Voisey's Bay impasse continues as deadline looms

Moira Baird
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A last-ditch effort aimed at ending the Voisey’s Bay strike broke down in less than an hour Wednesday morning.

It mirrored almost two years of labour negotiations, conciliation and efforts by an independent mediator that have failed to produce an agreement between more than 240 unionized workers and Brazilian mining giant, Vale.

The union said Vale “just got up and left” the meeting and said there was no point in proceeding.

The company said “absolutely no progress was made”— accusing the United Steelworkers, Local 9508, of continuing to “bargain in bad faith.”

Now, it’s likely up to a three-person industrial inquiry appointed by Premier Danny Williams to sort out the 15-month-long strike at the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine.

Williams set end-of-business Friday as the deadline for the inquiry to begin its work, if both sides cannot come to terms.That deadline stands, the province confirmed Wednesday.


Minister calls for end to strike

Susan Sullivan, minister of human resources, labour and employment, also called on both sides to use the remaining time to “reflect upon their positions and to bring an end to this strike.”

“Government is extremely disappointed that meetings between the United Steelworkers and Vale broke off so quickly,” Sullivan said in an emailed statement.

“Mediation support remains available to the parties from the labour relations agency and the previously appointed independent mediator, Bill Wells.”


Meeting went nowhere

Boyd Bussey, international representative for the United Steelworkers (USW) union in the province, said Wednesday’s meeting was short-lived.

“It was mostly a reminiscing session — talking about what had failed and what had gone on over the past 15 months … getting us nowhere, really.”

During the last round of talks that broke down earlier this month, he said the union had tabled a proposal.

He said he suggested to the company a response to that proposal would be a good starting point for Wednesday’s meeting.

“They didn’t do that. They didn’t do anything. They just sat and listened to me explaining the proposal that we had given. Then they just got up and left.”

Bussey said no provincial conciliation or mediation officers attended the meeting.

“The company said that there was no point in proceeding any further; that as far as they were concerned we were further apart now than we ever were.”

Bussey, who is also the USW’s chief negotiator, said the union brought its full six-member bargaining committee to the meeting.

He said Vale sent four of its five-member bargaining committee, and without its usual complement corporate head office officials.

Vale said the union adds new items to its list of demands every time the two sides meet.

“Once again our efforts to advance negotiations were rejected by USW,” said Tom Paddon, general manager of Vale’s operations in Newfoundland and Labrador, in a statement.

“Our talks today lasted just one hour and absolutely no progress was made.

“The union showed no desire to negotiate in a constructive manner. This kind of behaviour is nothing new.”

He said the union is bargaining in bad faith.

“For more than a year USW sat on the sidelines and refused to engage in meaningful negotiations on behalf of our employees in Labrador until the Ontario strike was settled,” Paddon stated.

Vale said the union is cherry-picking items from the deal that settled the lengthy strike at its Sudbury operations.


Other motives

Both sides also accuse each other of ulterior motives in negotiations to date. The union said Vale negotiators appear to take their marching orders from Vale’s head office — either in Toronto or Brazil.

“They just come and give sermons, ask for explanations and then they just take their ball and go home. It’s very frustrating trying to deal with them,” said Bussey.

“They seem to have a hidden mandate that they’re not telling us about, and I don’t know what that is, or if it’s coming from Brazil or if it’s coming from corporate in Toronto.”

Vale said the USW has a national agenda — not a local one.

“This strike is not about the money,” stated Paddon. “It’s about USW’s national agenda and unfortunately our employees in Labrador are being used as pawns in the process.

“The USW appeared more interested in a public inquiry to advocate for change to provincial legislation rather than settling a deal for their striking members.”

Inquiry’s terms due Friday

Tuesday, the province named three lawyers to its industrial inquiry.

The inquiry’s terms of reference will be announced Friday. It will be led by John Roil, who is one of the lawyers for the offshore helicopter safety inquiry.

Also appointed are Randell Earle, the lawyer for the province’s unionized offshore workers at the helicopter inquiry, and Brian Gatien, who specializes in human resources law.

Gatien also maintains a law practice in Sudbury, and his website describes that firm as the only one in Northern Ontario “whose practice is exclusively restricted to representing employers.”

An industrial inquiry has no power to impose a collective agreement on both sides, but it can act as a conciliator. It can also make recommendations to the provincial government.

More than 240 Voisey’s Bay mine workers have been on strike since Aug. 1, 2009. It’s the second labour dispute at the mine in three years.

Vale is operating the nickel mine with replacement workers.


Organizations: Vale.The union

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Toronto, Brazil Ontario Sudbury

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Recent comments

  • Essie
    October 24, 2010 - 21:13

    I am confident Mr. Roil will be able to find a resolution that keeps all parties happy and put an end to this labour dispute. His past endeavours have certainly had great success and I believe the Minister has appointed an unbiased, fair, knowledgeable lawyer for the position. I hope this ends soon.

  • Brad
    October 21, 2010 - 11:00

    So the union should cherrypick items from the Sudbury contract. Same company, same country, why different benefits? If it weren't for Voisey's bay nickle, half of Sudbury workers would be out of a job anyway. We all know the government will side with the company since they are already in bed with each other creating environmental disasters. Get what you can out of this company as they are going to leave a mess that will outweigh any money they give to this province.