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United Steel Workers and Vale Inco Reach Tentative Agreement

LAWTON, Okla.—An 18-month strike by the United Steel Workers in Labrador, Canada, reached a tentative agreement on January 26 with Vale Inco, a Brazillian-based nickel mining corporation, at Vale’s Voisey’s Bay site in northeastern Canada. The site is located near the lands of the Innu Nation and the Nunatsiavut Inuit Government. At press time, an official ratification vote was scheduled to be finalized by February 1.

The strike by USW Local 9508 began in August 2009, with many of the debated issues covering wages and benefits. According to a statement by Vale representative Bob Carter, “approximately 55% of the total workforce at the Voisey’s Bay site is aboriginal.”

The Innu Nation and Nunatsiavut Inuit Government both have Impact Benefit Agreements (IBA) with Vale, in addition to having tribal citizens who are Vale employees. Vale Inco’s website said the IBA ranges from “industrial and employment opportunities, environmental protection, education and training, and protection of aboriginal social and cultural values.” When asked by Indian Country Today Media Network concerning the specific content of the IBA with these nations, Carter responded “these agreements are confidential.”

Since September 4, 2009 the Nunatsiavut government has been calling for a resolution to the strike. “The strike is starting to have negative impacts on our communities and Labrador Inuit who work at the site,” said President Jim Lyall in a written release.

Union members who are on strike are paid by the union what is known as “strike pay, which is a fraction of a union member’s regular paycheck.

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During the course of this strike, many attempts at bargaining resulted in a failure to come to an agreeable consensus. Reports from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Reuters and the USW said that the Canadian government stepped in to create an Industrial Inquiry Commission in order to expedite the arbitration process.

“It’s a commission of three lawyers that have been looking into the matter, and they’ve been suggesting what the terms of the settlement should be,” said USW chief negotiator Boyd Bussey about the commission in a recent phone interview. “The union agreed to the suggested terms, but the company did not.”

A January 25, 2010, report from CBC News said that Vale Inco began the hiring of non-union employees to replace the striking workers, which has been an additional source of contention in the negotiations. The issue of non-union workers made it all the way to the offices of the Nunatsiavuk government when union officials Darren Cove and Curtis Saunders sent in a questionnaire dated June 8, 2010, concerning the alleged posting of Vale Inco jobs. Some of these questions included asking if the Nunatsiavuk government benefited from the strike and if their government supported “hiring Scabs,” a union term for non-union workers who cross picket lines. The letter from Cove and Saunders also asked if the Inuit government would meet with union representatives.

In an official response to this letter dated June 24, 2010, President Lyall stated that “although many of the questions are leading and loaded with rhetoric, I will attempt to respond to the best of my ability.” His answers ranged from the giving of moral support by stressing the importance of both sides returning to the negotiating table, to issues of sovereignty, stating that under the IBA, the Nunatsiavuk are legally entitled to revenues from the Voisey’s Bay project, regardless of who is on strike. Additionally, part of the IBA, stated Lyall, is that job postings are made public with preference to Labrador Inuit people. Both the questionnaire and Lyall’s response have been posted through the official Nunatsiavuk Inuit Government website.

Overall, Bussey said that he is “pleased” with the results of the tentative agreement.

“It’s been a long struggle for the workers who have been manning the picket lines,” said Bussey. “It’s cold out there; sometimes the temperature gets down into the minus-30’s, minus-40’s…It’s been drawn out over two Christmases, two holiday seasons. That’s tough on the kids, having their parents unemployed, getting strike pay for two Christmases. It’s been tough for the workers, and I’m extremely pleased to be able to bring some closure to this, and get them back to work, get them back to what they’re used to earning.”