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(Louie Palu)
(Louie Palu)

Nickelled and damned Add to ...

Down the road from the Copper Cliff smelter, where the Inco Superstack reaches 380 metres into a clear winter sky, striking Steelworkers stamp their heavy boots and feed a smoking fire pit with scrap wood. Massive ore trucks, engines growling, wait for permission to drive through the picket line. It is a familiar ritual; after 10 or 15 minutes, the picket captain signals the drivers to proceed and go about their business at the smelter-their business being strikebreaking.

When Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers walked off the job at the Vale Inco nickel mines, it was mid-July. The progression from agreeable summer weather to minus 20 C has been brutal. The best to be said about minus 20 is that it's better than minus 30, just like strike pay of $200 a week is better than no pay at all. It's hardly surprising that there's little of the bravado that usually sustains picket lines.

The downbeat atmosphere may also reflect a sense among the strikers that the world has changed and that their strike has not been noticed by Canadians. There have been many strikes in Inco's history-but every other one was decided in Canada. Now Inco is a subsidiary of a company based far away.

If the long stalemate in Sudbury had a sound, it might be that of the other shoe falling. When the takeover binge of the mid-2000s saw many of Canada's pre-eminent companies disappear into foreign hands, the debate over the "hollowing out" of the domestic economy was muted. After all, Vale, like other acquisitors, made undertakings to preserve jobs and, in fact, to carry on much like before.

Now, it appears, things look very different to Vale.

"A pimple on an elephant's ass. That's how small we are" Wayne Fraser, the Steelworkers' district director

The Steelworkers are on the receiving end of a global consolidation of the mining industry that has accelerated in the last decade, putting once-dominant companies like Inco in the shadow of giants like Australia's BHP Billiton, Swiss-based Xstrata and Vale of Brazil, a company that can now boast 100,000 employees dispersed on every continent save Antarctica. "A pimple on an elephant's ass. That's how small we are," is the summary of Wayne Fraser, the Steelworkers' district director.

It's not as if Inco didn't see it coming or didn't try to stay in the top tier itself. In its heyday, Inco was one of the largest and most prosperous companies in Canada and, for a time, the world's largest producer of nickel. But in the year-long bidding war over the future of Inco and Falconbridge, Inco was hobbled by having overpaid for the Voisey's Bay nickel deposit in Labrador: Inco paid $4.3 billion in 1996, and later wrote down the value of the acquisition by $1.5 billion.

And so Inco could not consummate its defensive efforts to buy Australia's Western Mining, or Inco's own long-time local rival Falconbridge (and alongside it Noranda). The latter deal petered out in indecision. Yet the union would have made a lot of sense-certainly more sense than the two old rivals holding on to their separate shafts on opposite sides of the street. An Inco-Falconbridge merger could have created, once again, the biggest nickel mining operation in the world. More important, it would have kept ownership in Canada.

"Canada is a mining country. It's a country that has the legislation, experience, tradition, and very good people who work inside this sector. So it was very important for us to be in a country like Canada...we had a dream to be there." Vale's chief executive officer, Roger Agnelli, in the summer of 2006

Instead, while the federal government watched indifferently, Vale took over Inco in 2006 and Xstrata bought Falconbridge the same year, each of them paying about $19 billion. It seemed like a sad turn of events for a country that had been a global leader in mining. But then, there was never much love lost between the Steelworkers and the Canadian owners of Inco. Consider the list of strikes against Inco after the Steelworkers finally squeezed out their local rival, the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, as the top union in town: 1966, 1969, 1975, 1978-'79, 1982, 1997, 2003. The longest strike was in 1978-'79: 261 days.

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