After 17 months on the picket line and multiple failed negotiations, the United Steelworkers is recommending that 130 workers at the Vale nickel mine in Voisey’s Bay ratify an agreement proposed by an industrial inquiry struck in October to end the dispute.
The inquiry released its final report publicly on January 7. The report is critical of both sides for prolonging the strike and recommends an agreement that’s “middle of the road,” according to Boyd Bussey, USW staff representative in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“They took some from each side and never gave either side everything they wanted,” he said. “My members don’t like it either but, as a way to get through this, we’re recommending they accept it. It’s fair.”
Brazilian mining giant Vale is less enthusiastic about the report. In a statement released the same day, the company said it “disagrees with the overall conclusions and direction of the Report” and adds that the report’s recommendations “have been made without the benefit of a full inquiry on all of the issues.”
The report made several recommendations, including a four-year agreement with wage increases and other bonuses. The contract would extend from ratification to December 31. 2014.
The duration of the contract has been a sticking point. The union had asked for a five-year expiry date, while the company wanted three. Vale has argued both the inquiry’s proposed date and the USW’s desired date would allow the union to manipulate the next contract negotiations at Voisey’s Bay to align with a potential strike in Sudbury. Vale settled a year-long strike with its Ontario workers last year.
However, the report slams both sides for failing to reach an agreement. The inquiry said while the union indicated it would be willing to move on a number of issues, including wages, site premium and cost of living, Vale “responded with indignation” while continuing to place emphasis on the union’s behaviour. The company has accused the union of bargaining in bad faith.
The inquiry said Vale’s unwillingness to compromise is further underscored by its use of replacement workers to keep its Voisey’s Bay operation running.
“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.”
Equally frustrating was Vale’s response to the industrial inquiry. The report suggests that by sending only a lawyer and human resources manager to meet with the inquiry — not the company’s bargaining team — Vale “did not view the Inquiry process as useful or important.”
Equally unacceptable to the inquiry was the union’s fixation on the duration date. The report reprimands the union for targeting objectives “that reach beyond this particular collective agreement.”
“A union must always ask itself: when have the local employees endured enough sacrifice for the objectives in a national struggle?”
Bussey said the inquiry was “wrong” in its assessment.
“We’re the ones who have been on strike,” he said. “The company is the one with another agenda. It could have got a deal at any time but it doesn’t want these workers back.”
The inquiry had proposed a last minute ‘final offer selection’ process which failed, as did a hastily renewed round of negotiations between Vale and the union two days before the report was released. The company blamed the union for continuing to insist on the common contract expiry date with Ontario. The USW’s Bussey said the company presented a seven-year contract that was “unacceptable.”
Bussey is now recommending workers ratify the agreement proposed by the inquiry. Workers started voting by secret ballot the day the report was released. If accepted, it would be up to the provincial government to impose the agreement on both sides, something Bussey is uncertain of, given the departure of former premier Danny Williams last month.