Iron ore miners strike for better pay, benefits

By Betty Burke, The Militant, Vol.68 no.36, 5 October 2004

MONTREAL, Quebec—More than 1,000 unionized miners at the Iron Ore Company, Canada's largest producer of iron ore, have been on strike since July 19. The workers are members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA).p

Iron Ore Co. is located in Labrador City, a town of 7,700 in western Newfoundland, and is owned by international mining giant Rio Tinto, based in London. The 250 Steelworkers employed by Rio Tinto at the port in Sept-Isles, Quebec, also joined the walkout.

Two weeks earlier, 300 iron miners went on strike at the nearby Wabush Mines and Wabush pelletizing facility in Pointe Noire, Quebec. Wabush Mines is owned in part by Stelco and Dofasco, two of Canada's largest steelmakers, along with the U.S. firm Cleveland-Cliffs Mining. The workers there are also members of the USWA.

The unionists at Rio Tinto and Wabush Mines are both fighting against company concession demands.

Rio Tinto wants to strip health care and pensions, freeze wages, and introduce a form of psychological profiling of workers as a basis for discipline, union spokesman Wayne Fraser said, according to an article in the Montreal Gazette. Who in their right mind would accept a deal like that?

After the strike vote was taken July 19, approximately 800 workers at Iron Ore Co. showed their determination to win a decent contract by staging an impromptu parade through the middle of Labrador City.

At Wabush Mines the company is demanding an increase in contracting out jobs, the introduction of job flexibility, the hiring of more temporary workers who won't have any rights under the contract, and the extension of the probation period.

Labrador City and Wabush, which are now amalgamated towns, were built as company towns around the iron ore production facilities. The majority of businesses in the area provide products and services to the mining companies. A railway carries the iron ore over 400 kilometers to Sept-Isles where it is then loaded onto ships in the St. Lawrence River. Workers at the two struck companies produce about 60 per cent of Canada's iron ore exports.

Workers staged two previous strikes against Iron Ore Co. in 1996 and 1987. Both walkouts lasted one month.

The current strikes against these companies occur at a time when the prices of iron ore are at a high point. Iron Ore Co. continued shipping stockpiled ore from its operations in Sept-Isles.

On September 3, strikers at Iron Ore Co. rejected by a vote of 53 percent a contract offer that had been unanimously recommended by the union negotiating committee for the three striking USWA locals. The Canadian Press reported that Pat McCue, vice president of USWA Local 5795, one of the three striking locals, said the new offer contained none of the concessions in the original contract proposal and included modest increases in the pension plan and varying wage raises.

But the offer just wasn't good enough, one worker who wished to remain anonymous, told the Canadian Press.

In the same article, Jim Skinner, president of the USWA local at Wabush Mines, said that the rejection by the workers at Iron Ore Co. would make it easier for the unionists at Wabush Mines to get a decent contract. It's going to make it easier and much better for both the unions to be together and take on these companies, he said.

In a company press release after the September 3 vote, Iron Ore Co. chief executive Terry Bowles said the rejection now places our future in jeopardy. Company spokesperson Michael Filion declined to comment on how the strike has affected shipments.