What to cut: heart pills or food?

Wabush mine pen­sion­ers strug­gle af­ter ben­e­fits cut

The Niagara Falls Review - - NATIONAL - SUE BAI­LEY

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Jim Skinner thought af­ter a 35-year ca­reer at the Wabush iron ore mine in Labrador he’d be set for the golden re­tire­ment he had earned. He was wrong. U.S.- based Cliffs Nat­u­ral Re­sources shut the mine down in 2014, blam­ing high costs, fall­ing prices and wan­ing global de­mand. Its op­er­a­tions in Labrador and at Bloom Lake in Que­bec were placed un­der cred­i­tor pro­tec­tion un­der the Com­pa­nies’ Cred­i­tors Ar­range­ment Act as part of debt re­struc­tur­ing.

Health ben­e­fits for more than 2,400 re­tirees have since been cut and pen­sions slashed by 21 to 25 per cent be­cause the plan was not fully funded, Skinner said in an in­ter­view.

“I lost over $1,000 a month on my pen­sion,” he said. “I’ve lost all of my med­i­cal in­sur­ance, all of my life in­sur­ance.

“We have peo­ple that are in worse shape than I am. It’s re­ally life chang­ing,” added Skinner, 66.

“We have a ter­mi­nally ill pen­sioner now who has been forced to choose be­tween buy­ing food and life-sav­ing med­i­ca­tion.”

Union lead­ers say it’s just the lat­est ex­am­ple of how re­tirees get left be­hind when multi­na­tional com­pa­nies leave the coun­try.

Skinner, who ne­go­ti­ated con­tracts at the mine as the for­mer United Steel­work­ers lo­cal pres­i­dent, said it’s time for Ot­tawa to stop al­low­ing cor­po­ra­tions to walk out on pen­sion­ers.

He and cur­rent union lead­ers are call­ing for an emer­gency meet­ing with fed­eral and pro­vin­cial politi­cians to come up with an as­sis­tance plan.

They’re also push­ing for leg­is­la­tion that puts work­ers and pen­sion­ers ahead of other cred­i­tors when com­pa­nies de­clare bank­ruptcy or seek cred­i­tor pro­tec­tion.

“We’ve got to fig­ure out a way where work­ing peo­ple don’t come last,” said Marty War­ren, On­tario and At­lantic Canada di­rec­tor for the United Steel­work­ers.

“The way it’s set up now, se­cured cred­i­tors come first,” he said in an in­ter­view. “We get what’s left. And by then, nor­mally there’s noth­ing left.”

Cleve­land-based Cliffs Nat­u­ral Re­sources Inc. blamed the Wabush Mines clo­sure on ris­ing costs and fall­ing com­mod­ity prices as de­mand from prime steel buy­ers, such as China, slowed. A spokes­woman for the com­pany did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

An in­ter­view re­quest sent to fed­eral In­no­va­tion Min­is­ter Navdeep Bains was not an­swered by dead­line.

A spokes­woman for Ser­vice NL Min­is­ter Perry Trimper said the gov­ern­ing Lib­er­als and op­po­si­tion par­ties have jointly called for a re­view of fed­eral bank­ruptcy laws to help Wabush Mines pen­sion­ers or at least strengthen worker pro­tec­tions in future.

In a let­ter to share­hold­ers dated Wed­nes­day, Lourenco Gon­calves, chair­man, pres­i­dent and CEO of Cliffs Nat­u­ral Re­sources, said 2016 was a “turn­around” year for the com­pany.

“Our fo­cus on cost re­duc­tion and ... ef­fi­cien­cies across our op­er­a­tions drove great op­er­a­tional re­sults for the year,” he wrote. “While there is still work to do, we ended the year with strong cash flow.”

Cliffs is well po­si­tioned for even bet­ter per­for­mance amid higher iron ore prices and an im­prov­ing busi­ness cli­mate in the U.S., Gon­calves wrote.

He said “shares ap­pre­ci­ated 432 per cent in 2016, which was the sec­ond high­est gain among the more than 3,000 com­pa­nies listed on the NYSE (New York Stock Ex­change) in 2016.”

Skinner said his monthly pen­sion in­come has gone from about $1,800 to $766.

“A lot of peo­ple right now are go­ing through a lot of stress. They don’t know what to­mor­row’s go­ing to bring.”

Margie Hoben, the daugh­ter of a Wabush miner, mar­ried her high school sweet­heart, Gary, who also worked at the mine for 32 years.

They raised two daugh­ters but had to leave them and their grand­chil­dren to be closer to health care in Clarenville, N.L., when she de­vel­oped heart prob­lems. Cuts to her hus­band’s med­i­cal ben­e­fits have been dev­as­tat­ing, Hoben said in an in­ter­view.

“I’m ter­mi­nal with heart dis­ease and it’s med­i­ca­tions that I need to buy that we just can’t af­ford now.”

Hoben, 54, said she has cut back on sev­eral drugs and is back on oxy­gen as a re­sult.

“I don’t want any­thing that we didn’t work for,” she said. “I don’t want hand­outs.”

“It’s just when you work so hard for ev­ery­thing that you have, and then all of a sud­den some­body says: ’No, you can’t. You’re not hav­ing this any­more. We’re tak­ing it.’”

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS/HO

The Wabush mine in 2012. U.S.-based Cliffs Nat­u­ral Re­sources shut the mine down in 2014, blam­ing high costs, fall­ing prices and wan­ing global de­mand.

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