I support the striking mine workers of USW Local 6500, in part because we share a common enemy — one that you probably share as well.
This common enemy is not the fact that Inco is no longer owned in Canada. Sure, it matters that the pretty huge corporation was bought by a mega huge corporation, which has deeper pockets to try and break the union. But do you honestly think owners and managers trying to make an extra buck off of your hard work or mine has anything to do with where those owners and managers live?
Do you not remember the awful things that Inco did to its workers and our community when it was owned and run by rich Canadians? Do you honestly think that the good wages, the solid benefits, the nickel bonus and the seniority rights enjoyed by Sudbury miners were given by good-hearted, Canadian owners, rather than won by tooth-and-nail struggles over decades by ordinary working people against those owners?
No, I say we have a common enemy, because the demands Vale Inco is making, and the situation that allows the company to make those demands, are part of a pattern.
Globally, since the 1970s, but in Canada especially since the 1990s, the rich and the powerful — corporations and billionaires and the like — have been winning battles to make themselves even more rich and powerful, at the expense of ordinary people. They have talked about prosperity as they have done this, as if these changes would unleash dynamic economic growth that would help us all.
Turns out, even in their own terms, this is a lie. There are hotspots of growth here and there, but global economic growth has been consistently lower than before these attacks began. What has been consistent, though, is that the rich have been getting richer across the board, the powerful more powerful, and the poor, poorer.
These attacks on ordinary people have taken a lot of different forms: changes in employment so that more and more jobs have become low-wage; cuts to welfare, and rule changes to make the welfare system nastier, which pushes people into jobs that are unpleasant, unsafe, underpaid, insecure, and non-union — that is, it makes labour cheaper; attacks on unions, which have the same effect; cuts to social programs; and privatization, so that things once run for the public good, at least in theory, came to be run so a few people could make money.
There was plenty wrong with how things worked before these attacks started, but now they are worse. Some writers have called this pattern “neoliberalism.”
The demands Vale Inco has made fit perfectly with this pattern. They want to take money out of the hands of workers by making the nickel bonus harder for workers to get, and turn that into profit for rich owners and managers. They want to radically change how pensions work for new hires, so that instead of risking their lives and health doing dangerous work for 30 or 40 years, and knowing they’ll be able to enjoy their grandchildren in peace and security, they will have pensions where a set amount of money gets paid in but how much comes out depends on luck, on how the markets perform. So much for reward being about effort.
In messing with seniority rights, the company wants to take ever more control of the work process for managers and away from workers in the name of efficiency and flexibility. Never mind if it ruins people’s lives.
I see the striking miners as ordinary people who are doing the only thing that has ever made the people and institutions making neoliberalism happen, sit up and take notice — standing up together and saying “no.” The more we find ways to stand together, the stronger our “no” will be, and the better our chances of turning the tide so that we might get to a place where ordinary people get the decisive say in which “yes” actually happens.
I recognize that among the great numbers of people whose lives are being attacked by neoliberal changes, the miners are in a pretty privileged position. They have good livelihoods that they are defending, which even in Sudbury, lots of people don’t have, let alone the world at large. They have a collective voice — their union — which they can use to stand up and say “no.”
The process of rich people making money depends enough on them that they have at least a little bit of power to strike back at the system that is attacking them. There are many people — on reserves, in poor neighbourhoods, in abusive relationships, on the streets — facing harsher attacks with fewer material resources and fewer opportunities to resist.
But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t support the strikers with the energy we have left from our own struggles for survival and liberation — it just means that we should expect Local 6500 to change its ways a bit and get more actively involved in supporting struggles lead by the many other people getting attacked by neoliberalism.
These are questions we need to ask while we act. Our common enemy is attacking the workers at Vale Inco right now, and through them, attacking Sudbury as a whole, so it is important to support the strikers. I’m not sure how to support them beyond turning up at community events. I’m sure more useful things must be possible. Maybe “how” is one more thing we need to start talking about.
Scott Neigh is a community activist, who lives in Sudbury.