New forestry talks aim to clear strike logjam

The union representing 3,000 striking coastal forest workers is holding out a glimmer of hope that a round of bargaining scheduled for this week could translate into a new contract before Christmas.

Western Forest Products’ employees and contracted workers at six Island manufacturing plants and timberlands around the coast have been on strike since July 1. “It’s difficult to be optimistic at this point, but for the sake of our members, I’m always somewhat hopeful that something can get done,” said United Steelworkers president Brian Butler, shortly after news broke that the company had agreed to return to mediated bargaining on Thursday in Nanaimo.

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Butler said the union has been asking to get back to the bargaining table since talks broke off in late November, but it wasn’t until Tuesday that Western contacted mediators Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers and agreed to meet.

With Mosaic Forest Management, which manages forests for TimberWest and Island Timberlands, curtailing harvesting operations Nov. 25, about 5,000 forest workers are now off the job on the coast.

The United Steelworkers Union has said the major issues remain alternate shifts, which allow the company to compress work weeks and extend working hours in the logging and manufacturing divisions, and a drug and alcohol policy that the union says targets workers rather than helping them.

“We do have some stumbling blocks that have us stalemated,” said Butler. “We hope to break through and find some common ground and resolve these issues.”

A Western representative could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Butler said he’s aware the strike, now in its 24th week, has taken a financial toll on communities and forestry contractors on the Island, with his members taking the biggest hit. But they remain committed to the cause, he said.

“We met with the leadership a week ago and it was unanimous that we need to stick with these issues,” he said. “Sure, there’s people hurting all over the place, and we do our best to try and stay on top of cases of hardship, but the membership is very committed to seeing this through to make sure there is real change.”

As he has throughout the dispute, Butler rejected any suggestion of binding arbitration or government intervention, something Western chief executive Don Demens suggested this week.

“Government is absolutely doing the right thing — they should not be intervening in a private-sector labour dispute that is not an essential service,” he said. “I can see why Don Demens would like binding arbitration to force a binding solution … but rather than Don Demens waiting for someone else to do his work, he needs to get to the bargaining table and deal with these issues.”

The Steelworkers have argued it was government intervention and a binding-arbitration process in 2004 that led to the current strike. They claim that process stripped away previously negotiated rights for workers to vote on alternate shifts and their work schedules.

For his part, Premier John Horgan has shown no appetite to get involved in the dispute.

He recently told Postmedia the two sides are already working with Ready at the bargaining table.

“I’m hopeful that there will be resolution the next day or so with respect to the coastal forest industry. But these are impasses that are a result of low market prices, a softwood lumber dispute with the U.S., [and] an inability for the parties to come to an appropriate resolution through negotiations,” he said.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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