SUDBURY, Ont. - Striking Vale Inco employee Rod Price says he's "lost everything," and so have many of his colleagues.
"The banks are taking our houses, our vehicles. A lot of us are using the food bank, and as time goes on it's getting worse," Price said, his words coming as puffs of steam through the holes in his balaclava on a frigid day on the picket line.
"Guys are upset, hurt, crying. They don't know what to do with themselves."
More than 3,000 employees of nickel miner Vale Inco have been on strike since mid-July, and after seven months living off of $800 a month in strike pay, the repo man has come knocking.
"We've got people losing homes. We've got families breaking apart. We can't make our payments," said worker Pat Digby, braving a wind chill of -25C to picket at the front gate of Vale Inco's smelter in the Sudbury neighbourhood of Copper Cliff.
Price said he and some of his colleagues have looked for work elsewhere to sustain them during the strike, but no one wants to hire them because they fear they'll quit as soon as the labour dispute is resolved.
"I've got 15 years in with Vale and I can't turn my back on it now," Price said with a shrug. "So I hit the food banks once a month."
Sudbury Food Bank administrator Dan Xilon said usage is up by 30 per cent compared with a year ago, probably due to a combination of factors including the strike, the recession and the collapse of the region's forestry industry.
Other workers are leaving Sudbury for good and finding work in the Alberta oil sands or other mining operations in northern Ontario.
The union is doing what it can to help workers out as the increasingly bitter strike drags on with no end in sight. An assistance centre at the union hall, which is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays and provides clothing and food to those in need, is quite busy these days, said Dave Gordon, financial secretary of United Steelworkers Local 6500, which represents striking Vale Inco workers in Sudbury.
However, the meagre assistance isn't enough to stem the growing tide of frustration and anger among workers and the community as a whole. Reports of violence and threats from both sides are serving to make things increasingly tense on the picket lines with the two sides blaming each other for the absence of negotiations since the strike began.
"You can only push people so far. When you can't feed your kids, you can't put food on the table, you can't put clothing on them, they come home from school and they can't participate in what's going on, you think that's good for a community?" Digby said.
The Steelworkers say the company is trying to break the union through its use of non-striking union members and non-unionized contract employees to restart some operations. To date, Vale has restarted its Sudbury mill and smelter and is operating portions of its Coleman mine and Garson ramp. The company is also working to resume full production at Coleman as well as its Creighton mine.
Vale Inco spokesman Steve Ball said the company has no intention of undermining the union and wants the Steelworkers to be "part of our successful future."
"But we can't seem to find a way through this impasse with the Steelworkers, and as a result we need to move forward and generate revenue to offset the cost and also finish nickel to supply our customers," Ball said, speaking in the barren former nurses' residence that will double as his office for as long as the strike is on.
At issue are proposals by Vale Inco to reduce a bonus tied to the price of nickel and to exempt new employees from its defined-benefit pension plan, moving them instead to a defined-contribution plan.
Workers complain that they shouldn't have to give concessions to a company whose parent, Brazil-based Vale S.A., earned US$5.35 billion in 2009. This frustration was exacerbated when the other major mining company with operations in the Sudbury area, Xstrata Nickel, reached a labour agreement with its workers recently without having to resort to a strike.
But Ball said Vale's Sudbury operations - formerly owned by Inco before it was bought by Vale for $19 billion in 2006 - need to be profitable without the help of its parent company, otherwise they could be shut down. The cost of keeping up with increasingly stringent environmental regulations and maintaining aging infrastructure means the company needs all the help it can get to stay profitable, he added.
"We have to generate that money here. Vale is not going to bail us out. That's got to come out of the ground, and if we don't increase our profit margins and get more efficient in order to generate that money, it's not coming from anywhere else," Ball said.
"If we're not successful, there is a real possibility that we will not be able to attract investment here in the next 10 years and we will see this operation slowly wind down, because one way to reduce emissions is to cut back production," he added.
More than 3,000 employees at Vale's mill, smelter, refinery and six nickel mines in the Sudbury area have been on strike for seven months, along with their counterparts at Vale's Port Colborne, Ont., refinery. Workers at the company's nickel-cobalt-copper mine in Voisey's Bay, N.L. are also on strike, although the issues in that dispute are slightly different. For example, workers in Voisey's Bay are already on a defined contribution pension plan.
Workers in Voisey's Bay briefly resumed bargaining last month, but those talks broke down almost immediately. No talks have been scheduled in Sudbury or Port Colborne since the strike began.