Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why I Support Striking Vale Inco Workers

I support the mine workers of USW Local 6500 who are striking against Vale Inco. I support them for a number of reasons, but I'm going to talk about one: I support them because we share a common enemy. I think you should support the strikers too because, chances are, that enemy is your enemy as well.

I don't say that we have a common enemy because I work for Vale Inco, any subsidiary of Vale Inco, or any tentacle of the massive corporation that owns it. Never have, probably never will.

I don't say that we have a common enemy because I think of non-Canadians as my enemy and I buy the line used by some in the community that it is a big deal that Inco is no longer owned in Canada. I don't, either one of those things. Sure, it maybe matters that the pretty-huge corporation was bought by a mega-huge corporation which has deeper pockets to try and break the union. But do you honestly think owners and managers trying to make an extra buck off of your hard work or mine has anything to do with the fact that some of those owners and managers live in Brazil? Do you not remember the awful things that Inco did to its workers and our community when it was owned and run by rich Canadians? Do you honestly think that the good wages, the solid benefits, the nickel bonus, the seniority rights enjoyed by Sudbury miners were given by good-hearted Canadian owners rather than won by tooth-and-nail struggles over decades by ordinary working people against those owners? No, I don't think nationality has much to do, on its own, with whether someone is a friend or an enemy.

No, I say we have a common enemy because the demands that Vale Inco is making and the situation that allows the company to make those demands is not just random, not just one bad company, but part of a pattern.

Globally since the 1970s, but in Canada especially since the 1990s, the rich and the powerful -- corporations and billionaires and the like -- have been winning battles to make themselves even more rich and powerful, at the expense of ordinary people [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ]. As they have done this, they have talked a lot about "freedom" as if they meant everybody, but it turns out it only applies to a pretty select group of people, and most of us, especially the worst off, end up a lot less free. They've also talked about "prosperity," as if these changes would unleash super dynamic economic growth that would help us all. Turns out, even in their own terms, this one is a lie -- there are hotspots of growth here and there, but global economic growth has been consistently lower than before these attacks began. What has been consistent, though, is that the rich have been getting richer across the board, the powerful more powerful, and the poor, poorer [7].

These attacks on ordinary people have taken a lot of different forms. Changes in employment so that more and more jobs have become low-wage and precarious. Cuts to welfare, and rule changes to make the welfare system nastier, which pushes people into jobs that are unpleasant, unsafe, underpaid, insecure, non-union -- that is, it makes labour cheaper. Attacks on unions, which have the same effect. Cuts to social programs. Privatization, so that things that had once been run for the public good, at least in theory, came to be run so a few people could make money. There was plenty wrong with how things worked before these attacks started, but now they are worse.

The things Vale Inco is trying to do in the demands they've made fit perfectly with this pattern. They want to take money out of the hands of workers by making the production bonus when the company is doing well harder for workers to get, and turn that into profit for rich owners and managers -- the $4.1 billion profit that Vale Inco made from Ontario between 2006 and 2008 just wasn't enough, apparently. They want to radically change how pensions work for new hires. Instead of risking their lives and health doing dangerous work for thirty or forty years and knowing they'll be able to enjoy their grandchildren in peace and security, new hires will have pensions where a set amount of money gets paid in but how much comes out depends on luck, on "how the markets perform" -- so much for reward being about effort. The company wants to mess with seniority, which fits with the pattern because it is about managers taking ever more control of the work process from workers in the name of efficiency and flexibility, never mind if it ruins people's lives.

This way of doing things, this way of organizing how the world works, and the rich and powerful who benefit from it, are attacking Vale Inco workers, just like they are attacking people the world over. (It might help to give it a name. Some people call it "neoliberalism." A group of indigenous peasants in Mexico called the Zapatistas, who decided they weren't going to take it any more, have called the global struggle against this pattern and the system which makes it possible the "fourth world war".)

I see the striking miners as ordinary people like me, like you, like most of the people I know, who are doing the only thing that has ever made the people and institutions making neoliberalism happen sit up and take notice: standing up together and saying "No!" The more we find ways to stand together, the stronger our "No!" will be, and the better our chances of turning the tide so that we might get to a place where ordinary people get the decisive say in which "Yes!" actually happens.

In saying this, I recognize that among the great numbers of people whose lives are being attacked by these changes, the miners are in a pretty privileged position. They have good livelihoods that they are defending, which even in Sudbury lots of people don't have, let along the world at large. They have a collective voice, their union, which they can use to stand up and say "No!", which many of us lack. The process of rich people making money depends enough on them that they have at least a little bit of power to strike (hah!) back at the system that's attacking them. There are many, many people -- on reserves, in poor neighbourhoods, in abusive relationships, in the indentured servitude enforced by the Canadian state that comes with being 'migrant workers', on the streets, and so on -- facing harsher attacks with fewer material resources and fewer opportunities to resist. But I don't think that means we shouldn't support the strikers with the energy we have left from our own struggles for survival and liberation -- it just means that we should expect Local 6500 to change its ways a bit and get more actively involved in supporting struggles lead by the many other people getting attacked by neoliberalism.

It also isn't to say that I don't have questions. The whole act of industrial mining in Sudbury deserves serious questions. Why is this nickel being stolen on a daily basis from the indigenous nation that rightfully owns the land? Why is it that Sudbury is so rich in natural resources yet, outside the miners themselves and a layer of professionals in the city, the place is so damn poor? Why is that a common pattern in mining towns across North America? Why is it that a group of serious, careful environmentalists are questioning the company-controlled propaganda and suggesting that eating food grown in downtown Sudbury and Copper Cliff might be hazardous because of metal pollution in the soil, and there is, so far at least, nothing obvious we can do to fix the problem or hold the company accountable? I even have questions for the union leadership -- questions about whether it is a good move strategically to invoke Canadian nationalism, and about how a relatively powerful industrial union local can best relate to the many other struggles against our common enemy.

These are, to adapt another expression from the Zapatistas, questions we need to ask while walking. However all of them get answered, our common enemy is attacking the workers at Vale Inco right now, and through them it is attacking Sudbury as a whole. So it is important to support the strikers. And that is why I support them.

Though, to be honest, I'm not sure how to support them, beyond turning up and being a body at community events. I'm sure more useful things must be possible. Maybe "how" is one more question we need to talk about while moving forward together.


rww said...

I do not think it is coincidental that it was not until INCO (and Falconbridge also) went into foreign ownership that management has attempted the previously unthinkable, and that is to operate the mines and processing facilities on a production basis during a strike.

Scott said...

Hi Richard! Sorry for taking so long to reply to your comment...I was out of town, with limited internet access.

I would agree with you that it is not coincidental, but I think my interpretation of how those two things are connected would differ from yours. Specifically, I do not think that it is the foreignness of the ownership that is directly responsible for the changes in management behaviour.

In my understanding, one aspect of neoliberalism is that the organization and ownership structures of corporations shift in ways that result in different capacities, different scope for getting more money out of workers, different ways of organizing work. So, for instance, a famous athletic shoe company might make the transition to not actually owning any factories where shoes are made, just owning a brand, and then contracting out the actual manufacture in ways that allows them to benefit from more highly exploited labour. Or some other sort of manufacturing might involve a single owner coming to control processes upstream and downstream of the manufacturing itself in what is called "vertical integration" which could also give a company more leverage with respect to manufacturing workers.

There are probably lots of people in Sudbury who could give you a much more nuanced picture of how the organization of the mining sector has shifted in the last three decades than I could. However, one obvious point is that now the companies are bigger so they have more resources to try and break the union -- this greater sense of power on the part of the company can, I think, account for a great deal of the shift in management behaviour, with no need to invoke where the owners happen to live. I have a sense, though I could not describe this in detail, that the consolidation of companies in the sector has to do with broader changes in the industry which are allowing companies to put a downward pressure on wages. Part of that reorganization involved changes in ownership, which in the cases of Falconbridge and Inco happened to move the base of ownership out of Canada. Another aspect of that reorganization puts increased pressure on companies to reduce labour costs. The two have a common cause but one does not directly cause the other. So I would say that all of this reorganization has changed both the location of the ownership AND management behaviour, but the former has not caused the latter.

To look back a bit farther, we need to remember that one of the most vicious foes of industrial unionization in Canada in the 1930s was Ontario's Liberal premier, Mitch Hepburn. Why was he so viciously opposed to the new industrial unions that had been making so much headway in the United States? Because he was in the pocket of northern Ontario mine owners, who were prepared to do anything they could to keep unions out of their mines.

The owners lost then. Let's hope they lose this time, too.