Labrador West braces for fallout from Wabush Mines closure
Allan Pilgrim has seen ups and downs since he moved to Labrador West in 1971. Today it’s a big down, but he’s holding on to hope.
Allan Pilgrim and his daughters Alyssa and Kyanna Pilgrim are one of the many families affected by the shutdown of work at Wabush Mines. (Top of page) Wabush Mines was recently idled by Cliffs Natural Resources, surprising its employees and surrounding communities. — Photos by Ty Dunham/The Aurora
A third-generation miner, he followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Just a decade ago Pilgrim left a job with the Iron Ore Co. of Canada (IOC) for Wabush Mines, advancing his position until he was a conductor for the railway.
Cliffs Natural Resources announced Tuesday it would be idling Wabush Mines, keeping only the 100 employees necessary to maintain the building.
Pilgrim was not lucky enough to be one of the 100.
“I was looking at my seniority list and I’m (number) 125 — so I’m 25 off. I guess my job is terminated,” he said.
In his years working at the mine, Pilgrim said there have always been talks of the doors closing, especially close to contract negotiations. But he always thought it was just a bluff.
“I guess this time it’s a reality. It’s pretty heart-touching for a lot of people, and I feel bad for the ones who have just started who have $500,000-mortgages and all these vehicles and stuff.”
Although Pilgrim was fortunate enough to have purchased his Wabush home at a good time in 2001, he said he did remortgage it and still owes money on it.
“It’s tough. You have no job. Where’s the money going to come from for your mortgage and car payment?”
In the meantime, he’s looking for a job at one of the other big companies in the area, and he’ll take what he can get.
“Even if I have to get a job at Walmart, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to support my family. But if I do get a job at IOC and Wabush Mines calls me back, I’ll say, ‘That’s tough for you guys.’”
There is hope among many in the community that Wabush Mines will be sold to another company. Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley has told The Telegram that helping Cliffs Natural Resources find a buyer is one of the province’s top priorities.
But Pilgrim said it all could have been avoided if the company had heeded the advice of its employees.
“The people that have been there for years telling management that this needs to be done and that needs to be done, and no one’s been listening.”
Ever since the company took over the Bloom Lake project, it’s brought Wabush Mines way down, Pilgrim said.
“They’re sinking money into that when here they’ve got the workforce with all the homes and livelihoods.”
In 2009, the company laid off 126 employees. The effects were strongly felt in the workers’ communities, but this time Wabush Mayor Colin Vardy said it will be felt across the region.
“To say any less wouldn’t be appropriate,” he said. “When 500 well-paying jobs are being cut in the near future, this is going to trickle downhill.”
Vardy is meeting with the union, provincial government and other industry players to discuss how the impact can be minimized.
Because the news is so fresh, Vardy said it’s going to take time to identify the strengths of Wabush and maximize its potential, and the town wants to adopt a balanced approach amidst high-strung emotions.
The Town of Wabush gets 30 per cent, or a little more than $2 million, of its tax revenue from the mine. Vardy said the latest payment has been processed and is en route.
Even considering the history of iron ore and the volatile market, Vardy said he doesn’t believe this will be the end of Wabush Mines.
“I’m not trying to send out any false hope, but at this time we need to look at what’s possible for a positive future and work toward those goals. I know we will get through this.”
Jason Penney, president of United Steelworkers Union Local 6285, said the news came suddenly and with such precision that it left him stunned.
“Everybody could see negative things happening and were probably expecting a reduction in the workforce, but I don’t think people actually believed it could shut down, and if it did that it could be so fast.”
Penney didn’t have many answers but expressed his hopes about what could come from a meeting with the premier and the entities involved in negotiations.
He wants to see retraining programs, as well as help with leverage to negotiate severance plans and early retirement benefits and incentives to try to ease some of the workers’ pain.
“We have people with very high mortgages in a very small town and their value is going to be pretty much nothing now. There’s going to be a lot of devastated people, to say the least.”
Penney also believes Wabush Mines has been neglected since the Bloom Lake acquisition. But with the skilled workforce that exists, things could turn around, he said.
“I feel that if the company made a genuine effort, and if we worked together, we could get there again quite easily.”