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SUDBURY, ONTARIO–Twenty-four thousand workers rallied in September 1978, in a historic strike against Inco – a strike that forever changed the community of Sudbury and has had lingering reverberations for workers in the mining industry ever since. At the time, Inco was the second-largest nickel producer in the world, and the nickel deposits in Ontario were the largest on Earth.
In the late 1970s, Inco was on its way to bankruptcy: the company had too many workers on the books, costly operations and used and outdated equipment. Many people in Sudbury, including today’s Mayor John Rodriguez, say the company was like a house that was old and hadn’t been looked after for many years. More importantly, Inco had, until that point, controlled the price of nickel. When competition from Russia began to emerge in the world nickel market, Inco was not prepared, and began to see a drop in profits.
Every three years, workers with Inco, who are organized under the United Steelworkers (USW) union, must renegotiate their contract. When the workers' contract was up in July 1978, the company decided that the best way for them to save money would be by cutting pensions, wages and benefits. These were gains the USW had worked hard to achieve over decades.
"Inco was persistent all the way through negotiations – that if the concessions weren’t made, then there would be no collective agreement. We went past the July 10 deadline and in September we went back to the bargaining table once more to get Inco to move away from these concessions. They refused and on September 15, our members voted by 58 per cent to reject the collective agreement and take strike action," says Wayne Fraiser, who served on the bargaining committee for the Steelworkers throughout the strike.
In spite of ongoing bargaining during the strike, it took nine months before any agreement was reached.
Whether or not the small wage increase and pension package that workers received in the new contract was worth the fight is debatable. Thousands of workers lost their homes and cars from their inability to make the payments with their $20-per-month strike pay, and as nickel mining was Sudbury's primary industry, the city at large suffered.
Nickel has long been considered a 'strategic' metal, necessary for the manufacturing of arms and defense equipment, as well as for making stainless steel. The Sudbury strike in 1978 significantly impacted the world market for nickel.
Since 1979 Inco has undergone a tremendous amount of restructuring. They cut 20,000 employees from their staff and now have more people receiving payments from the pension roll than pay roll.
Malcolm Léger is now a pensioner who worked with Inco on the floor and as management for over 30 years. Léger believes the strike caused long-term psychological damage for the Sudbury’s workers and the wider labour movement.
“Every time we came up to negotiations, every three year cycle, we would remember the nine-month strike. And the shut-down period that came after the strike. And then we would remember the layoffs that happened afterward. Well, how do you think that made us feel? We would ask each other, ‘Are we in for another nine-month strike?’ It was in everybody’s brains and we were scared after of ever having to do it again. Even to this day.”
In 2006 Inco was bought by Brazilian mining company CVRD, which has since become Vale/Inco. The same year Inco was removed from the FTSE4GOOD index, which is designed by the Ethical Investment Research Service. Inco’s failures to meet the human rights criteria and environmental concerns were cited as reasons for the removal. The Steelworkers Union continues to represent the workers for Vale/Inco in the region of Sudbury.
The strike and its aftermath have emphasized the need to diversify the economy. "We don't ever want to go back and be beholden to the big mining companies again," says Mayor Rodriguez. He is busy lobbying to see mining profits used to help build and support other industries, such as research in environmental science and tourism.
Although The Dominion attempted to speak with a representative of Vale/Inco on numerous occasions, the company declined comment.
Amy Miller lived in Sudbury from 1980-1997 and credits the city for developing much of her analysis. She continues to visit her family, who live there.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.