Nfld. & Labrador

Vale, United Steelworkers blame each other as talks break off at Voisey's Bay

As mining giant Vale prepares to go underground to extend the life of a nickel mine at Voisey’s Bay, talks between the company and 227 of its workers have broken off.

Impasse as company, union prepare for underground mine

Boyd Bussey, who represents United Steelworkers Local 9508, said the union is worried about safety underground. (CBC)

As mining giant Vale prepares to go underground to extend the life of a nickel mine at Voisey's Bay in northern Labrador, contract negotiations between the company and 227 of its production and maintenance workers have broken off.

The two sides are at an impasse on a whole host of issues and safety in a new underground work site is one of the most pressing, said Boyd Bussey, who represents United Steelworkers Local 9508.

"We don't want those miners going underground unless we have some say in their safe return," he told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning

In an emailed statement, Vale spokesperson Kristie Cochrane said the company does not want a strike and the union has "failed to engage in meaningful discussions."

The statement echoes one released by the union, which accused Vale of refusing "to engage in serious negotiations."

Underground safety

Bussey said the shift to an underground mine, from which first ore is expected in 2021, presents new challenges and concerns from staff who are accustomed to working in an open pit.

That's why the Steelworkers have asked the company to hire two safety officers, who would report directly to the union. Bussey said such positions are standard at other mines.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball announced that Vale is moving forward with its Voisey's Bay underground mine in July 2018 (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

"We're not going to be operating an underground mine without a union say in the safety," Bussey said.

"It's not going to happen on my watch."

No strike — yet

In her email, Cochrane said Vale intends to file a complaint with Newfoundland and Labrador's Labour Relations Board over the United Steelworkers' actions, which include "refusing to discuss outstanding language issues or even begin discussions on wages."

Bussey said other issues are more pressing than wages.

The union says workers are accustomed to the open pit mine at Voisey's Bay, not an underground mine. (CBC)

"So many issues on the table right now and we're so far apart on these," he said.

"We haven't even started to talk about money."

Workers have been without a contract since March and according to Bussey, they could be in a position to strike in as little as 15 days.

It's a scenario Vale said it hopes to avoid.

The company will "continue to do everything reasonably possible to resume negotiations," Cochrane wrote in her email.  

For Bussey, The situation brings back bitter memories of a protracted labour dispute that began in 2009 and didn't end until 2011, prompting the province to launch an industrial inquiry in the interim.

"The last one took 18 months," he said.

"It's a long time."

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Labrador Morning

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