John Fera laughs when asked what he plans to do when he retires from both Vale and his role as president of Steelworkers Local 6500 Aug. 1.
“You’ll have to ask (my wife), Sandra,” Fera said. “She’ll tell you. I’m looking forward to it. I have a lot of projects to do around the house, of course. There are also a lot of organizations that need some help. I’d like to do volunteer work. But I think I’ll relax a little bit first.”
With Fera’s retirement, the union’s vice-president, Rick Bertrand, will automatically become president of the organization.
Fera, 58, has been president of Local 6500 since 2003. He began working as an electrician for Inco Ltd. (which was bought by Vale in 2006) in 1970.
He has been through six strikes in his time with the company.
Fera said he first became a union activist as a young man during the eight-and-a-half month long strike of 1978-79. He said he sees a new generation of activists emerging from the strike of 2009-10 as well.
Beyond his work with the union and with Inco Ltd., Fera also had a career in municipal politics, including a stint as the mayor of Nickel Centre between 1997 and 2000.
I’d like to do volunteer work. But I think I’ll relax a little bit first.
president of Steelworkers Local 6500
Fera said he could have retired long before now, but was approached last year by his members “to stay on for the fight.” Now it’s the right time to leave, he said.
As part of the contract signed with Vale, employees with 30 or more years of service are being offered a $30,000 retirement incentive, and those with 27 to 29 years a $15,000 retirement incentive.
“The incentive is really designed to try to save jobs,” he said. “The company had told us they intended to lay off approximately 113 people. We had 160 older members that could retire. In our discussions during negotiations, we tried to offset any layoffs at all.”
Fera said the strike was as hard on him, financially, as it was on any of his members, because he was not paid during the labour dispute. “When we’re on strike, I’m on strike,” he said. “Nobody gets paid during a strike. Everybody lost $80,000, and so did I. You know that going into it, so it’s not a surprise. A lot of people say that I’m getting paid or that (vice-president) Rick (Bertrand) is getting paid, but that’s not true.”
Despite the recent strike — the longest in the union’s history — Fera said the 2008 fire which destroyed the
Steelworkers Hall on Frood Road was the hardest thing he’s had to deal with during his career. “It was like our second home,” he said. “It was personal...It was our stronghold. It had all our records and history. We were able to offer so many things to the community through the Steelworkers Hall. We were able to help so many charities through our banquet hall.
“That’s what made Local 6500 so prominent and respected in the community. Now, hopefully, with our new hall here on Brady Street, that will start again.”
Bertrand said he has the “utmost respect” for Fera for staying with the union for the duration of the strike, even though he had the opportunity to retire if he wanted to. “My hat goes off to him,” he said.
Bertrand said he feels ready to helm Local 6500 after the experience he’s gained over the past year.
“I met so many people not only here in Canada, but from around the world,” he said. “I built a lot of good relationships, and learned a lot. There’s was so much work to be done. We worked tirelessly. We hardly slept, I tell you that.”