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Sudbury strike at Vale likely to continue after union bargaining committee rejects second offer

Sudbury miner contends new offer addresses ‘gaps’ but Steelworkers counter offer wasn’t made in good faith
Sudbury Steelworkers strike sign

The head of Vale’s North Atlantic Operations said he’s disappointed the Steelworkers Local 6500 bargaining committee is unanimously recommending striking members reject a second offer from the company.

The union’s bargaining committee announced June 13 it is recommending to its 2,500 members that the new offer be rejected, as it includes “similar take-aways with minimal improvements” over the initial offer.

On June 1, Local 6500 overwhelmingly rejected an initial contract offer, with 70 per cent of members voting against the offer on a voter turnout of 87 per cent. In a news release June 13, Vale said it was in “active negotiations” with Local 6500 when the bargaining committee informed the company of its position.

Vale maintains its second offer “addresses issues of concern that we heard from our employees, including wages, pensions and post-retiree benefits for new hires.”

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In the news release, the company highlighted that the bargaining committee was unanimous in its endorsement of the first five-year offer, adding that United Steelworkers Local 6200, which represents production and maintenance workers in Port Colborne, voted to ratify the first offer.

Dino Otranto, Vale’s chief operating officer for its North Atlantic Operations, called the news “disappointing.”

“While it is disappointing that the union has chosen not to endorse the company’s offer, our commitment to finding a path forward to a ratified deal has never wavered,” Otranto said.

“The company and the union negotiated in good faith over a period of months leading to an initial offer that we believed, based on those discussions, represented the needs of our employees. Our new offer addresses the identified gaps.”

The Steelworkers see the offer otherwise, with Local 6500 President Nick Larochelle suggesting the offer wasn’t made in good faith.

“Health and medical benefits and lack of recognition for our members’ value to the company remain crucial issues. Vale’s new offer does not adequately address these issues,” Larochelle said. “Vale knows it provoked this strike by demanding concessions, yet it continues to attack health benefits.

“We want to be clear – our members want to get back to work, but they expect a good-faith offer from Vale that respects their concerns.”

Local 6500 said Vale’s second offer still proposes to eliminate the existing retiree health and medical benefit plan for all future hires, but now the company is proposing to offer those future retirees a $1,000 “health-care savings account.” 

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If accepted, the bargaining committee said this provision would result in members losing nearly 80 per cent of the coverage currently provided to members under the existing plan. Coverage for some medications and medical supplies would be entirely eliminated, the union said.

Larochelle said the nature of hard rock mining exposes workers to “toxic and hazardous substances,” leaving many workers with serious medical conditions in retirement. In exchange for the damage done to their bodies by the work, the company should reciprocate and ensure members have the benefits they need to stay healthy.  

“Eliminating post-retirement health benefits from other staff is not a justification to take away these benefits from workers who are exposed to toxic and hazardous substances throughout their careers and who often develop serious illnesses and medical conditions in retirement,” he said. “The real solution is for Vale to do the right thing and maintain these vital benefits for everyone. It shouldn’t be a race to the bottom.”

The new offer, after accounting for cost-of-living adjustments, calls for one-per-cent annual wage increases, and little to nothing on pensions, Local 6500 said.

Workers in the defined-benefit pension plan are offered a $100 increase in the pre-65 monthly benefit and a $2 increase on the basic pension by the end of the proposed five-year contract. 

Vale offered no increase in its contributions to members enrolled in the defined-contribution pension plan, the union said.

Members will be voting on the new offer (June 14). The company didn’t provide specifics regarding the offer or how it feels the new proposal addresses the concerns of Local 6500 members, but Otranto did credit the “level of respect” he said the bargaining committee and the workers on the picket lines have shown. 

“We feel it is important to acknowledge the level of respect demonstrated to date by both bargaining teams as well as the peaceful behaviour of our employees and Local 6500 members on the picket line,” he is quoted as saying.

“Our efforts at the table have focused on reaching a deal that benefits employees and the community while addressing challenges in the business.  We feel our revised offer does that.” 

Further, Otranto characterized Vale’s Ontario operations as being “in the middle of an intensive effort to turn around the business with a focus on improving the short-term life of the mines in Sudbury and positioning the business to attract much-needed investment in new sources of ore.”

Vale said its contingency plans remain in place “to preserve the safety of employees and the integrity of the plants and mines during this dispute.”