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Issue #1437      25 November 2009

Trade unions: taking the fight across frontiers

More than 3,000 Canadian members of the United Steelworkers Union (USW) who have been on strike against a vicious multinational mining corporation since July are taking their fight where their bosses fear most – across frontiers.

United Steel Workers Union activist hands out campaign material during a demonstration.

The members of USW Local 6500, nickel miners in the small mining community of Sudbury in the heart of Canada are fighting Brazilian owned Vale’s attempts to tear up their pensions as part of a co-ordinated attack on the corporation’s workforce throughout the world.

“Vale’s strategy is to gut its best collective bargaining agreements and to set a precedent for deep cuts in wages, pensions and worker rights worldwide,” USW Canadian national organiser Ken Neumann said.

“Vale will use the savings extracted from workers to finance the company’s ambitious plans for expansion, and its campaign to weaken unions and workers’ rights wherever it operates.”

Despite raking in a massive CA$14 billion profit last year (AU$14.3 billion) – with CA$3.94 billion earned for the company by the Sudbury miners alone in just the last two years – Vale has chosen to pick a fight by taking on its best-organised workers.

Stepping up the global assault, executives provoked further strikes at the firm’s huge iron mines in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Para last week, taking advantage of their workers’ precarious “contract status” to threaten mass sackings unless they accepted cuts to benefits during pay negotiations.

Brazilian CUT union confederation leader Artur Henrique da Silva Santos explained that the law allows Vale to “immediately terminate workers without cause,” but he declared that such insecurity “hasn’t stopped thousands of miners organising.”

Brazilian National Metalworkers Federation president Carlos Alberto Grana added that “transnational corporations like Vale that have profited like never before in the last few years through downsizing and outsourcing think they’ve found the excuse they were praying for – the global financial crisis.

“Of course the workers know how serious it is, but they also know that they need to fight to prevent being made to pay for this,” he added.

The president of Brazilian miners’ union Metabase Paulo Soares de Souza also made it clear that “the USW’s concern over the savagery of Vale’s attacks on the working class in all the countries where it operates is the same concern of our union, and should be the concern of all workers everywhere.

“We demand that the corporation stop its attacks on foreign workers, and we reaffirm our position of unconditional solidarity for the strike being waged by our Canadian brothers and sisters in Ontario,” he said.

“They are fighting to defend their rights and what they have won with the power of their union, and we condemn the company for trying to deny these rights and weaken these gains,” Soares de Souza said.

Brazilian connection

Vale is controlled by wealthy financiers that include Previ, the pension fund of the state-controlled Banco do Brasil. The Brazilian government also holds a significant amount of voting capital in the mining corporation through the country’s BNDES development bank.

The miners’ unions in both Canada and Brazil have not been slow to use these government stakes in the firm to make a connection with former car workers’ union leader and now president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The president has pressured Vale to invest billions of dollars in opening up new nickel, copper and iron mines in Brazil to boost the country’s steel, construction and shipbuilding industries. The USW has been encouraged by Lula’s demands that all Brazilian corporations treat their foreign workers with respect.

“Lula has said to his country’s multinationals that, ‘if you’re moving into other countries, you’re representing Brazil in these countries and the reputation of Brazil is at stake with everything you do’,” Steelworkers’ union organiser Wayne Fraser said.

“But Vale is cutting thousands of jobs – not just in Canada but in Brazil and elsewhere. That’s not going over too well with the president. It’s their disrespect for their employees, be it in Brazil or Canada or South Africa, that is the issue here, and at least the president of Brazil appears to think that’s important,” Fraser said.

The corporation has begun to crack under the pressure, not just threatening the Brazilian union negotiators in Para, but also cancelling its meetings with financiers on Wall Street and in the City lest its executives have to face the ignominy of being confronted by striking workers’ picket lines.

In London, USW members from Sudbury were joined by Unite union leaders in a protest that succeeded in running Vale’s chief financial officer Fabio Barbosa out of town when he tried to attend a stockbrokers’ meeting in the heart of the capital’s financial district.

“They had no problem forcing us out on strike, and they have no problem lying about what’s going on, but now they are clearly starting to get nervous, beginning to hide their faces like this,” observed USW Local 6500 member Patrick Veinot.

African unions affiliated with the international ICEM confederation of chemical, mine and energy workers have also tightened the screws on Vale by urging the governments of South Africa and Mozambique not to grant the mineral exploration permits that the multinational is seeking in the two countries.

Zambia mineworkers’ union leader Rayford Mbulu said, “the time has come to challenge these global mining giants and Vale will be a test case for us because of the company’s anti-union and anti-worker policies.

“We don’t want Vale to come here and bring these practices to our countries,” Mbulu said, warning that “its executives must improve their labour policies or stay out of Africa.

“This corporation must realise that no longer can it act against workers in a single country – or even in a single mine – without unions all over the world coming to the aid of our brothers and sisters.”

Morning Star  

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