Western Forest Products, striking union start talks

Western Forest Products and its unionized workers will head back to the bargaining table next week in a bid to end a protracted and bitter labour dispute.

Following hard on the heels of a massive union rally in Nanaimo this week on the same day the publicly traded Western released a bleak financial report, the two sides will sit down with mediators on Tuesday to try and end the 19-week strike.

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“I’ll reserve my optimism,” said Steelworkers Local 1937 president Brian Butler. He said they have already been to the mediation table four times with the company.

The company’s insistence on major concessions from the workforce on items such as pension plans, job security and a two-tiered wage structure has scuttled talks each time, Butler said, and until they are taken off the table, there’s unlikely to be a deal.

Nearly 3,000 Western Forest Products employees and contracted workers at six Island manufacturing plants and timberlands around the coast have been on strike since July 1.

The strike has taken a toll on both sides with workers trying to subsist on savings, while the company has been racking up major losses.

Western’s third-quarter earnings report, released Wednesday, showed it had lost $18.7 million in the last three months to the end of September.

During the same period last year, it had $15.1 million in profit.

Year-to-date the tale, exacerbated by difficult markets in the U.S. and Japan, was worse with a net loss of $17.5 million compared to a profit of $3.9 million in the first nine months of 2018.

Western chief executive Don Demens said the strike and difficult markets have contributed to the financial situation, though he stressed “most of the erosion in performance is driven by the markets.”

He cited the ongoing softwood lumber dispute, extreme weather in the U.S. and a lack of labour having an impact on U.S. homebuilding, while Japanese subsidies to its manufacturing sector have enabled Japanese competitors to eat into B.C.’s marketshare.

Demens said 2019 has been a challenging year so far, though he also said if they can get past this labour dispute there is reason for optimism for the entire industry.

He noted the North American building outlook is positive, with increased lumber consumption expected with wood used to build multi-family and large buildings, and the renovation and repair market appears strong.

“I think it emphasizes the need for everyone to get back to the table and back to work because it’s in no one’s interests to have customers not purchasing from the coast,” he said.

“We recognize the impact this strike has had on the employees, their families and the contractors on the Island as well as the communities and importantly our customers. All along we have been committed to reaching a reasonable agreement,” Demens said.

For Western, that agreement would look a lot like the one signed in the Interior that offered wage increases, while the Steelworkers point out the two industries are vastly different and the sticking point with Western has always been the insistence on concessions.

Still, Demens said: “I think we all know where the settlement zone is.”

He wants to dispel the notion that Western has not wanted to bargain or has been intransigent in its bargaining position — a refrain heard often during Thursday’s rally.

“We had made an offer to go to binding arbitration. I think that squelches the idea that we are not willing to talk about all issues,” he said.

“I don’t know how a company is viewed as digging in when we are willing to go to binding arbitration and have a third party have a big say in the outcome of the contract.

“I don’t think the facts support the story.”

For Butler, who goes into talks with a dose of skepticism, the union remains firm in its position. “I think [Western] completely underestimated the strength and will of our members,” he said.

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