steelworkers ioc ron rhomas strike

Approximately 1,300 workers from the mining firm Iron Ore Company (IOC) voted 91.9 per cent in favour of a strike, which began on Monday, March 26, in Labrador City. Three hundred and five of their colleagues in Sept-Îles also voted, nearly unanimously (98.1 per cent, with an 87 per cent participation rate), in favour of a strike on Thursday, March 29. The start date of the Sept-Îles strike is not yet known. These movements have come about after long and unsuccessful negotiations concerning the renewal of the collective agreement. In both cases, the workers—who are members of the Steelworkers’ union—feel that they are up against a wall and have rejected the latest employer offer altogether.

In both Sept-Îles and Labrador City, the proposed 2.4-per-cent raise in salary over five years and the proposed increases to the pension plan have been deemed insufficient. In Labrador City, the situation of temporary workers is also a central issue. These workers, who make up 12.5 per cent of the mining company’s workforce in Labrador City, are not entitled to the same conditions as their colleagues who hold permanent positions despite performing the same tasks. This creates a two-tiered system which has negative impacts on all the workers in the company. As long as the employer is able to hire workers who are forced to accept precarious living conditions, the threat of being replaced by “second class” workers hangs over the heads of the permanent workers, who might otherwise dare to make demands or fight for their living conditions. Also of note is the fact that a worker may continue to be classified as “temporary” although they may have worked for IOC for months or even years—an unacceptable situation, according to the union. For these reasons, the workers are demanding an end to temporary work. The offer from IOC to reduce the proportion of temporary workers to six per cent was also deemed insufficient. Last but not least, the introduction of a minimum retirement age—which would force some workers to work for much longer than the 30-year minimum service included in the current contract, as well as create changes to the way overtime and vacation pay are distributed—further displeased the workers.

The workers are also voicing concerns about the impacts that the automation of certain procedures may have on their jobs. In Sept-Îles, the company is proposing to automate the bucket wheel, which brings ore into the boats. According to Robert Marquis, CEO of the National Mining Institute, the use of automated trucks in Labrador City has also been discussed by the mining company. The objective of this automation, of course, is to increase productivity and reduce the number of employees.

The difficult economic situation in Labrador renders the situation of the IOC even more critical.  According to Professor Ian Lee of Carleton University in Ottawa, the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador may very well find itself bankrupt within the next ten years. There are very few job opportunities in the region, and the youth often leave in high numbers. In this context, the labour dispute at IOC is crucially important for the entire region. A few statistics demonstrate IOC’s quasi-monopoly of the region: The mining company represents 1300 jobs in Labrador City, which, including its sister city of Wabush, in 2011 had a total population of 9,106. Therefore, it is easy for the company to bully its workers and to attack their living and working conditions due to the fact that there are very few other possibilities for employment. The spectre of an economic slowdown caused by this strike has been echoed by the former mayor of the city of Wabush and by the president of the twin cities Chamber of Commerce.

In spite of this, the strike in Labrador has elicited a wave of solidarity. IOC workers in Sept-Îles sent a $25,000 cheque to support their colleagues in Labrador City. The community of Labrador City has also shown its support for the striking workers in many ways, most notably by bringing food and warm beverages to the picket lines. Kenny Temple, a worker, declared in a CBC interview: “We’re fighting against IOC, and everybody appreciates it.” A demonstration in support of the IOC workers was held Thursday, April 5 in Labrador City.

The arrogance of the company has not gone unnoticed by the workers. Dany Maltais, representative of the Steelworkers’ Union in Sept-Iles, made the following statement:

“We know that the employer made $8.8 million in profit in 2017 and that it will pay $5.5 million in dividends to its shareholders. What we are asking for is our fair share of that success. To a certain extent, the employer owes its success to its workers.”

Maltais’ sentiment is shared by many of his colleagues: the workers do not receive their fair share. However, in our economic system, the salaries and benefits of the workers are not in correlation with the company’s profits. The bosses have no interest in sharing their profits with their workers. The bosses buy the labour power of their workers, and all they need to pay them is the minimum salary and benefits that they are willing to accept. For years we have seen the bosses demand concessions from the workers, striving to reduce the quality of their living conditions.

We must understand that these attacks are part of the logic of capitalism; as long as businesses are controlled by a minority of bosses and shareholders, they will not stop any time soon. This is why, in the case of IOC and in all other large privately owned businesses, we say that ultimately, the solution is to take over and nationalize the business under democratic workers’ control. This will allow us to have democratic control over the profits and to protect good unionized jobs.

The situation at IOC is just one in a wave of disputes across the province as well as the country, in which there have been a number of strike votes of 90 per cent or more. This situation is a sign that after many years of austerity, and in a period of a slight economic recovery on paper, workers are demanding what is due to them and refusing to make more concessions. This was the case with the construction workers’ strike in the spring of 2017, the Ontario college faculty strike last autumn, the strike mandate of the conductors and engineers at Canadian Pacific, or, most recently, the unanimous strike vote by school bus drivers in Saguenay.

Workers in Québec and Canada are showing a growing will to resist the repeated attacks on their living conditions. This is what we are currently seeing in Labrador, as well as in Sept-Îles. The workers’ resistance is a model for the movement and the entire labour movement must mobilize actions in solidarity with the striking workers. A victory for IOC workers against their bosses is a victory for all workers.

Solidarity with the IOC workers!

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