Vale Inco expects strike-hit Sudbury ops could be running within weeks

26th August 2009 By: Liezel Hill

TORONTO (miningweekly.com) – Brazilian-owned Vale Inco has officially decided to restart operations in Sudbury, Ontario, and could see mining resuming “within weeks”, spokesperson Cory McPhee confirmed on Wednesday.

He said that the company has not set a specific date, but will be training non-striking workers over the coming weeks and will start up operations once it is confident it can do so “efficiently and safely”.

Employees were informed of the decision on Tuesday, but speculation has been mounting after it emerged that Vale was holding a started a 'train-the-trainer' session in Sudbury last week.

Around 3 100 members of the United Steelworkers union downed tools on July 13 after rejecting the company's three-year contract offer, and the two parties remain at an impasse, with no talks scheduled.

McPhee said there are currently 1 200 employees not participating in the strike, including around 250 or so union members.

The company decided to partially resume operations to ensure that it can supply customers, he said.

“Our customers rely on us and our employees also rely on us."

The 1 200 workers not on strike are currently conducting care-and-maintenance work, but the situation is “not sustainable” if the strike is prolonged, McPhee said.

The company will primarily use its own non-striking staff to run operations – training is beginning this week – but may also bring in some "third-party expertise" to help with training.

Currently, the plan is to target parts of the orebody with high grades of copper and platinum-group metals.

The focus will be on the “least complex” parts of the operations, but the company has not ruled anything out, McPhee said.

'LIVES AT RISK'

Meanwhile, USW international president Leo Gerard has warned that any moves by the company to have nonunionised workers do strikers' jobs would be a "huge mistake".

"It's more than unacceptable, it is literally putting lives at risk," he said.

Sudbury MP Glenn Thibeault and New Democrat mining critic for the nickel belt Claude Gravelle also criticised the move in a joint statement.

"Instead of treating workers with respect the company is playing games and putting lives at risk,” Gravelle said.

"This is a huge mistake."

But McPhee dismissed the suggestion that the company was not taking the safety of its employees seriously.

“Safety is our number-one priority under normal circumstances and it is our number one priority in this instance,” he insisted.

“That doesn't change.”

Vale, the world's biggest iron-ore producer, bought Canadian nickel-miner Inco in 2007.

However, while nickel traded above $24/lb in 2007, it has since fallen sharply, as slowing global economic activity dampened demand.

The price fell to around $4/lb in the fourth quarter of last year, but has since recovered to around $8,60/lb.

Following scheduled maintenance in May this year, Vale Inco had implemented an eight-week shutdown at its Sudbury mining and processing operations, starting June 1, in response to weak demand and prices for the metal, which is used to make stainless steel.

Workers subsequently voted to strike before operations were scheduled to resume.