MAC: Mines and Communities

6500 strikers close Inco facilities to other workers

Published by MAC on 2003-06-03

6500 strikers close Inco facilities to other workers

By Carol Mulligan, The Sudbury Star

June 03, 2003

If striking members of Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers of America were looking for a showdown Monday morning, they didn't get it. Union and non-union office and clerical workers, who were told to report to work as usual Monday morning, were not allowed through picket lines. But the mood was restrained for the most part as picket captains politely, but firmly, refused to allow their colleagues to enter.

Employees who showed up for work made two or more attempts to get to their workplaces, but finally went home.

The marshalls who were trying to lead employees onto Inco properties indicated they would be back the next morning.

Local 6500 members set up picket lines at all 12 of Inco's operations in Sudbury at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, after two months of negotiating failed to produce a collective agreement.

The production and maintenance workers are being joined on picket lines by some of Inco's 10,000 retirees, who have said they feel betrayed by what they call the concessions Inco was seeking in its attempts to contain health-care benefit costs.

Retiree Wayne Stonehouse says Inco awakened "a sleeping giant" when it attempted to change health-care benefits for the nickel company's employees and retirees.

Even though Inco withdrew its controversial health-care management program from its settlement offer Friday, Stonehouse said he doesn't believe it's "off the table" for good.

"It will be back in three years," he predicted Monday morning, while walking the picket line at the main gate of the Copper Cliff Smelter. Stonehouse, 57, said, when he went on pension in 2000, "I thought my fight with Inco was over."

When contract talks began April 7, Local 6500's bargaining committee said the key issue was pensions, followed by wages and vacations/vacation pay. But talks broke down a week ago after Inco tried to introduce measures to contain health-care costs, which it says are skyrocketing, for both current employees and retirees and survivors.

And 90 per cent of the union's 3,300 members voted almost 95 per cent to reject Inco's final offer Friday night.

Stonehouse said he knows all about those benefits. He's had to access them plenty after being "all screwed up from working in the mines."

A long-time underground worker at Frood-Stobie Mine, Stonehouse had two heart attacks on the job and suffers from emphysema, although he said he doesn't smoke.

Marc Gammon was one of two picket captains on duty Monday morning at the entrance to the Copper Cliff Refinery and South Mine.

Uncharacteristically cold for June, Gammon joked that the weather "reflects the coldness of Inco."

In a more serious vein, he said the strike will undo two and a half years of collaborative efforts between the company and the union to control costs.

"We've saved a lot of money for Inco, we've made a lot of money for Inco," he said, adding relations had never been better between the company and its workers.

"It (the strike) is sad because we were working pretty well together."

Inco spokesman Cory McPhee said Monday afternoon the company was monitoring what was happening on the picket lines.

"We expect our employees (who are not members of Local 6500) to report to work and we are concerned they are being denied access," he said.

McPhee said the company does have some people inside to make sure the plants are maintained, and that will serve everyone's interests when the strike is resolved and Local 6500 members go back to work.

Inco has not filed for any injunctions to limit pickets, he said.

Meanwhile, predictions vary on how long Local 6500 members could be off the job.

President John Fera has said his negotiating team is ready to go back to the bargaining table if Inco is ready to move on its last offer. The two sides last met Friday morning, twice.

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