Editorial: In recent negotiations, Vale has held all the cards

The fact that United Steelworkers Local 6166 members voted in favour of a new five-year collective bargaining agreement with Vale Manitoba Operations Sept. 13-14 and avoided a possible labour disruption is, for Thompson collectively, a good thing, even if many of those who voted to accept it may have been holding their noses while doing so.

The fact that the bargaining committee did not recommend accepting Vale’s final offer, mainly due to reductions in health benefits and the elimination of retirement benefits for new employees, is evidence of how bitter a pill to swallow Vale’s offer must have been. Although the bargaining committee believed that it would be possible for workers to stay on the job past Sept. 15 while they continued to negotiate, Vale sent out an email to vendors and suppliers warning of a possible work stoppage on Sept. 12, the day before union members began voting, in what may have been both a routine part of business and a ploy to scare some people into voting to accept even if they really didn’t want to. It wasn’t guaranteed that Vale would continue negotiating if a deal wasn’t reached before the deadline.

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Having to attempt to negotiate with Vale from a position of relative weakness may have seemed familiar to a few members of the previous city council, some of who are now on the current one as well. When the previous five-year grant-in-lieu agreement between Vale and the City of Thompson expired at the end of 2017, at least a few councillors indicated that they were voting in favour of a new four-year agreement worth considerably less per year – 20 per cent less in the first year and half as much in the three subsequent years, though Vale earlier this year voluntarily added $600,000 to the 2019 amount – not because they thought it was a good deal, but because they didn’t think they could get a better one and, if they refused, feared they might end up with even less.

Right now, Vale holds all the cards when it comes to negotiations with the union and the city. The economic impact of their decision to shut down the smelter and refinery for good in 2018 rather than spend money to being them up to current environmental standards showed how much of an impact the wages paid to the company’s employees had locally. The threat that Vale could decide to shut down its mining and milling operations and just leave town entirely hangs over their employees’ and Thompson residents’ heads no matter how many times they say that they don’t intend to. But we all know that mining is a business, that nickel mining is not a big part of Vale’s worldwide operations, and that, if prices drop to a point where profitability is impossible or even just very difficult to achieve, there’s a chance that people who have never been to Thompson could make the decision to lock it up and walk away.

So while many Thompsonites who were following the situation breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing that there would be no labour disruption on Sunday, it’s not as if the future is all blue skies and bright sunshine. On the other hand, if nickel prices rise and stay up near the end of this five-year collective bargaining agreement, perhaps the union will have a slightly stronger position to bargain from next time.

As always, the question of when mining will end hangs over Thompson. In 2012, Birchtree Mine was estimated to have about a decade or less of life left in it. After about half that time, it was placed on care and maintenance. In 2008, the plan for the other mines was to last until 2027 or 2030, though in 2012 that was extended to 2040. When it will actually be depends on many factors, a number of which are beyond the control of anyone here in Thompson and far too variable to predict. Hopefully the future will seem a little clearer and brighter when the Steelworker’s collective bargaining agreement is being negotiated again in 2024.

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