy last year. Vale Inco is demanding change to cut production costs at Sudbury, which produces 31% of the company's total nickel output.
Union members are watching nickel stockpiles shrink, and have expressed optimism that Vale will return to the bargaining table sooner rather than later.
Vale is demanding that the union show some willingness to compromise. Until then it appears prepared to wait out a prolonged strike.
Fortunately, the city of Sudbury's economic base is broader now than it was 30 years ago. The Ontario government has beefed up its presence by opening offices for its Natural Resources and the Northern Development and Mining ministries in that town. Higher education, tourism and manufacturing have all grown. Finally, the percentage of the population directly employed in mineral production is far smaller than it used to be.
Nonetheless, this strike, no matter how it is settled, will set the tone for labour negotiations in Sudbury for many years to come.