Nickel miner Vale Inco Ltd. is training replacement workers so it can re-open a smelter that has been idle since workers went on strike in July.

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Workers picket the Vale Inco smelter complex in Copper Cliff, near Sudbury, Ont., in July. The company reopened its mining operations using non-union staff in October, and is currently training staff to reopen the smelter complex. ((Gino Donato/Canadian Press))

The company is training non-striking workers to run the Copper Cliff smelter complex near Sudbury, Ont. But so far, the company remains coy on whether or not it intends to actually reopen the facility.

"Could it be interpreted that we are getting ready to start? Yes," Vale Inco spokesman Steve Ball said. "Have we made the decision to do so? No, not at this time."

A total of 3,500 Vale Inco workers — at Vale Inco operations in Sudbury, Port Colborne, Ont., and Voisey's Bay, N.L. — are on strike. They are represented by Local 6500 of the United Steelworkers union, which argues that getting untrained workers to operate the smelter, which turns unprocessed ore into usable metal, would pose a hazard to workers and the community.

The ongoing labour dispute centres on Vale's proposal to reduce a bonus tied to the price of nickel. Workers also oppose a plan by the company to exempt new employees from its defined-benefit pension plan, which guarantees employees a reliable, steady income after retirement.

The company is proposing to provide them with a defined-contribution plan, which bases retirement benefits on investment returns.

The strike is the first job action at the company since Vale bought Inco's assets for $19 billion US in 2006.

At the start of October, the company restarted some mining operations with replacement workers. The union complained that went against labour law, but on Oct. 20, the Ontario Labour Relations Board upheld the company's right to get office workers —who are represented by Local 2020 of the United Steelworkers union, which is not on strike — to do some of the work normally done by their striking colleagues. There is nothing in Local 2020's collective bargaining agreement that prevents such a move, the board said.

The union has taken its fight against the mining company overseas, urging customers in Europe and Australia to boycott the company during the labour dispute. On Thursday, 20 or so Inco workers staged a small rally outside federal Industry Minister Tony Clement's office in Parry Sound, Ont.

About 12,000 Vale Inco workers are not on strike at this time.