Nfld. & Labrador

IOC workers quitting in unprecedented numbers, says union boss

Roughly 30 workers have quit their jobs with the struggling iron ore operation in Labrador West in recent weeks, and their union says it's symbolic of the lack of respect shown to employees.

Ron Thomas accuses company of arrogance, using threat tactics to bully government

Ron Thomas is a union local president with the United Steelworkers that represents workers at the Iron Ore Company of Canada mine in Labrador City. (CBC)

Roughly 30 workers have quit their jobs with the struggling iron ore operation in Labrador West in recent weeks, and their fired-up union boss says it's symbolic of the lack of respect shown to employees.

Ron Thomas, president of United Steelworkers Local 5795, said such an exodus is unprecedented.

He said many of those are now working for contractors "because of the lack of respect ... on the floor today."

Thomas said there's an overwhelming sense of frustration among workers as the Iron Ore Company of Canada pushes forward with an intensive cost-cutting and productivity strategy in order to remain profitable amid a slump in ore prices.

Thomas said he's willing to work with the company, but doesn't feel the the union's input is valued.

"If this company wanted to save money and wanted to be honest with everyone, why don't they sit down with the people that the members elected to represent them, and let's sit down and talk about all the costs that they can save right across the business," said Thomas.

"I can sit down and give this company many different ways that they are wasting money right across this project."

Thomas continues to insist that IOC's increasing reliance on contractors is not as efficient or cost-effective as its unionized workforce.

He added that a recent decision by the company to eliminate all 29 labourer positions is also backfiring.

He said unionized workers from other occupations are completing their duties at higher rates of pay.

Seeking leverage against the government

Thomas described IOC's public response to the challenges facing the business as "arrogant."

He was referring to the company's request to the provincial government for a break on its power costs, which are set to increase by $35 million this year, according to a company official.

"Here they are trying to get ... some kind of leverage on the (cost of) power, and basically just coming out with a threat saying, 'Give us a break of we're shutting her down.'"

Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley said the province is considering IOC's request, but was quick to note the company already pays the lowest power costs of any industrial customer in the country.

Thomas said his level of trust for the company is slowly eroding.

He referred to a layoff letter sent to some workers earlier this year in which the company said it was approaching the break-even point for the operation.

The price for ore at the time? Thomas said it was $47.50.

Ore has since rebounded to roughly $55, but IOC continues to sound the alarm, said Thomas.

He said the Canadian dollar has also plunged in comparison to U.S. currency, which is helping IOC's bottom line because it is paid in U.S. dollars.

And he stressed that IOC continues to make "big money" from the production of iron ore pellets in Labrador.

As for the company's assertion that it is losing money, Thomas believes IOC's message is deliberately pessimistic in order to put pressure on the provincial government.

"They're going to try everything they can to cut costs," he said.

McGrath says situation not as bad

Meanwhile, Labrador West MHA Nick McGrath said Thursday that he doesn't believe the situation is as bad as the company is portraying.

McGrath told CBC News that the message he's getting from the company is more encouraging, and that "closure is not an option."

McGrath said the operation may be been in jeopardy in January, but he doesn't believe that's the case anymore.

As for the departure of workers, McGrath said many are choosing to work for private contractors because of the "greater flexibility" offered by these positions.

With files from Bailey White

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