Negotiations Yes! Extortion No!

Negotiations Yes! Extortion No! – Enver Villamizar

On June 27, two days before a major rally called by Unifor in Windsor, Ontario to support striking salt workers, Stone Canyon Industries Holdings Inc. (SCIH) issued a news release. The U.S. company that owns Windsor Salt claimed that negotiations with the unions representing striking Windsor Salt workers had collapsed because one of the unions “reneged” on an agreement the company thought had been reached with it on “certain critical issues.” It also claimed to have no intention of contracting out union jobs, implying that the workers, for no reason, want to stay out on strike day after day – something too ridiculous to merit even scoffing at.

Representatives of the striking workers indicated they were unaware of the collapse of negotiations, highlighting that the company had once again arbitrarily walked away from the negotiations. This grandstanding by the company amounts to extortion, the practice of obtaining something through force and threats. In a public statement Unifor responded to the company’s action saying that its tactics to divide the ranks of the workers are doomed to fail. It then posed the most pertinent question — that the company clearly knows there are unresolved issues at the bargaining table, and should work with the union to resolve them instead of engaging in divide-and-conquer tactics.

Based on its recent purchases of facilities in Canada, the U.S. and Chile, Stone Canyon boasts that it is the biggest producer of salt in the world. That may or may not be true, but even amid this ongoing strike the company is expanding its wells and pipelines to extract greater amounts of salt brine at Malden Park, which is owned by the City of Windsor. The City Council has granted various abatements for public lands to facilitate this expansion. The project commenced in January and, as indicated on their signs, it is scheduled to continue until September. The City of Windsor had also granted Windsor Salt’s previous owner the right to expand production deeper down in the rock salt mine. Clearly, production facilities are being expanded.

Construction in Malden Park, Windsor, Ontario to expand pipeline network and brine wells for extracting and transporting salt brine to Windsor Salt’s evaporation plant

It is noteworthy that this is happening at a time of major developments relating to the use of salt for electricity storage and production. Among all of its other critical uses, sodium from sodium chloride is a key ingredient in producing what is called green energy. This includes new plans for its use in batteries for electric vehicles. Sodium-ion batteries are being developed as a cheaper and safer alternative to lithium-ion batteries for both electric vehicle batteries and for stationary units. Battery storage is the lynchpin of the electrification of the economy taking place at this time. Without ways to store the energy generated from renewable sources such as wind and water, wind and water power are of only intermittent use. Battery storage will provide stability to electrical grids and permit the expanded use of electricity in all aspects of our lives, including for electric cars.

Sodium-ion batteries from salt hold potential because they are effective at both very high and low temperatures. They do not catch fire as readily as lithium-ion batteries which, by all accounts, has become a serious problem. Molten sodium chloride salt is also used in the production of electricity from small-scale nuclear reactors which those investing in a green economy are also interested in building.

Salt is also a lot cheaper than lithium and it is a readily available resource in many countries including Canada where there are mines in Windsor and Goderich, Ontario, Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec and elsewhere. The salt workers in these places are all supporting this strike.

Teachers in Ontario are eager to see our pension fund, one of the largest sources of investment capital in the world, used to advance a green economy. But why should this be done at the expense of the workers without whom nothing can be produced? This is currently the case with its major investments in SCIH. Teachers will never accept their pension fund being used by governments or private companies that consider the workers to be expendable, dispensable and disposable.

The world needs investments in this new technology to enable mass-scale expansion. As teachers who devote our lives to nurturing a healthy young generation to guarantee a healthy future for society, we are not opposed to investing our pensions in new and emerging technologies which have great potential to benefit society. However, we take issue with investing our pension monies in a company engaged in extortion.

So what is SCIH trying to obtain through force and threats? The objective of this U.S. holding company is to further increase its profits by removing any obstacles hindering its exploitation of a valuable and critical Canadian resource. This includes stable unionized jobs that uphold high health, safety, and quality standards. The company aims to accomplish this through contracting out and other changes to work rules, which it refers to as “flexibility.” Under such arrangements, workers are expected to compromise the high standards they have developed over generations to sustain production.

As teachers, we have experienced similar rhetoric about “flexibility.” During the pandemic, we were expected to be “flexible” regarding our health, safety, and working conditions, while the government made daily announcements about our working conditions without consulting or negotiating with us. We are not against being flexible, but we are against union-busting and dictate because our working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Through conversations with salt workers on the picket line, we have learned that the company’s notion of flexibility involves pushing workers and machines to their breaking points solely to achieve favourable numbers and personal gain, regardless of the consequences for people, production, the city, and the country. In other words it is not sustainable and is rightfully being rejected by the workers.

SCIH must stop its extortion racket and respect the workers’ right to decide their wages and working conditions. Teachers are determined to make sure our Pension Plan is not used to finance causes which go against the interests of the workers and our country. Salt is a valuable resource and our workers are invaluable to us. SCIH should smarten up and stop prolonging this strike with its extortion tactics. The more they persist, the more teachers will advocate for our demand that our pension funds not be invested in union-busting and anti-social companies

Negotiate! Don’t Dictate!

*Enver Villamizar is a high school teacher in Windsor, Ontario.