For one brief moment it actually looked like the 74-week-old Voisey’s Bay strike could finally come to an end. Unfortunately, it was just wishful thinking.
The moment came two days before an industrial inquiry was due to publicly release its conclusions about why the labour dispute between the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9508 and the Vale company of Brazil was taking so long to settle. Both the union and the mining company had already received copies of the report and it was after that that Vale contacted the USW to request a new session of talks.
In a labour dispute, talks are always good. They might seem pointless, long-winded, rancorous, or just plain boring, but without them strikes have little chance of ending unless a higher power steps in to order the parties around.
That’s a development both sides usually seek to avoid, since it often leaves no one happy. So, normally, any willingness to negotiate is seen as a good sign.
In this case, however, there was also hope on the part of the strikers and their union representatives that after reading the inquiry report the company had seen the error of its ways and was finally willing to forge a reasonable compromise with the USW.
People felt that Vale would be embarrassed by how much the inquiry blamed the company for the protracted dispute and that the company might want to render the report irrelevant and the criticism mute by agreeing to a quick settlement.
The union even called a snap meeting for the day after, so members could vote on what officials hoped would be a new comprehensive offer.
It was a reasonable hope, but it turned out to be false. Why Vale asked for this latest sit-down with the union will likely forever remain a mystery known only in Brazil.
The two sides rented a conference room for a day and a half, but it was hardly ever used. The negotiators from both the company and the union arrived late at the table (Vale’s representatives, to be fair, had the excuse of bad weather delaying their plane) and all the face-to-face meetings at the table were finished by lunchtime the next day.
While the union was willing to accept the report, the company seemed to have brought nothing new to the table.
Also, when the inquiry report became common knowledge Vale lost no time in declaring it flawed and wrong.
Vale tries to depict itself as a victim beset by a power-hungry union conniving to bring the company to its knees. The true victims, if there are any that can be called such, are the many men and women who have gone more than 17 months earning a pittance as picketers in front of the main gates of 5 Wing Goose Bay.
As they’ve tried to feed their families and buy presents and clothing for their children, they see that the company is paying scabs — their hopefully temporary replacements — far more than the union ever demanded, and that Vale is nevertheless still taking huge profits out of Labrador.
If Vale, as many suspect, would rather bust the union than deal fairly with Labradorians, the company may soon find that its only hope of keeping control over the situation on the ground is by trusting provincial government involvement, not rejecting it.
If St. John’s does nothing, or if the government moves to impose an unfair contract, and if the USW ultimately proves unable to settle the strike, Labradorians working at Voisey’s Bay may find themselves without effective political representation — without a real institutional voice. They know this, especially since many openly accuse their own organizations, the Nunatsiavut government particularly, of being in Vale’s pocket.
Vale is not the victim. As a rich international corporation, it is capable of being generous towards its employees and to settle quickly and equitably with its workers in Labrador.
If Vale continues to refuse to take the fair road, it’s in danger of provoking desperate people to abandon talks altogether and to take matters into their own hands
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.