More than 2,000 workers at a Vale nickel mine in Sudbury, Ont., are continuing their strike after their union, United Steelworkers Local 6500, rejected the company’s five-year contract proposal, which cuts health and medical benefits for existing and future employees.

The June 14 offer was Vale’s second since the workers went on strike June 1, according to a press release by the union. The initial proposal from the company suggested cutting coverage of over-the-counter medications for existing employees and eliminating the retiree health and medical benefits for future hires, replacing it with a $1,000 health-care spending account, says Pascal Boucher, area coordinator for northeastern Ontario at the United Steelworkers.

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Currently, employees’ over-the-counter medications are covered, as long as they have a prescription from their family doctors, he adds. The company’s latest proposal would still remove coverage for over-the-counter drugs, with the exception of any medications included on an approved list by the company, says Boucher. “Wear and tear is a big factor in our industry after retirement so many of the arthritic medications that retired members tap into are available over the counter . . .  [and this coverage] is something retired members need, especially on a reduced monthly income.”

The union also says the replacement $1,000 health-care spending account would “take away nearly 80 per cent of the coverage for future hires currently provided under the existing plan.” Right now, says Boucher, Vale’s retiree benefits cover individuals’ surviving spouses and their own medical benefits after retirement. He points out the current plan doesn’t have a cap and the proposed $1,000 cap could be worth as little as $300 in future dollars at the time of retirement due to the cost of living going up for some members.

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In the release, the union said Vale offered “little, to nothing, in terms of pension improvements and annual wage increases of one per cent after accounting for cost-of-living adjustments.” And though the company proposed an increase for workers in the defined benefit pension plan, which the union called “menial,” Boucher says the offer didn’t include increases in its contributions to members in the defined contribution pension plan.

As well, the organization revoked a $2,500 coronavirus pandemic bonus it had previously offered to its Sudbury employees in its first contract proposal. Last year, the union was in a bargaining position when the pandemic was first declared and the country shut down, says Boucher, so the union decided to ratify a one-year collective agreement without wage increases. As the union’s members were deemed essential and continued to work throughout the pandemic, he says they’re now looking for something to compensate them for the lost increases from 2020.

Representatives for Vale didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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