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Falconbridge strike to last until year ends-labor head

By Rajiv Sekhri, Reuters, Friday 10 November 2000, 3:01 pm Eastern Time

TORONTO, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Labor officials said on Friday they expect the 15-week-old strike at miner Falconbridge Ltd. to last at least until year-end as the two sides cannot agree on issues like wages, benefits, safety and seniority.

Company and union officials are at odds over the true nature of the dispute at the plant, which produces about 4 percent of the world's nickel, or 35,000 tonnes, a year.

The union says Falconbridge management is hiding real issues beneath talk that excessive union representation is damaging productivity. Management says it wants only to make the plant more efficient.

"Union representation is not the issue. They have tried to make it the issue to camouflage the real issues," Canada Auto Workers Union chief Hemi Mitic told Reuters, adding that Falconbridge only pays a few employees whose sole job is handling issues related to the union.

"This strike will go on for quite some time, easily until the year ends," Mitic said.

Company spokesman Craig Crosby said: "Our only objective is to become more efficient and productive in our day to day operations. We have no ulterior motives or desire to do anything else."

He added: "The amount of time and money spend on union representation is excessive for a company our size."

He said Falconbridge pays five full-time employees to manage labor issues. The company wants to reduce that number to three, two paid and one unpaid. It wants to reduce the time off that stewards get and reduce labor representation from 31 to 24 on health and safety committees.

The 1,260 workers at Falconbridge's Sudbury, Ontario, copper-nickel mining facility went on strike Aug. 1.

Since then, the mood in this small mining town, about a four-hour drive north of Toronto, has transformed from peace to protest. Striking miners have disrupted traffic to and from the mining facility, and Falconbridge has sought a court order to block picketing miners.

The strike cost the company C$24 million, or 14 Canadian cents per share, off third quarter earnings. But third-quarter net, reported on Oct. 24, was above year-ago levels at C$91.6 million, or 50 Canadian cents per share.

Crosby said the strike is costing the company at least C$12 million a month -- just the cost to keep the company's buildings open and pay bills such as electricity.

He put lost revenue at between C$4 million and C$5 million a week and gave no forecast of when the dispute might end.

The strike will lower fourth-quarter profits and could further erode the company's shares, which have fallen more than a third since the year started. But analysts say Falconbridge stock is an inexpensive buy at its new, lower levels.

"I think there is good value in the stock," said Greg Barnes, an analyst at Canaccord Capital Corp. in Toronto.

"It is a solid well-managed company overall. Resolving the strike is something they have to do to get their cost structure in line with Sudbury," he added.

The company's shares were 25 Canadian cents lower at C$17.65 in late afternoon trading.

Barnes said his 12-month target on the stock price is C$25, more than 40 percent above the current price.

($1 equals $1.54 Canadian)