As nickel miners go back to work in Sudbury, Ont., there's a remote chance that the cultural abyss between the old Inco Ltd. and the new Vale S.A. will one day be bridged.
By Patrick Whiteway
About 3,000 unionized workers at Vale S.A.'s nickel operations are back to work this week in Sudbury, Ontario after a long and bitter strike that lasted more than a year.
Besides helping to keep nickel prices high during the recession (by reducing supply), the strike exposed the huge abyss that exists between the old 'motherly' corporate culture of the Inco Ltd. and the modern Brazilian corporate culture of the new owners, Vale S.A.
That abyss was best illustrated during the strike in an article by Linda Diabel that was published in Toronto Star on June 6, 2010.
In it, Diabel artfully describes the strike-breaking tactics Vale used to try to change the culture from one of sacrifice and entitlement to one of productivity improvement.
If you worked for Inco in Sudbury prior to the Vale takeover in 2006, the following short story might remind you of what it was like to work there. I wrote it in the early 1980s while employed as a young mine planning engineer at Copper Cliff South Mine, just west of the Copper Cliff smelter. The story was published in the "Odds 'n' Sods" column of the weekly newspaper The Northern Miner. I invite you to comment on it below and to submit your own stories about what it was like to work for the 'old' Inco.
"As young graduate mine engineers fresh out of university and employed at one of Canada's largest nickel mines, my friends and I naturally looked to the senior staff members for guidance and example, because we eagerly aspired to attain their positions in the company.
"Very often, as can be expected in a large company I suppose, the senior engineers were surrounded by an atmosphere of confidence and spoke in esoteric, technical jargon bordering on arrogance. We interpreted this as a consequence of working for a corporation which prides itself on building the biggest, the tallest, the deepest and the most modern nickel mining facilities in the world.
"So it came as some surprise to us to find that our mine engineer, the man above our immediate supervisor in the organizational chart, appeared to be somewhat of an absent-minded technical bore with a flair for missing the obvious. The man we compared him to was the Colonel Henry Blake character in the old M*A*S*H series on TV.
"On numerous occasions he portrayed himself (intentionally or not) as a bumbling idiot, which of course we knew he was not, but the constant recurrence of this thought, brought on by his fumbling while under the watchful eye of a couple of young engineers, never failed to amuse us.
"Some of the things we noticed were purely physical things like stumbling on steps, attempting to write with the wrong end of a pencil, or always being the one in winter to get his car stuck in the parking lot. The others we labelled mental errors like forgetting to take a mining lamp underground. And like Col. Blake in the TV show, he was always the last person to find out what was going on around him.
"When technical and business people visited our mine, our Col. Blake would escort the visitor(s) around the engineering office, desk by desk, to chat with the engineers and surveyors and to explain the workings of the mine and the plans we had for the immediate and long-term future.
"Without fail he would give the visitor outdated information and would ask the engineers for plans which, as it turned out, had been scrapped because of some recent development or change in thinking brought on by new information from the field, such as recent diamond drill hole results or the movement of a mining crew and equipment to a higher priority work area of the mine.
"It was not clear to us whether or not he did this intentinally in order to get us to explain our work, but in a way, mine tours appeared to be as educational to our mine engineer as they were to the visitors. In fact, we were certain this was the only way that he got information about the operation of the mine. As one can imagine, this gave us a feeling of being on top of things; surprising even our immediate supervisor and giving us a sense of pride, confidence and control; which may have been the intent of our mine engineer all along.
"This sense of control became so complete, in fact, that we soon began to exercise the authoritative power that was usually reserved for the mine engineer alone. Besides just motivating, guiding and supervising our design work, the mine engineer's duties also included giving final endorsement to our design plans; everything from day-to-day operational plans to long-range mine development plans.
"This would involve sitting down with the mine engineer to explain the proposed design, answering his questions and then getting his authorization, in the form of his signature on the engineering drawings, to proceed with the design. When it came to the day-to-day operations however, we were very often pressed for time in order to catch the men at cage time before they went underground on the afternoon shift.
"So things such as purchase orders, work orders and In-the-Hole drill layouts were quickly whisked off to the respective crews with the mine engineer's initials miraculously in place even though he had not seen the documents. One can imagine the conversations that followed in the cage when the mine engineer was going underground for one reason or another and would invariably ask the men what they were working on that shift.
"It was in this way therefore, that our mine seemed to operate smoothly; the miners getting fast, efficient service from the engineering office and we in turn, getting fast, efficient advances underground. Much to the delight of our Col. Blake, this made us one of the safest, lowest cost producers in our division.
"In hindsight, I suppose that it was not just by chance that management had chosen our mine to train its newly hired graduate engineers. In the course of our stay there before being transferred to other mines in the division we not only learned the essentials of engineering design, we also learned some valuable management skills including taking responsibility and working effectively with people. This would not have been possible without the supervision of our Col. Henry Blake whom we are certain would never have allowed our miners to be exposed to any unsafe condition underground. And so it was with us too."
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