With this publication, we want workers to see the commonality in our struggles across workplaces, across the city, across industries and across countries. We want to find our common interests so we can come together to organize autonomously against capital, our common enemy.
Paul Therrien is a miner for Vale with over twenty years of experience working underground. He’s unionized with Steelworkers Local 6500. We’re not going to go into any further detail regarding his work in order to protect his identity.
The main areas of struggle in Paul’s mine are:
• Recuperation of union
• Recuperation of health and safety generally, and diesel particulates specifically
Rachael: So Paul, our group is called Workers' Struggle-Sudbury….We want to build a mass movement with workers in the lead….And so our focus is organizing workers...and we are particularly interested in organizing autonomously from unions because we think there's a structural problem with unions now. We're not sure they're representing workers' interests anymore. How do you feel about your union's representation of your interests, as a worker?
Paul: I've been workin' underground for quite a few years now, and the unions have changed exponentially over the last little bit. It almost seems like they're more for the company than for the men. And it shows a lot in grievances and other complaints that I've actually put in in the last little bit.
Rachael: So you would agree that there's a structural problem developing?
Paul: Yeah, I do. I believe there's a huge one.
Rachael: If it's true that [the unions] have been recuperated, have you ever given any thought to how we could kind of start over?
Paul: Well, the problem with that is, nowadays, they're startin' to divide and conquer. Years ago, when I started for INCO before Vale had purchased it…we had a mentality where the guys stuck together....Nowadays...the way we've lost certain rights in our contracts over the last couple years…seniority doesn't mean as much as it used to. So, nowadays you get new hirees coming in…with…a couple years or five years, and they're being put directly into bonus jobs, to where it's almost- you're pitting 'em against the older people that have been there for a long time….So now you've got guys fighting with each other, right? Same with our pensions….they're forcing the new hirees to join onto a different pension, so then again, we're startin' to fight for different things....So, our unions don't seem to be fighting that problem. The union seems to be, I don't know, almost teaming up with our company.
Rachael: Do you think that professional union organizers have their own distinct interests from workers' interests?
Paul: Yes, I do believe what you just said is going on….
Rachael: It's not going the workers' way, right?
Paul: It’s not that…we need it to go our way. We just need them to do what they preach to us on surface as far as health and safety. It seems to be a joke nowadays.
Rachael: So is that one of your main concerns as a worker right now, is the state of health and safety?
Paul: It's a huge concern. What they preach on surface does not seem to live underground, and I'm not sure if there's a miscommunication between the shift bosses and upper management to where the shift bosses are lying, or upper management is dictating how the shift boss is supposed to pressure us into doing certain things.
Rachael: If you could give specific examples at all, that would be excellent.
Paul: Hiring shift bosses nowadays does not seem to be looking for the best-qualified candidate, somebody who's been in mining for a while, knows a lot of the cycles of mining as well as knows how to mine. It's almost, who wants to be a shift boss, whoever puts up their hand seems to be picked. And it's usually the guys...that usually broke all the rules in the first place. They're younger people being put into positions where they don't understand what's going on. So, for example, we have an internal ore pass at our mine. I just happened to be driving by the internal. The shift boss was in there, was standing underneath the hang-up with a blasting pole and kinda like a cone pack, an explosive, on the end of it, showing a younger guy who'd just come from Logistics which- there's not a lot of mining that goes on in Logistics, they kinda bring supplies down, cage, running crushers. This guy didn't have a clue. The shift boss is bringin' him and trying to show him how to put the explosive up inside of it while standing underneath the hang-up....So I yelled at the employee and I told him to come back. I said, "Uh, where you goin'?" He said, "Well, he wants to show me how to do it." And I said, "You stay here. I'll go talk to the shift boss." So when I went and talked to him…he seemed to be oblivious from the fact that he was standing underneath the hang-up and that if that did let go, there's no way he was gonna get out in time....Trying to explain to him, that's not the way you did it. He says he "didn't have time to do it any other way, we gotta get this down, we gotta get the muck flowing, I gotta get my tons." That's how they seem to run mines nowadays. It's got nothing to do with protecting the employee, or treating with any respect, and if you don't do it his way, the next day, you come in to work, you don't have a bonus job. You're digging ditches somewhere until you've learned your lesson….That happens constantly. I work at xxxxxxxxx mine. Two years back, we had two young people who were buried alive underground. That was in my part of [the] mine. That was my area where I work. I usually blasted those ore passes as well as those two fellas that were caught in those ones. For weeks and weeks we complained about water. We complained about water in the ore pass: wet muck. Guys were ordered that day and the day before to actually dump wet muck into the muck...and told, "Don't worry about it." As well as, we had plugged drain holes where the water didn't seem to get any higher, so you know it was going somewhere, and it was really close to that ore pass. We complained to the point [that one of the guys] who did die was actually sending emails to upper management, telling them that there's a huge problem, and he's one of the people that died because of it. And you must know by the news, they pleaded guilty [to] all charges, paid a million dollars, and nobody went to jail for killing those two guys....So, that in itself is disgusting on so many levels....Y'know, I knew them well...I worked with one guy for over ten years. He was a very safe guy. He was the same as me, he always pushed to make sure, y'know, take the time, do it right. It shouldn't have happened….But again, we're not listened to. Anything we say is- it's almost taken as if we're wasting their time.
The workers that are on the front line at the face, the experienced miners are pushed aside because the way we do things might take a little bit longer than they want 'em done. It almost seems like they assess the area to see how much it's gonna cost to recondition that area to how much it would cost to pay fines against killing that guy….That's almost the way it seems….It's come to a point, you can't open your mouth, or you pretty much get blackballed....I ended up taking a little bit of time off because I was becoming so angry, I was gonna punch somebody out, and it was gonna be somebody in upper management….I've got twenty years, and I've got guys with three years that are makin' five grand a month because they're- they go out and do whatever they're told regardless if its unsafe or not.
Rachael: What an amazing achievement for the company, eh?
Paul: It's very disgusting. Y'know, I hear it all the time, the shareholders, we gotta make more money, we gotta keep our shareholders happy...but, y'know, our main concern is: I wanna go to work, I wanna do what I have to do, and I'd like to do it in a healthy manner so I can actually retire, and I'd like to survive. I shouldn't have to worry about dying when I go to work. It's not something anybody should have to worry about.
Rachael: So, this pitting...the younger workers against the more experienced workers. How-
Paul: It's companies getting employees to fight amongst each other to compete, which keeps the emphasis off the company itself, because now you've got two employees down below that are willing to do anything to get more muck so that they can get that bonus job, compared to how safe they are.
Rachael: And what about when you guys bring this up...to the union...how [the company is] able to divide you guys like this?
Paul: It just comes down to putting in a grievance....It comes to a point where you- the company would do something against you, and you'd say, "Well, you're not supposed to do that," and they'd say, "Grieve it." So you'd grieve it, but the grievance would take two to three years. So, they do whatever they want when they want, right? And then every time you do get your grievance heard, you just get denied….It's just nothing but denials...compared to what we had years ago with our union....It's just constant red tape and bullshit. We used to have a process called the 079 process. If we had a problem or if we seen something unsafe, we could fill out our 079, and they would have to clear up these 079s. If not, there would be a paper trail following it. They cancelled that. So now if you decide to put something like that in, it's up to the discretion of your shift boss whether it's viable or not....
Rachael: When was that change implemented? Do you remember?
Paul: It's been quite a few years. I'm thinking, right after that major strike we had.
Rachael: The 2010?
Paul: Yeah. We lost a lot of our rights after that strike....I hate to call em' scabs, we knida started callin' em' squirrels because we'd get in trouble for calling 'em scabs....When we got back after that strike, we were treated as if- almost like… a contractor used to be treated, y'know? We were company; contractors come in. A lot of guys didn't like 'em, especially if they were taking bonus jobs from the guys who were actually workin' for the company. Well, now these scabs are treated much better than us. If they were on a bonus job, the same job you were, they were makin' more money than you were. If they decided to leave early that day...they'd get paid for it. If we came in five minutes late or came in two minutes early, we'd get disciplined for it....It's almost like all the roles are reversed. Anybody that...crossed the picket line were treated like gold. If you didn't, you were treated like you were a liability, compared to an asset.
Rachael: I didn't realize there were so many crossing the picket line. Do you know numbers?
Paul: There was quite a bit. As you know, Day Construction, you know…they're right up there....You could tell since 2010, their fleet has almost doubled or tripled in size, because they get so many contracts now because they did cross the picket line. But we did have quite a few of 'em that were actually union members that crossed, and most of [them] were the people that went out and bought a $400,000 home, a brand new truck, a brand new car, a brand new Ski-Doo. They couldn't afford to miss one day of work. Those were the people that ended up crossing, but again, when they cross, they're fightin' against us. It's tough to get anything done when there's a bunch of people in there doin' your job for ya.
Rachael: Were they more younger guys, the guys that were crossing?
Paul: I'd say yeah, a lot more….It's not to say that there wasn't jobs elsewhere to get....We're a union town, we've always been, whether it be CN or it be CP, or it be your INCOs and your Falconbridges. We're union. And if we can't stick together, we're not gonna get anywhere.
Rachael: Opportunism is a big problem right now.
Paul: Like, we all took- y'know, I lost a lot money in my savings going through [that strike]. I went through...everything I had to while we were on strike, and tried my best, but there’s a lot of people that just rode it out…went back to work as a scab....They're tryin' to divide us, and the best way is to get us all separated and thinkin' different things so that we're not gonna be stickin' together.
Rachael: What kind of time do you get with your co-workers…in a day?
Paul: Uh, usually, if we go and sit down at lunch, but half the time, most guys'll try and get their shift through, like, do their scoop or do their blasting or whatever they do, and they come back near the end of the shift to eat their lunch. So, we're not all sittin' together at lunchtime discussing stuff. And when we do, you can see certain guys wanna try to do it, but you know they don't have the backbone. They don't wanna stir the pot. They don't wanna lose their bonus jobs, 'cause they see what's happening to everybody else that's doin' it, right?
Rachael: But they must be able to see the writing on the wall?
Paul: Well, they have, because of the actual fatalities, right? They can see it with people, like- people get hurt nowadays, and as soon as you get hurt, they're startin' to pressure you into going to your doctor and getting a note saying you can come back to work. “We have work for ya.” You could break your leg, and I've seen guys not miss one day, because they're forced to go to their doctor and get a doctor's note so they can show up to work, so they can sit in a chair, or they can wheel themselves around and do whatever the company dictates to them.
Rachael: Another miner we interviewed said Vale gets charged for days lost to injury?
Paul: Oh, definitely….the more days without a lost time, the bigger the bonuses are.
Rachael: So the health and safety process has also been recuperated then, really?
Paul: There's not much of one....For example, they can come underground, and I'm at my scoop or my piece of equipment, and I'm off it, it's parked...say, it's facing uphill. I'll have my wheel chocked behind the wheel, and they'll point out that I don't have a wheel chock in front of the wheel, and give me shit for it. But yet they won't look up and see that bag loose above their head, or that big chunk of rock just hangin' by a thread....They're lookin' for tiny stuff. You can [say], "Look, my vehicle's not going to roll uphill, so there's no reason for me to put a wheel chock in front of the wheel." "You're gonna do what I say or we're gonna send you home." That's their response, right? When I say, "Well, what about this stuff up here?" "Well, that's not my concern. Talk to your shift boss." You talk to your shift boss about it. "Oh yeah, we know about it, we're gonna do something about it later." But then it never happens.
Rachael: It sounds like a really brutal working environment.
Paul: It is, and it's not good for anybody, health-wise or not, right? So they're coming out with new laws now with the diesel particulates, which we’ve known for years, it's worse than anything you're breathing underground....So years, we used to have something called the Diesel Emission Evaluation Program. And they used to hook it up on back of scoops, and it was almost like a little cooker that would take all this soot out of the air, so when you looked at the back of the exhaust where it came out, there's not big black streaks. It actually burns fairly clean, other than you're breathing in the actual diesel itself....So they cancelled it. The government wasn't sponsoring it anymore, so boom, it was cancelled. So, now they're pumpin' that stuff steady, so now it's a constant fight to get enough air into a certain area with a certain amount of equipment in it. So that area's only allowed 600 horsepower, and you've got two scoops that are running 300 horse, and then they wanna send in a Jeep, and then they wanna send in a picker....So now you're running almost two to three hundred horsepower over what's allowed in that area….So I tell ‘em, "Have you seen the vent print?" "Yes I have." I said, "Well, it says '600 horse'." "Well", they say, "there's more than that here." I said, "But that's not what it says on the vent print." So the first response is, "So you're tellin' me you don't wanna work?" I said, "No, that's not what I said....There's not enough air back there for two scoops, me and another guy working, with a Toyota or a Jeep back there"…."If you don't wanna do it, I'll get somebody else to do it.” So now, if I don't do it, they'll give my job to somebody else. When I refuse a job, they're supposed to tell the next guy that comes in...that somebody had already refused it, but they don't tell him that...
Rachael: Which is illegal, isn't it?
Paul: It is illegal….
Rachael: So they're putting the squeeze on you guys for air?
Paul: Yeah, we constantly work in areas to where, it's pretty much the air is blue. So you're breathing that in, and you can tell you're breathing in diesel because it gives you a headache. So almost instantaneously, you can feel it at the back of your head. You start gettin' a headache, you start gettin' a little dizzy, it's hot because you're not getting any oxygen in there….And it's been a constant ongoing problem. I know the government now has actually admitted it, and there's actually studies out saying that diesel particulates do cause cancer.
Rachael: I just wanna go back to when and if you ever talk to other guys about your conditions here – this is brutal – and what you can do together about them, 'cause on your own, you guys are screwed, right?
Paul: That's what our union used to be about, rallying all the guys together. Now, if it's just one or two or three guys, you can't do it, right? We're separated in shifts. They're separating us in any and every way they can possibly do it. So the younger guys and the older guys aren't gettin' along, because the younger guys are...taking jobs away from the older guys, just because they're willing to go do it, without it being up to standards...with no questions asked....When I started with INCO, it took me eight years before I got a bonus job. I understood you work your way up, right? That's the way it always works, but now it's not that way....It's an actual plan to get us all to fight with each other so nobody sticks together, right? The union was almost pushed out. It was almost to the point [that] they were broken, so now they don't seem to have any power to do anything, and they seem to be fine with it, as long as they get their little comfy job here and there, and they can just do their paperwork every so often, but- When I was going through that actual fight against my shift boss…I was talking to one of my head stewards about it, he stood up and started yelling at me and saying, "Look, I don't give two shits what's goin' on. Just go and do your job and shut your mouth." So, instead of punching him in the face – y'know, I'm an old school miner, I would have loved to, but I know that would have got me fired – I calmly walked out, went to my line-up. Within five minutes, I was pulled out of my line-up and sent home by the superintendent. My own union steward went in and told on me. And this was my head steward. This was one of the guys I thought was on my side....
Rachael: Would you say that, compared to other workers…you're more militant?
Paul: I'm not militant, but I'm not one guy to keep my mouth shut when I see something goin' on.
Rachael: It seems like they're treating you like you're a militant worker.
Paul: That's the picture they're trying to paint of me as being a troublemaker....I'll have young guys come up to me and question me and say, "Well, [the boss] wanted me to go in and do this." And I'd look at it and say, "Yeah, y'know, you can't go in and do that." “Well, what am I supposed to do?" So I go and talk to the shift boss, instead of that young guy.
Rachael: So, though as much as you say you're not more militant than other workers, it sounds like you have a bit of a leadership role....It sounds like some workers trust you to tell them whether the job is safe or not?
Paul: Most of the young guys will come up to me. I've been there a long time. I know xxxxxxxxx mine quite well, I know what it's supposed to sound like....You just know it. I know how many stopes you're supposed to take in a row, how many open holes they should have before the mine starts to crumble. And we told them several times. Not even a year ago, we had a huge cave-in...a hole opened up, 200 feet by 200 feet....There just happened not to be anybody working in there at that time. And we kept tellin' 'em, "You cannot mine that many open holes without filling the other ones." And they were ignoring us once again. Boom! We had huge ground movement that opened up a massive hole that took them nearly six or seven months to fill....
Rachael: That doesn't make the news though, eh?
Paul: No….The ministry got involved...but we were still working in areas like- their fix to it was, "We're gonna send you into that area to rehab it, and what we're gonna do is we're gonna have an engineer up on top monitoring to see if there's any ground movement," because they have these little monitors hooked up all around so they can tell, where a rock burst happened or something caved in, they can pinpoint it easier, right? So my question was, "So, when they hear something, it's gonna take them time to get on the radio to call down, and what if you can't hear 'em 'cause your piece of equipment's running, and you can't hear your radio?...How is that gonna protect the guys, 'cause when he hears it, it's already gonna be too late?” They didn't have an answer.
Rachael: They're not too worried about it.
Paul: No, they weren't too worried. They were more worried about gettin' that mine back up and running into production than it was to...come up with a better plan to make it safer.
Rachael: So, with what sounds like the level of neglect that's going on there now, do you think something catastrophic is-
Paul: There's more on the way. I don't like to believe it, but you can almost feel it. They only got lucky last time….400 feet deep by 200 by 200...it's just huge.
Rachael: How many people could have been in there?
Paul: Regardless if it's one or ten, it's too many….These companies are getting too big and too powerful. Y'know, they're controlling governments now.
Rachael: They'll only continue to gain power if we don't organize.
Paul: I understand, and I've been fighting the fight for years. I've been the guy on the shitty job list for quite a long time. I've learned to live on nothing.
Rachael: Our political current feels very strongly that it's time for workers…to start organizing in our own interests again....That's how unions started, with workers organizing in our own interests...Have I convinced you that this is an avenue we have to start thinking about?
Paul: I've been convinced for years. It's just- I can't find enough people to follow it….
Rachael: We have to get all of the ones trying to fight-the-fight together.
Paul: I hear ya, and it's a lot harder to do than you're- you guys are tryin' your best, I appreciate everything you're doin', but I've tried for years…..
Rachael: There were some militants in the 2010 strike that we've been trying to get a hold of....Do you happen to know any of those guys, the guys that were really unhappy and quite vocal at the Clarabelle- the night when the cops were sent out [to take down the barricade]?
Paul: Yeah, there's quite a few of the guys I know, but I'm not gonna give up their names, because it'd be something I'd have to ask them to see if they're comfortable with....A lot of those guys, it came to the point, they were startin' to wear masks because they didn't want their face- 'cause as soon as you did something wrong, you got a letter in the mail because the actual security would be takin' pictures of ya. They send your picture to your management, and your management sends you a letter at home....When you do get back to work, you're gonna be disciplined, and a lot of guys were. A lot of guys were fired over it, right?
Rachael: But you are willing to check with those guys...and see if they're interested in making contact with us?
Paul: And when they make contact, it's actually- what is it gonna do?
Rachael: What we want to do is start organizing. So we want to start bringing all the people who are pissed off and fed up...together...to figure out what we're going to do about this shit….We want to come up with the answers together as a group.
Paul: What they're gonna be wanting to know is what do you have to protect them from...being blackballed at work for being part of an [organization]....That's the big problem. Like, a lot of us guys have been doing it, and most of them are the older people. We do have a few of the younger guys fighting, but to a certain point, right?...We've only got so many avenues and only so many options that we can do that they're not gonna start taking your job away.
Rachael: We can work clandestinely....
Paul: Like, do you guys have family in mining, or are you guys part of a mining organization? What's your background in this?
Rachael: Neither John nor I are miners, but my grandfather was...for INCO.
Paul: Did he have a good retirement, or not a very good one?
Rachael: He worked for forty years, and he died when he was eighty-four, so he had a long retirement.
Paul: Which is good, most of the guys I know have been dying of cancer or massive heart attacks in the last little bit….If you guys can send me something written up through to my email, I can hand it off to these guys, and they can decide for themselves….
Rachael: Yeah, that’s all we’re asking for, Paul....Would you help us distribute the interview? Would you be comfortable putting it in the lunchroom or anything like that?
Paul: Oh, I'll put 'em in all the lunchrooms....
Rachael: Ok, cool….Is there anything that you would like to add to our discussion about workplace struggles?
Paul: No, you guys pretty much know what’s goin’ on, you’re hittin’ the nail on the head. I know these guys, they're trying to twist stuff around. It's all about making it look good above ground, but when you get underground, everything's just completely different. Everything you guys think is goin' on is goin' on.
Paul is right. The company is dividing and conquering miners any and every way they can and the Steelworkers are looking the other way while they do it. Shame!
When Paul talked about his interest in wanting to survive working underground, he expressed the inherent antagonism between workers and capitalists: survival vs. profit. Any worker who dares to assert their interest in surviving another day of work – versus just rolling over – is the new militant. But it’s important to ask ourselves: Why does it sound militant to assert our basic right of survival? What does this tell us about the struggle at this moment?
Paul is right that survival should be a basic standard of dignity for all workers and the basis for the most basic level of solidarity. When this is not present, class struggle is very low. Working class struggles are very weak at this moment in history. At one time, safety and solidarity were strong tendencies in miners but these have been slowly chipped away. We will have to build these tendencies back up ourselves before any further struggles can advance.
Paul is right that the key to ideological control is to get the miners thinking differently. The introduction of two-tier pensions and the loss of seniority rules have proved to be powerful tactics in the capitalist’s class struggle against workers, and have allowed opportunism to flourish in our ranks. But there is no pride in enduring harsh conditions, which is the terrain of individualism, not collectivism, and not solidarity. Pride should come from uniting to fight against these harsh conditions together.
Despite our weakness, despite how small our numbers are, we have to start to rebuild somewhere. We have to convince younger workers that they can’t take for granted the lives of the miners who went before them. We have to convince them to respect the history of our struggle. We have to convince them that they too are getting older every year.
Despite his union’s abandonment of the struggle
and his brothers’ widespread acquiescence, Paul has held on to his class
consciousness and the combativeness inherent in the antagonism between
workers and bosses. He resisted opportunism by forfeiting bonus work and
resolving himself to live with less. These are positive tendencies; along
with constructing organizations to assert collective power, they indicate
the way forward.
Workers Struggle-Sudbury is edited by Rachael Charbonneau and John Newlands and is published monthly.