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Passing on lessons from the 1978-79 Inco strike

UPDATED - Dec. 17, 9:13 a.m.
Vale Inco pensioner Dave Williams shared some of his experiences from the eight-and-a-half month long 1978-79 strike against the former Inco Ltd. at an event organized by Steelworkers Local 6500 Dec. 15. Photo by Heidi Ulrichsen.


UPDATED - Dec. 17, 9:13 a.m.

Vale Inco pensioner Dave Williams says the more than 3,000 men and women who have been on strike against Vale Inco for five months are fighting to keep what he and other Steelworkers Local 6500 members won after a long, bitter strike more than 30 years ago.

Williams gave his account of the strike, which lasted from Sept. 15, 1978 until June 7, 1979, at a Dec. 14 event organized by the union.

“Don’t forget, you’re fighting to keep what me and my pals got. Inco didn’t give us that. Nobody gave us that. We fought for it,” said Williams, who worked at the former Inco Ltd. from 1959 to 1984.

He said that during the 1978-79 strike, Inco thought Local 6500 would crawl back to work by Christmas.

“Christmas came, and we told them to go to hell,” he said, receiving loud cheers from the 75 people listening to the pensioners’ stories at the Copper Cliff smelter picket line.

“At the end of May, the bargaining committee came back and gave us an offer. We told them to ‘Go back to Toronto and tell Inco that they kept us out all winter, and we’ll stay out all summer if we have to. Give us what we want.’ They went back to Toronto, and in a week they came back with what we wanted.”

Sixty-two-year-old Dave Campbell, who started working for Inco in 1965 at the age of 18 and retired in 1998, said the 1978-79 strike was the first time he participated in contract negotiations.

He was the president of Local 6500 between 1987 and 1998.

“You talk about an eye-opener. That was a bastard company then. But it was a different kind of a bastard company. They wanted to break us,” he said.

The environment leading up to the 1978-79 strike was quite negative, he said.

Nickel prices were low, and Inco “took advantage” of that and “tried to dismantle our collective agreements, similar to what (Vale Inco) is trying to do today,” Campbell said. Wages were very poor back then, and the pensions were “terrible,” he added.

Among the gains made in the 1979 contract was the 30-and-out policy for retirement, said Campbell.

“A lot of pensions are a combination of age and service,” he said. “At Inco, once you have 30 years’ service, it doesn’t matter how old you are. The environment you work in at Inco is hard and stressful. It’s not like working in an office. The life expectancy of an Inco worker, at least in the past, is much less than those who worked, say, at Canadian Tire.”

The union also won some pension and wage increases, he said. “But what we came out with, more than anything, was our dignity.”

Campbell said in the years after the 1978-79 strike, he had a few conversations with the lead bargainer for Inco.

“He said, ‘You know, 1978 was bad, but it taught us a lesson. You can’t work people and not pay them well and expect to have quality people. You have to treat people like people if you’re going to expect them to treat the company the way we want to be treated,’” he recalled.

“That’s all gone now. That company (Inco) has been sold off. Our government let it happen, and you guys are in a mess. I don’t believe for one minute that this strike is going to end tomorrow or the next day or in the short-term.”

The manner in which Vale Inco is treating Local 6500 members during the current strike will haunt the company in the future, Campbell said.

“This company may learn that they’ve awoken a group of people that are going to dislike them for many, many years after this strike is over. That can affect production and profitability and advancement of the company... Obviously, (Vale Inco) is not smart enough to pick up on the crimes of the past and let history teach them a lesson. They’re going to have to re-learn it all over again.”


Heidi Ulrichsen

About the Author: Heidi Ulrichsen

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