Editorial: Provincial election important, but so is the Vale-Steelworkers contract

While the plethora of promises made by this province’s political parties in the run-up to yesterday’s election (which wasn’t decided until after our press time) is evidence that who gets to lead Manitoba for the next (up to) four years is a pretty important decision, the attention devoted to that contest has resulted in collective bargaining negotiations between Vale Manitoba Operations and United Steelworkers Local 6166, which represents hourly workers there, flying a little bit under the radar.

But make no mistake. How those negotiations turn out will probably have a bigger impact on Thompson than the results of the provincial election.

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It can’t have been an easy round of negotiations for the Steelworkers. Their ranks have been pretty much halved by decisions made by Vale in the last couple of years to put Birchtree Mine on care and maintenance and to permanently shut down Thompson’s smelter and refinery, though the latter had been public knowledge for about eight years prior to it becoming reality. Those decisions have already had an impact on the city, whether through the loss of about 500 well-paid jobs and the recirculation of that money through the local economy, or even just because they give the impression that Thompson, as a mining community and, to some, even as a community as a whole, is a city on the decline. That impression can prompt people to decide not to move here, to try to sell or even just shut down their business, to put their house up for sale.

Even in better times, the months leading up to the expiration of the Steelworkers contract had an effect on the local economy, with both those employed at the mine and those whose businesses depended on their spending putting off major purchases until they had a better idea of how the next few years would pan out. This time around, the less-than-rosy economic picture that has faced Thompson for the past year or two may have made that collective breath-holding a little more pronounced.

It seems likely that the two sides will reach a deal. The union wants to ensure that the members that it still has are able to continue working and making a living, while Vale wants to ensure that its Manitoba mines produce ore at the most economical price possible. Workers might be happy with the status quo, but Vale likely wants some concessions. If all goes well, by next week we should probably know a little bit about the deal, like how long it runs for, at least. But if it turns out Vale has been playing hardball with its workers, that may not do much to soften the impression that Thompson will have more adjusting to do in a future in which well-paid mining jobs do not create the kind of prosperity that they did a little more than 10 years ago.

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