An industrial inquiry report into the 17-month-old Voisey’s Bay labour dispute seems no further ahead in bringing striking workers and the mining company together.
Led by chairman John Roil, the inquiry’s non-binding recommendations call for a four-year contract with wage increases and a capped bonus system for employees in a report.
The United Steelworkers (USW), Local 9508, is recommending the report to its members as the template for a new contract.
Vale says the report is incomplete and disagrees with its conclusions.
Released Friday, the inquiry report also dishes out criticism to both sides in the protracted labour dispute.
“The behaviour of both of these parties has, in the commission’s view, contributed to an unhealthy negotiating environment where collective bargaining deteriorates and trust evaporates,” the report reads.
“It is not surprising that a consensus has not been found.”
It also says Labrador aboriginal groups are being devastated by the strike that began Aug. 1, 2009. (See adjacent story for details.)
The report recommends further negotiation or binding arbitration to resolve the remaining issues of return-to-work protocol, contracting out and paid union leave.
Bad faith bargaining
Bob Carter, spokesman for Vale Newfoundland and Labrador, said the inquiry reached conclusions without fully examining all the issues in the labour dispute.
“We do feel that the report suffers from the fact that there was a limited amount of time available to them to complete the terms of reference and really to fully understand the whole context and fabric which underlies the dispute.”
For Vale, one underlying issue is the company’s allegation of bad-faith bargaining by the union.
Carter said the company lodged a complaint with the labour relations board more than a year ago.
“We are concerned about the amount of time that it takes to see a significant issue heard by the labour relations board on a matter that is of such importance to our company and to our employees and to key stakeholders who are affected by this strike.”
The inquiry report notes Vale insisted the commissioners examine the allegation, but said such investigations are the exclusive jurisdiction of the labour relations board.
That board had scheduled hearings for December, but rescheduled them when the inquiry selected the same week for its own hearings.
Carter said a labour relations board hearing is scheduled for February.
Another big issue for Vale is duration of the contract.
Carter said the union rejected the company’s offer of a five-year deal when the two sides met this week — something the union sought a few months ago.
He said the company simply moved in the union’s direction.
“The USW’s proposal to us in September and October of last year was a five-year contract. … The five-year contact was a shift in the union position that occurred after the contract was concluded in Sudbury.”
Vale’s Sudbury employees signed a five-year contract with the company in July.
Carter said the union wants to align the expiry dates on contracts for the company’s Sudbury and Voisey’s Bay operations.
“That’s what occurred in 2009 and in many respects led us to the position that we find ourselves in today. That’s not something we’re prepared to put ourselves and our employees through going forward.”
Boyd Bussey, USW’s international representative in the province, said the inquiry report makes a “reasonable effort” to reach compromise to end the strike.
“We’re going to recommend that our membership vote on it and hopefully that will make it an easier decision for the government to do something about it.”
He said the commission’s report proposes solutions to address all the outstanding issues.
“It’s not all of our issues and not all of the company’s issues, but it’s something that both sides should be able to accept.”
Disrespect for union
While Vale has maintained its desire to reach a collective agreement, the inquiry report said the company’s actions and reactions to the union sends the opposite message.
“It is apparent to the commission that the employer has an approach that does not contemplate compromise on any basis that might be acceptable to the union.”
The report said Vale’s behaviour demonstrates “disrespect for the role of a bargaining agent.
“It is not surprising that this has contributed to a continued failure in these negotiations.
“It is difficult to comprehend that any union, especially a strong national entity, such as (United Steelworkers), would be intimidated by such an approach.”
Local interests sacrificed
The Steelworkers didn’t escape criticism, either.
The report concludes that union efforts to align contract expiry dates for workers at both Voisey’s Bay and Sudbury contributed to an inability to reach a settlement.
“The commission is satisfied that allowing this contract to be tied in duration with collective agreements in other Vale operations in Canada is not a beneficial collective bargaining objective,” said the report.
It criticized the Steelworkers for placing the “collective interests of the union as a national or international organization” above those of the local bargaining unit.
“A union must always ask itself: when have the local employees endured enough sacrifice for the objectives in a national struggle?”
Joan Burke, minister of human resources, labour and employment, was not commenting Friday on the Phase 1 report.
“I encourage the parties to return to the negotiating table and try once again to solve their dispute,” she said in a news release.
“We look forward to receiving the final report by no later than Feb. 25.”
In the second phase, the commission will examine what led to the existing labour-management relations climate at Voisey’s Bay, the ramifications of the dispute, and the costs to the province and to those involved in the dispute.
For more on the inquiry and the impact of the labour dispute on Innu and Inuit communities in Labrador, pick up today's print edition of The Telegram.