Forestry workers could be back next week: CEO

Western Forest Products workers could be called back to work as early as next week, said the head of the integrated forest company.

Don Demens, Western’s chief executive, said assuming unionized workers vote this week to ratify a new contract, the company will start calling them back to work and re-start operations.

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After eight months on strike, unionized workers will vote on the proposed contract today in Port Alberni, Powell River and Ladysmith, and Friday in Port McNeill, Gold River and Campbell River.

Brian Butler, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-1937, said he’s happy with the deal they have and expects to have voting results by Saturday morning.

Demens would not comment on the deal other than saying he was pleased they have a tentative agreement. “I’m keen to turn the page and get moving and get back to work,” he said, dismissing the idea there will be lingering bad feelings between workers and management despite an acrimonious strike.

“We recognize the strike has been a challenge for everybody, and I’m certainly committed to ensuring we can move forward to build on the progress of the last few weeks and the negotiated settlement,” he said. “The coastal forest business is facing real challenges, and to me it’s more clear than ever that we need everyone working together. I certainly don’t want to revisit what we’ve just gone through ever again.”

A tentative agreement was reached Monday, four days after the province re-appointed special mediators with enhanced powers to work with the two parties.

The strike kept 3,000 Western Forest Products employees and contracted workers on the picket line at six Island manufacturing plants and timberlands since July 1.

The strike had a massive impact on Western’s bottom line last year. In financial results released Wednesday, the company reported a net loss of $46.7 million in 2019, a $115.9 million swing from the $69.2 million profit it recorded in 2018.

The company expects the effects of the eight-month disruption to linger well into this year.

Western expects the first quarter results this year will be affected, though there’s no sense of what that could be. In the first quarter of last year, before the strike, Western reported net income of $1.9 million, a massive drop from the net income of $21.7 million in the first quarter of 2018 and $16.2 million in the same quarter of 2017.

Western’s start-up plan will see employees called back for safety reviews and preparing operations, which Demens said should take a week or so. Production will then start at mills where there are existing logs and market demand.

He would not say which mills were likely to be first, as he intended to inform employees first. The timberlands that are not affected by snowpack will be the first to start operating. “It’s not just a flip of the switch, it will be a gradual ramp-up,” he said.

Western will also be operating in a new environment with a slew of new government regulations and initiatives, some designed to give more access to timber to First Nations, communities and smaller producers.

Some Island communities have expressed concern the new rules will create an environment that will challenge Western financially.

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