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Sudbury showdown threatens every labour union. The most important strike in Canada you've never heard of

By Mick Lowe, Straight Goods, Tuesday 12 December 2000

SUDBURY, ON: One of Canada's most historic trade union locals is under vicious attack from one of the country's most powerful concentrations of capital, and the outcome of the struggle could resonate through the ranks of organized labour for years to come.

When it began on August 1st, the decision by 1,250 members of Mine Mill/CAW Local 598 in Sudbury to strike Falconbridge Ltd. appeared to be simply another labour dispute in Canada's hardrock mining industry.

But as the strike enters its fifth month it's now apparent that Local 598, which was once Canada's mightiest single trade union local, is fighting for its very life.

"There's no doubt about it, this company is out to break our union," Rick Grylls, Strike Coordinator and Local Vice President, confirmed to Straight Goods last week.

In an audacious move that caught the 56 year-old union local off guard, Falconbridge elected to scab the legal strike using nickel concentrate from its new Raglan mine/mill operation in northern Quebec to feed the supposedly strikebound smelter in Sudbury.

The Falconbridge decision to maintain partial production is one of the first attempts by a major Ontario employer to break a legal strike using Harris government legislation which reversed anti-scab laws passed by Ontario's NDP government in 1993.

While the picketlines have been surprisingly peaceful considering the daily bussing in of scabs, "some of the guys are getting antsy and it looks like we'll be back in court next week," predicts Grylls. Three union activists so far face charges ranging from common assault to obstruction of justice.

Local 598 traces its history back to the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the storied union of Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood. Founded in 1893, the WFM changed its name to the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in 1916.

Originally certified in 1944 to represent the workers at both Inco and Falconbridge, Local 598 boasted 17,000 members at its peak, and it was one of the largest and most progressive union locals on the continent.

While most Mine Mill Locals were raided by, and eventually merged with, the United Steelworkers during the McCarthy-Cold War period, workers at Falconbridge remained steadfast in their loyalty to Local 598, making it the last surviving independent local of the WFM-Mine Mill.

In May of 1993 Mine Mill veterans and labour historians from across North America joined with musicians Utah Phillips and (Straight Goods contributor) Charley Angus to celebrate the centenary of the Western Federation at the Mine Mill Hall in Sudbury. The next day Mine Mill merged with the Canadian Autoworkers Union.

Now Mine Mill/CAW faces a formidable foe in Falconbridge's corporate parent Noranda, which has amassed cash reserves estimated at $2 billion through the sale of its oil, gas and forestry holdings. Just before the strike began Noranda announced it had increased its holdings in Falconbridge to 50.1% of outstanding shares.

Noranda, in turn, is 40% owned by Edper Brascan, which is the holding company of the Toronto Bronfmans. Noranda, Falconbridge and Edper share a number of key directors, including some of Bay Street's most notorious Bronfman minions.

One of those directors, Noranda CEO David Kerr, raised eyebrows on the Street in October when he declared that when the Falconbridge share "price goes down we'll be a buyer. We'd like to see it go to the middle teens."

Noranda has continued its creeping takeover of Falconbridge during the strike, bringing its ownership to 55% by late November and causing some observers to wonder whether the dispute is intended to depress Falconbridge's share prices to aid a cheaper Noranda buy out.

Although the company offered its workers a monetary package equal to the pattern agreement set by Inco workers earlier last summer, Falconbridge also insisted on a number of contract language concessions.

Considering that the company had racked up record earnings of $235 million in the first half of the year, union members were in no mood to grant concessions, and voted 97% against the offer. (A full list of the take-aways can be found at the Union's website at www.minemill598.com.)

Falconbridge started up its smelter using supervision and scab labour in mid-August, claiming production levels 50 to 60% of normal. The union contends that the figure is grossly over-inflated, placing the actual figure somewhere in the 20% range.

The Sudbury smelter output is shipped to Norway for refining, and the company's use of scab labour sparked a dramatic gesture of international solidarity in late November when the union at Falconbridge's Norway refinery launched a five-day strike in sympathy with their Canadian brothers and sisters.

After losing a late October court battle which rendered their picketers virtually powerless to legally stop traffic in and out of Falconbridge's operations, the union signalled its desire to return to the bargaining table by conceding to at least some of the company's demands.

The company, however, refused to accept the union's surrender, and is clearly interested only in prolonging the strike. "It's frustrating, because every time you deal with an issue, the Company raises a new one," Local 598 President Rolly Gauthier says of deadlocked exploratory talks with Falconbridge.

As a result, the union has filed charges of bad faith bargaining against Falconbridge with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, and is showing signs of renewed determination to win its struggle.

"We think this is one of the most important strikes in the country right now, because if Falconbridge can break our union, then any employer can break any union anywhere in this province," concludes Grylls.

Mick Lowe is a Sudbury columnist, journalist and author who has covered Canada's nickel industry since 1974. His latest book is Premature Bonanza: Stand-off at Voisey's Bay, published by Between-The-Lines.