Salt mine strikers’ bet on blockade may pay off
For 10 weeks, they walked picket lines in often sweltering heat, watching replacement workers go into the Goderich salt mine and do their jobs. But the striking Unifor members went for broke last Friday and piled up barricades of wooden pallets, later replaced by tractors, in defiance of two court orders. It’s a gamble that appears to have worked. Compass Minerals and Unifor Local 16-0 return to the bargaining table today, hoping to end a strike that threatens to strangle the economy of the town of 8,000. Stephanie Ross, associate professor at McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies, said the workers had “no choice” because Ontario law lets companies use replacement workers. “Replacement workers are an enormous tool that employers can use to starve the workers out,” said Ross, noting union leadership could have been arrested for defying a court order. But Ross said the Goderich strikers have one big advantage: “The company can’t move the mine, the work can’t go anywhere.” That’s in contrast to the 2012 closing of London’s Electro-Motive Diesel plant, where workers were locked out by Illinois-based Caterpillar and the work later moved to Indiana, Ross said. Unifor’s Natalie Clancy said the union is observing a media blackout during negotiations. But Unifor held a free community concert and barbecue at the picket line Wednesday night featuring a striker’s bluegrass band. A kid-themed event goes Friday.
“In Unifor, we are a family and our members have rallied around this group and this community because of the enormous pressure they have been under,” said Scott Doherty, executive assistant to national president Jerry Dias.
Community support has been key for strikers in a town where the salt mine is the largest employer.
Many homes in the community sport lawn signs backing the strikers, and a Unifor public rally and barbecue in Harbour Park June 28 drew about 500 people. Huron County Warden Jim Ginn said the strike has been a sore point in the community since the salt is considered a local resource.
Kansas-based Compass Minerals brought in replacement workers from as far away as New Brunswick, meaning all the money from production was leaving the town.
Compass Minerals issued a statement Wednesday appearing to defend its move toward a new “continuous mining model” that has been at the heart of the bargaining impasse. The union says it will mean longer shifts, more overtime and more contractedout work.
The statement implied the mine’s future is in doubt if the operation does not become more efficient and competitive.