Spirits and community support are high as steelworkers in Labrador City have taken a principled stand against unequal treatment of workers by the Iron Ore Company of Canada. On Monday, March 26, the 1 400 members of the United Steelworkers Union Local 5795 voted 92% in favour of a strike at IOC’s mining operation adjacent to the town.
Support for a strike was established earlier in March by a separate vote in which nearly 100% voted in favour. The union negotiating team was clearly dissatisfied with the way IOC was handling the process. Contract negotiations began in December 2017 and the IOC quickly came to the table with demands for concessions on the pension plan and sick leave. In particular, IOC proposed a two-tier pension system with new employees only receiving 1/3 of the current value. With sick leave, the company has requested that workers taking sick time should not be paid at a higher rate for overtime until the sick leave hours are made up. Ron Thomas, president of Local 5795, accused the company of negotiating in bad faith as a result.
Local 5795 has stood its ground against these concession demands. The union has also been particularly worried about the continued use of temporary workers on site. As recently as the summer of 2017, the local had voted in favour of a temporary workforce, when IOC was planning to bring in contractors to handle work which could just as well have been done by union members.
This was apparently considered a lesser evil at the time, but now the union seeks an end to a system in which workers doing the same job as others are not getting equal benefits, to say nothing of the inherently precarious nature of temporary work.
Thomas has also said that there have been numerous issues in the past where temporary workers were poorly treated and over-worked by the company. Many members do not feel that the company treats them with dignity or respect, not at all surprising considering IOC’s parent company, Rio Tinto, has a notoriously poor record regarding workplace conditions. IOC made a final offer on March 26 that dropped many concessions but continued to include a temporary workforce, though reduced from 12.5% to 6%. Naturally, this was considered unacceptable and the strike vote was held. Starting at 3 am on the morning of the 27th, steelworkers set up pickets at multiple locations around the IOC site.
In addition to the mine, IOC also operates a railway and port facilities at Sept-Iles, Quebec, where the railway terminates. As of March 29, about 300 port and railway workers at IOC’s Sept-Iles facilities also voted heavily in favour of strike action, expecting to take to the picket lines by April 10.
The community has come out with strong support for the picket lines with regular deliveries of food and supplies for the workers to keep warm in the still very frigid conditions of the region. The steelworkers insist they will stay on strike until the temporary workforce agreement is removed.
With nearly two thousand workers on strike at one of the largest mining operations in the province, the economic blow will be noticeable. The Ball Liberal government are not likely to look upon this strike with any favour, especially with their latest austerity cutback budget due out on the same day. We can expect the usual platitudes about hoping for a quick and reasonable settlement, but the Liberals do not care about workers; they just want people to work for whatever they are told to accept.