When the owner of Tara Mines, Boliden, took aggressive action to lay off workers last month, the workers responded swiftly by blockading the mine. John Whelan reports on the background to the dispute and how it developed.
Tara Mines: A Background
Tara Mines is a zinc and lead and silver mine discovered in 1973 near Navan in Co Meath. In 1975 when initially licenced the government had a 15% stake in the mine. Extraction began in 1977.
From 1979 to 1989 Tara Mines were producing, but were doing so at a loss. Government sold its stake in 1989, leaving Finnish firm Outokumpu to manage what remains the largest zinc mine in Europe.
After 15 years under the Finns, Swedish firm Boliden bought Tara Mines in 2004, and it was Boliden’s decision to shut down production this spring that sparked the mine blockades.
Zinc is the primary ore mined. Zinc is essential for the production of the technology needed for solar panels and as an anti-corrosive in solar and wind power production. The price of zinc has roughly averaged 2500 USD per metric tonne over the 19 year period coinciding with the Boliden management.
Mining is chiefly construction and engineering work. 200 workers under contracting companies outside of direct Boliden employment were on site for particular projects, but Boliden directly employed 650 workers in Tara. They were organised under construction branches of Ireland’s two largest general unions: SIPTU and Unite the union. A minority are in the construction and engineering union Connect. The three unions have a shop steward system communicating with specific officials in their head offices in Dublin. Throughout their disputes and negotiations since the beginning of the mine, workers have built up a range of company benefits like underground and night pay rates and various benefits which acknowledge the difficult and hazardous tasks of maintaining and extending the mine while extracting and shipping over two million metric tonnes for refinement out of Tara every year. Mining remains one of the top ten most dangerous trades globally and within Ireland.
How the Dispute Began
Management made the formal announcement that the mine would go into ‘care and maintenance’ at a meeting of workers on the evening of the 13 June.
Some workers reported having heard rumours of layoffs as early as 31 May. Although there had been time for engagement with the unions, the company offered nothing significant for the workers.
Care and maintenance only requires a bare minimum of staff and would indicate that up to 90% of workers could be laid off.
Workers were based locally. Some commuted from Cavan. The mine’s importance to the local economy is hard to underestimate. Many families’ incomes are completely dependent on the work and surrounding support industries. Some workers only learned of the announcements when coming up from the 1,000 metre deep mine on 13 June the night of the announcement. It was a shock not not just because of how Boliden, as a partner in the community, suddenly and coldly cast the workers aside, but also because the motivation was one of site profitability and not the financial viability of the entire enterprise.
Boliden cited lower zinc prices and higher energy costs but workers know of Boliden’s vast cash reserves as a multibillion euro company. They also knew the resulting losses to workers’ incomes over the period of layoff. The layoff would mean many would have to find other employment quickly. Workers we spoke to at the blockades had questions about the relatively recent change in site management and how consulting company PWC was reported to have given advice on the operation of the site two months previously. Workers reported management told them recently they had decided to reject consultancy’s cost-cutting advice. Could it have been much worse for the workers if they had followed it?
The reports on the lead up to the layoff announcement means little now. The coming ‘care and maintenance’ period is generally seen by staff we spoke to as a way to reduce headcount at Tara by exhausting people. Workers seemed absolutely sure the layoff would genuinely be temporary because they have first hand knowledge of a more recently discovered orebody worth €700 million in the area which they were tunnelling toward. Workers reported that Boliden is currently operating 7-8 mines and has active profitable smelting facilities in Finland and Sweden. On a 5 year scale the company was experiencing nothing out of the ordinary. Boliden had also stressed that the mine was not for sale.
Workers in Distress
‘It was a big surprise. We put our daughter in school here’, said one worker who said they had put ‘a lot of time in promoting’ the mine to school leavers as a place to work.
‘The mine is a living entity,’ one worker noted, recounting how he watched the contracting crews he had worked with for months getting their notice a month earlier. He talked about the ‘pints and hugs’ in the pub as they went off to start again hunting for jobs and relocating. He wasn’t aware then that his job was set for virtually the same fate.
Despite the three unions suggesting a package of ‘cost-saving and operational improvements’ for the site at talks which started on 19 June, the talks ended a day later. Talks went almost nowhere. The company touted high electricity costs and low zinc prices combining to make production ‘unsustainable’ and confirming its intention to layoff the workers and shut down the mine.
‘Layoffs are not redundancies’ one worker clarified, ‘but it means we don’t have access to a lot of things we depended on: our terms and conditions included good underground pay, pension payments, mental health support services, a gym… it’s depressing.’
‘If we just knew when they were going to reopen – or that they are going to reopen soon, we could plan. Do we take a holiday? Do we change houses or schools? It’s all “Who knows?”
‘The (zinc) orebody found here is the second biggest in the world. It’s worth €700 million to the company. Why not help out for now? They own 7 or 8 mines. They own smelters in Finland. They shouldn’t put us off the cliffedge.’
Decisions for Action: ‘Work, Home or the Gate’?
On 5 July, the evening workers who were due to go underground instead mounted a blockade on the entrances and exits to the site. On 6 July, workers responded to the sharp turn by Boliden to lay all workers off and place them on state benefits. The morning shift and numerous admin staff amassed at the main gate. Smaller groups stayed on service gates crucially preventing railcars with over €2 million in ore from leaving the site. The workers were obviously very unhappy with the bare minimum treatment. They stayed overnight.
On 6 July the blockade at the main gate had about 150 workers milling around without picket signs or union flags. Next to them just off the road were small collapsible marquees and three or four vans loosely stocked with food and equipment if it rained. It was sunny. People were talking.
The blockades continued until late in the day, but a series of four impromptu gate meetings were called by union workers and union officials. There was no unified advice from the union officials who came to advise the workers. The SIPTU official noted that there were different opinions and different unions but explained the problems with unofficial action and how Boliden said they would refuse reentering WRC talks while the blockades were ongoing. The idea was raised that consideration had to be made for procedure and that official talks were how gains were made and that there is little point in staying outside. The blockades had to come down for talks to recommence, according to the SIPTU official. They had to come down for official strike action to be taken too.
By contrast, a Unite member argued that the blockade was where the workers’ power lay – it was the workers on their own through the blockade who had put the closure on the national news reigniting hopes of concessions and giving Boliden a need to seek out union officials to convince the workers to stand down and relay the company’s ‘refusal to talk to the workers’ to the workers.
‘The only power we’ve seen in the last 18 hours is our power over the blockade. The danger is in forfeiting that power,’ another worker said. ‘I didn’t get any sleep last night because I was here. But the managers didn’t sleep either. What stopped the train was this action. You could not have stopped one and half million in ore without this’.
Other workers noted that in reality it was Boliden’s refusal to meet which was holding up further WRC talks, not the workers’ blockade. They realised that without the blockade (which they had been minutes from ending) there would be no further material reason for Boliden to negotiate a better layoff package before the company’s artificial deadline announcement, nor any attention from political parties, nor any reason for the news vans which had just pulled up.
As these discussions continued, Unite’s regional coordinating officer arrived and also spoke to the workers.
Workers United and Independent
This fourth meeting was the largest and saw Unite’s regional coordinating officer and SIPTU official both present their views. The workers were caught up on the view the Unite workers had come to accept in their discussions: 1) the blockades got the company talking; 2) it was the company who was at fault for not engaging in talks and there was no procedural impediment to Boliden talking; 3) workers have more to gain from maintaining the blockades; 4) the company increased its risk with the workers withholding labour and the shipment; 5) the blockade should stay.
Unite’s official reminded them it was up to them to decide together and that the officials were not able to decide and that it would be wrong for the union to presume command. SIPTU’s official pushed for a decision so that talks could get started. But the big decisions were being made internally. The workers listened to the two views: one seemed to be saying keep it official and that will allow you to use the procedures that will bring modest but stable gains; the other saying you are running this blockade because you have the need to run it and the power to run it. And we the union officials are separate and actually weaker than the workers themselves in this conflict at this moment. The reason being the industrial relations laws that bind trade unions to procedures. That means official trade union action can’t wield the power you have in your hands now.
Workers reacted to the debate with frustration at the obvious split in the unions’ different politics and the officials’ different perspectives. The dissonance was frustrating for the workers who needed a decision. A quote from the middle of the crowd: ‘Do we go back in, go home, or go on the gate? This man’s from a different union. We’ve got two different unions here. Two different ideas. We pay you guys to show us the way. We’ve got to stay together.’
The Unite official responded: ‘Workers made an independent decision here today. The officials take an official position. Workers made their own because engagement hasn’t worked. No matter what you decide to do today, we can’t get to official industrial action soon enough to affect things.’ He was referring to the need for 7 days’ notice of official industrial action by the 1990 Industrial Relations Act. Unions are bound by these rules and if they break them they face crushing financial penalties. Layoffs were set to start in about 8 days.
The SIPTU official urged calm. He made comparisons with the 2001 dispute which was temporary, but he was quickly cut off by a worker who said ‘I wasn’t here in 2001 and neither were the management running the mine today. This is a different time.’
The meeting continued with SIPTU and Unite officials were aware of their differences but it didn’t prevent discussion. But the approaches were different. It came down to how each union’s history and policies, the temperament and experience of their officials, stewards and membership. And it also depended on how they saw their own agency in relation to each other and in relation to the employers and the state.
The meeting broke up with a decision to keep the blockade up until workers could discuss it further. The officials went back to the company later on to report that the workers would keep the blockade going. The ball was in Boliden’s court.
The outcome of the 6th was talks, but on the workers’ terms. That is, Boliden conceded to return to the WRC where they did talk to workplace reps and union officials while Tara mine was still blockaded, including the ore shipment.
The company conceded 1) a return for any current workers on their same terms and conditions (not a real concession but an obligation); 2) a small increase in the number of staff kept on through ‘care and maintenance’ phase; 3) an increase in the terms and conditions for those staying on 4) a company top up of 65 euro weekly to all on lay-off. The workers ultimately voted to accept this package by a 60-40 margin.
Could this have been rejected to the workers’ benefit instead? Quite possibly. That’s what 40% thought, but 60% said ‘this is enough’ or at least ‘as much as we will get’. Either way, it was the decision to uphold the blockade that gave the workers more leverage. Ultimately, Boliden did engage in talks – and the workers were in a much stronger position when they did.
This dispute highlights the need for a rank and file, fighting trade union strategy. Union officials often play a conservative role in holding back workers’ struggles, urging them to play by the rules and give up their leverage. Even where the officials might not want to do this, they are tied by draconian laws like the 1990 Industrial Relations Act.
The only way to overcome this is to build grassroots, democratic, fighting unions, where workers themselves take the lead and are not beholden to union officials.
We saw something of this at Tara Mines – a glimpse of what might be possible.