The Internationalist  
May 2011  
Lessons of the Vale-Inco Strike

Solidarity rally with Inco-Vale strikers in Sudbury, 23 March 2010. What was needed was not empty
solidarity speeches but international strike action.
(Photo: www.fairdealnow.ca)

On 8 July 2010, some 3,500 Sudbury, Ontario nickel miners and smelter workers, members of Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers/Métallos, were forced back to work. Their strike against the Brazilian mining trust Vale (formrly Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, or CVRD), which had taken over the Canadian concern Inco, began in July 2009. The contract they reluctantly accepted – sprung on them at the last minute – included a cut in take-home pay (with a small increase in the hourly wage offset by capping the nickel profit-sharing bonus, which in good years was an important of their income) plus introduction of a two-tier pension system with no defined benefits for newer workers. Even those who voted for the contract said it stank. 

A former Inco executive said of the Vale managers at the outset of the strike, “They just want to break the union. They want to completely hit the reset button on the entire labour situation” (Globe and Mail [Toronto], 13 July 2009). Vale did not succeed in breaking the union, but the USW bureaucracy’s passive policy of trying to wait the company out (to “last one day longer”) led to a defeat. Most decisive was the fact that the struck facilities in Sudbury were operated with scab labour, reportedly for the first time in the 107-year history of the plant. In fact, the USW sent members of its Local 2020, representing the office and technical workers at the mine-mill complex, across picket lines to do the strikers’ work!

Much has been made of the role of the professional strikebreakers of AFI International hired on by Vale, and of the court injunctions minutely regulating picketing. Example: strikers were required to have their faces uncovered while AFI goons would wear balaclavas (ski masks). But when the strikers, backed up by local residents, blocked two access roads to the mine-mill complex with railroad ties on May 7 [2010], they achieved initial success. Truckers refused to cross the lines. At the Clarabelle Mill entrance, on May 11, the cops read out a court order, then left. Yet rather than defend the roadblocks, the union bureaucrats, among them Local 6500 president John Fera, came the next day to convince the strikers to take these picket lines down!

As at U.S. Steel in Hamilton, the USW bureaucrats aimed their fire at Vale as a non-Canadian company, saying (on the strike web site www.fairdealnow.ca) it wanted to “impose their Brazilian ways of doing business on us. However, this is Canada.” A union spokesman was quoted by the London Financial Times (15 March 2010) complaining, “We are sick and tired of foreign capitalists coming in and undermining the Canadian way of life.” Certainly, what Vale is trying to do is force a “race to the bottom,” as part of the “globalization” that is simply the current form of imperialism. (Capitalism has been “globalized” ever since its inception with the slave trade.) Vale’s anti-union attacks must be fought tooth and nail. But if lack of job protections, weaker rights and poverty wages are not good enough for Canadian workers, they’re not good enough for Brazilian workers, either. Taking this Canadian nationalist line is an invitation to Vale to play off one sector of its multinational workforce against the other.

This was combined with a grotesque idealization of the days when Inco Ltd. was supposedly a Canadian company (but with international holdings, American executives and controlled from Inco’s financial headquarters off Wall Street in New York!). “King Inco” ran Sudbury as a company town and a little police state (even the local police in Copper Cliff were on the Inco payroll). Like other mining and paper mill cities and towns in the north, Sudbury has a large Franco-Ontarian population, as well as many immigrants. An article by Val Ross on “The Arrogance of Inco” in Canadian Business (May 1919) described how the company played French, Italian, Finnish, Ukrainian, Polish and “native Canadian” workers against one another inside this enclave, since “ethnic apartheid kept labour solidarity at bay.”

Nevertheless, from the 1940s until 1962 Inco was a stronghold of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers union, which was expelled from the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) in 1950 for refusing to remove its Communist leadership during the Cold War “red purge.” While the Steel Workers tried to raid the union local, the largest in Canada at the time, Inco hired “former” Nazis in an attempt to disrupt the union. Even after the USW took control, the company had a record of bruising labour relations. The 2009-10 strike was the ninth since the 1958 walkout called by the left-led Mine, Mill and Smelter union, including an 8-1/2 month strike in 1978-79. So “Canadian” ownership is hardly a guarantee of decent wages and working conditions. In any case, appeals to Ottawa to go after Vale for not fulfilling its (secret) commitments under the Investment Canada Act went nowhere: Industry Minister Tony Clement decreed that since Vale was laying off elsewhere, not just in Sudbury, this was “something in their favour.”

At a March 2010 solidarity rally in Sudbury, USW International president Leo Gerard (himself a former Local 6500 member) announced that the Ontario New Democratic Party with the help of the union was introducing “anti-scab” legislation, and the union would blockade Highway 401 and “shut this whole goddamn province down” if necessary to get it. Of course, the USW didn’t shut down the highway or the province, no anti-scab law was passed, and the union didn’t stop the scabs on the ground in Sudbury. Reliance on the Canadian state went hand in hand with silly publicity stunts, such as sending a birthday cake to Vale headquarters in Brazil, as well as some labour tourism for the USW brass, who traveled to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in August 2009 for some glad-handing at Brazilian union meetings. But at the same time, Vale was threatening mass layoffs at the iron mine in Itabira, Brazil. What should have happened is joint strike action against the “multinational” company from Canada to Brazil.[1]

The stench of defeatism is also noticeable among various sections of the left. A piece on the Vale Inco strike in an “e-bulletin” of the Socialist Project concludes:

“Sadly, with the economic deck stacked against them, unions have been largely unable to put up much of a fight to stop these trends. In Sudbury, this same ‘ever-weaker David and ever-more-powerful Goliath’ scenario is now being played out. Regrettably, Vale Inco is in the ‘driver’s seat.’… But strikes alone are not enough to counter the power of global firms and capitalist pressures. Substantive government policy shifts are needed to affect meaningful change. So too is a new political momentum….”

–The Bullet, 13 September 2009

Meaning: hold your nose and vote NDP. Even an account (“One Day Longer? The Vale-Inco Strike Comes to a Close”) on the anarchist Linchpin (21 July 2010) site strikes a similar defeatist note: “The combination of injunctions restricting picketing with firms like AFI, which specialize in strikebreaking and the harassment of workers, make the possibility of truly effective picketing even more remote.” Like the I.S. call for rank-and-file networks over the Hamilton strike, the author calls for less “top-down” organization and more “participatory governance” to fight “neo-liberalism.” Yet it is capitalism that must be fought, not just its current “neo-liberal” free market policies. And the issue is not “what tactics will work?” or “what changes in organizational form” are needed but what program is at work, class struggle or class collaboration.

 “Business unionism” is a dead end, even when it is dressed up with a little leftist rhetoric. But no amount of  rank-and-file, grassroots, participatory democracy or the like will turn things around until the workers in struggle are prepared to mobilize their power to take on the capitalist state. Court injunctions may prohibit stopping scabs, because the laws express the interests of the exploiters. But that isn’t what has prevented workers from enforcing the class interests of the exploited – it’s the labour misleaders who bow to the bosses’ laws that are the obstacle. Plant occupations to stop production, mass pickets that no one dares cross, “hot cargoing” (refusing to handle) scab goods – almost every effective labour tactic has been ruled illegal by the courts. So was organizing unions until workers action in the plants and on the streets shredded those anti-labour laws. It is as true today as it was then: “playing by the bosses’ rules is a losing game – workers have to play hardball to win!” And that means forging a workers party and leadership with the internationalist revolutionary program and determination to fight through to victory.

[1] In a 1 August 2009 rally in Itabira, the Rio de Janeiro state teachers union SEPE distributed a leaflet calling to “Unite the Workers to Confront the Crisis.” Comrade Cecilia of the Class Struggle Committee in the SEPE and the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil, spoke there, calling for a joint strike of workers facing layoff threats, including Vale mine workers, General Motors auto workers and steel workers at the CSN plant (whose owners are the majority stockholders of Vale). But even the “left-wing” bureaucrats of the Conlutas federation did no more than send letters to Brazilian president Lula, just as the USW bureaucrats appealed to the Canadian federal government.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com