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Militancy and solidarity can win
A SIX-MONTH battle in the mining city of Sudbury, Canada, drew to an end last week as Mine Mill/Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) local 598 (union branch) ratified a collective agreement with Falconbridge Ltd.
Andy Lehrer, Socialist Alternative, CWI - Canada
The city, in northern Ontario, has been the site of an intense fight between the bosses' global corporate agenda and the working class.
1,260 production and maintenance workers at Falconbridge Ltd.'s nickel mining and smelting operation have been on strike since 1 August 2000.
Workers have endured financial hardship, some have lost their houses, out of a determination to defend longstanding rights.
Management has used the rhetoric of globalisation to argue that changes are needed to keep the company profitable and demand the rolling back of job security, seniority and health and safety and other gains made over 57 years of union struggle.
According to one Falconbridge manager: "Times were changing. The company needed to become more globally competitive. The union was top-heavy with functionaries like safety and health advocates who failed to 'add value' to the overall enterprise." A statement made despite Falconbridge profits of C$368 million (approximately £180 million), a doubling of their 1999 profit.
Falconbridge has pulled out all the stops to try to break the union. Accu-fax, a private security firm that specialises in strike-breaking, has been hired as a company goon squad. Due to the solid support workers enjoy from the community, the company has had to bus-in scabs from as far away as 400 kilometres.
Despite management's attempt to break the strike, mining has only continued at 20% of normal capacity while smelting operations are down to 50% capacity.
The level of the struggle was raised by a mass rally on 28 January as part of the union's "One Day Longer" weekend (the slogan expressing the union's commitment to stay out "one day longer" than the company"). It brought a militant demonstration of over 1,500 strikers and supporters, many from southern Ontario, to the town of Falconbridge just outside of Sudbury.
Chanting "strike to win" and acting against the wishes of the union bureaucracy over 1,000 workers and supporters swept aside wooden barricades and moved past the smelter gate entrance and onto Falconbridge property to a fall back police barricade made up of two empty buses.
Pickets rocked the bus and the air was let out of one of its tyres as police in riot gear looked on.
The struggle has raised the morale of workers throughout northern Ontario.
The militancy of the strikers, and growing solidarity from across Canada, as well as a one week sympathy strike in Norway of workers employed at a nickel plant owned by Falconbridge's parent company, have forced management to go back to the negotiating table and settle after talks had previously broken down in early January.
The new deal is at best a limited victory for the miners. It reduces paid union time by cutting the workforce by 10% through retirement and not layoffs.
The contract offers a $2,000 signing bonus and a 50 cents an hour raise in the first year, with no wage increases in the second and third year. A 57-cent-an-hour cost-of-living allowance will be included. The deal also includes a $3,000 (£1,500) monthly pension after 30 years of service.
Concessions were made by the union but far fewer than those demanded earlier by the company.
Had a more militant posture been taken on much earlier in the strike the workers could have brought an end to the action far sooner and won an outright victory.
According to Gary Kinsman, a social justice and labour activist in Sudbury: "It is very important to note that without the union militancy and especially the Solidarity Weekend and the march on the smelter, these gains would not have been won. Militancy and solidarity can win.
"At the same time the unwillingness of the activists and the flying squad people [a group CAW militants, mostly in the auto industry, who conduct solidarity work with strikers] to speak out against the local and national leadership when it was required was an important limitation of this strike."
In The Socialist 2 March 2001: