Picket lines went up at Western Forest Products mills and logging operations on the coast, including the Chemainus sawmill, as of 4 p.m. on Canada Day.
United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 issued 72-hour strike notice Friday afternoon following a 98.8 per cent vote among its members in favour of taking strike action.
“Due to the fact that Western Forest Products has not seriously addressed the local union’s proposals and because WFP continues to keep massive concessions on the bargaining table that threaten our members, the local union issued Western Forest Products Inc. 72 hours notice of strike action at 3:45 p.m. on Friday, June 28,” read a statement from the union.
Western Forest Products Inc. confirmed in a statement that approximately 1,500 of the company’s hourly employees and 1,500 employees working for the company’s timberlands operators and contractors in B.C. commenced a strike as of 3:45 p.m. Canada Day. The strike affects all of the company’s United Steelworkers certified manufacturing and timberlands operations in B.C.
Western and the USW have been in negotiations since April for a new collective agreement to replace the prior five-year agreement that expired in mid-June. The company noted it applied to the B.C. Labour Relations Board on June 25 for the appointment of a mediator to assist in negotiations and made multiple requests to meet with the USW and a mediator, but the USW had not agreed to meet to date.
“It is extremely disappointing that the USW has chosen to take strike action,” said Don Demens, president and chief executive officer of Western. “After cancelling scheduled bargaining sessions and refusing mediation, it’s clear that the USW is intent on inflicting damage to the coastal forest industry which already faces significant market challenges, including having to pay the highest softwood lumber duties for shipments to the United States of any jurisdiction in Canada and the loss of market share in Japan due to Japanese government subsidies for their domestic industry.
“We remain hopeful that they will agree to meet with a mediator so as to minimize the disruption on our employees, communities and customers.”
The union countered in its statement it is available to bargain with WFP at any time and “we believe an agreement can be reached quickly once talks resume.”
The strike action, the union statement added, was not taken lightly. But it wanted to send a message that the membership’s proposals need to be seriously addressed and concessions removed entirely as well as rescinding all cancellation letters regarding local agreements and practices.
At the Chemainus sawmill, the picket line will be manned 24/7 – at least in the beginning. Plant chairman Randy Robertson said he wasn’t really surprised the union is at this point with the company.
“We’ve been having issues with this company for some time,” he conceded. “I expected to go on strike.
“We’ll see what happens. We’re hoping they’re willing to negotiate a fair contract for us.”
“Western Forest Products, they really don’t care about the people that work for them,” said 26-year employee Brian Bull.
A local agreement where members work in teams on a number of jobs and rotate on those jobs each work day is a big issue in Chemainus and in jeopardy of being compromised.
“The job I’ve done for over 10 years, they’ve told me I’m going to take a $2.51 pay cut,” noted Bull. “They’ve deemed it to be what it’s worth.”
The job rotation system has been hailed for its innovation, yet faces uncertainty in these negotiations.
“It’s better on your mind, better on your body,” said Robertson. “It takes the monotony out of it. The team system at this mill has made the mill more profitable.”
There have been numerous issues between the company and employees in recent years.
“It’s frustrating coming to work every day,” conceded Bull.