ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Mining giant Vale won a court application Monday to prosecute striking workers if they block access to a new nickel processing site, upping the ante in a nasty labour dispute in southern Newfoundland.
What started Thursday as a wildcat strike by about 90 crane operators entered its fifth day as the company and workers traded accusations of intimidation and ill will.
About 1,000 workers — half the usual labour force — went back to work Monday in Long Harbour, N.L., north of Placentia on the Avalon Peninsula, after union leaders urged them to respect a collective agreement signed in 2009.
The rest stayed away in part, Vale says, because striking workers have snarled traffic on the road leading to the site.
However, a report from VOCM Radio late on Monday said the operating engineers who had been picketing have now decided to end their strike.
VOCM reported that Gus Doyle, the president of the Resource Development Trades Council — an umbrella group representing 16 construction unions — said the strike had ended and all of the workers were going to return to work on Tuesday.
Doyle wasn’t available for comment by telephone or email.
Roy Hawco, a union spokesman for the crane operators, said the picket lines of the workers he represents came down late Monday.
He said he can’t guarantee all of the crane operators will return to work, but that they’ve ended their protest near the plant.
Company spokesman Bob Carter said production could only partially resume without the crane operators as the dispute costs Vale several million dollars a day.
Carter also said he’s heard that some returning workers got threatening emails, text messages or phone calls. He did not provide examples and Hawco said he wasn’t aware of such tactics.
The company spokesman said the strike is hindering construction of the nickel plant.
“It’s disrupting our busines and our ability to get this project built,” Carter said in an interview. “Those who are not returning to work and are blocking access to our site are in defiance of the court order, and we need to get that remedied.”
Carter was referring to a provincial Supreme Court injunction last week ordering striking workers to cease and desist.
RCMP Sgt. Wayne Newell confirmed that police, who have so far been on hand to help clear traffic congestion, will be watching the situation in Long Harbour early Tuesday.
Hawco said he doesn’t support the walkout. Still, he stressed that labour relations at the site are toxic with unresolved grievances dating back to 2009, along with anger over changes that affected offsite living allowances.
“We as a union do not condone what’s going on out there,” he said in an interview. “But when you’re drove, there’s only so much you can take. When you’ve got issues ongoing from 2009 … this is what happens. Eventually, everything blows up.”
Striking workers are “dug in” near the site and many are just as angry with their union leaders as they are with the company, Hawco said.
“I think the mood out there is to fire everyone — including me.”
Hawco said workers are accusing Vale of clawing back the living allowance paid to those who live more than 100 kilometres away and rent accommodations outside the work camp.
Carter denied any clawbacks and said reductions that may result from scheduling changes stem from adjustments that the unions requested.
“The living allowance that is currently in place is in line with the collective agreement,” he said.
Hawco said rumours are flying that workers being recruited from outside the province are being paid more to help fill a shortage of skilled trades. He also said safety issues are regularly raised at liaison meetings for the 16 unions working at the site, “mostly strains or slips and falls.”
Carter said a collective agreement signed with 93 per cent approval by all 16 unions fixes wage rates for all workers. He said the company is looking at a looming labour shortage for various trades as the peak construction period looms for the $3.6-billion project, but has not yet hired temporary foreign staff.
Carter also defended Vale’s safety record at Long Harbour.
“I can tell you that our safety onsite is exemplary. We have a better safety record on that site than is the norm in the construction industry.”
Provincial Labour Minister Terry French was careful not to pick sides but urged workers to handle disputes through proper channels.
“This is very, very important to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said in an interview. “We’ve got this development, of course, but there’s many more coming. And you know, I hope we don’t send a message to everyone that we can’t find labour stability, because it’s so important on these major projects.”
The Progressive Conservative government will decide later this year whether to sanction the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric development in Labrador, a megaproject that’s expected to cost more than $6.2 billion and require extensive skilled labour.
The province is also at odds with ExxonMobil, the oil giant leading a consortium of partners developing the Hebron oilfield off Newfoundland. At issue is construction of a $100-million piece of the massive production platform and whether the province has the capacity to handle the work without delaying first oil expected in 2017.