Western Forest Products, union return to mediated negotiations

Western Forest Products and its striking workforce are heading back to mediated talks.

According to the company, Western and United Steelworkers Local 1-1937, will be back at the bargaining table working with mediator Vince Ready on Sept. 13.

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“We look forward to resuming discussions with the USW to negotiate a collective agreement that creates certainty for our employees, while maintaining Western’s competitive position during this particularly challenging time for the forest industry,” Western chief executive Don Demens said in a statement on Wednesday.

“It is important that we resume operations to supply our customers who, through their purchases, create thousands of jobs in B.C.”

The strike, which started on Canada Day, affects all of Western’s six Island manufacturing plants and timberland operations, effectively sidelining nearly 3,000 Western employees and contracted workers.

The labour dispute was expected to last a long time after both sides appeared deeply entrenched two weeks ago when the company sent notice it would no longer fund premiums to ensure the continuation of benefits for striking workers.

At the same time, the Steelworkers reiterated its position that until the company changed its tune on concessions, little progress could be made.

The union said the company wants concessions on pension plans, security and a two-tiered wage structure, which it calls non-starters.

Both sides in the dispute have already had preliminary meetings with Ready.

On another acrimonious front, Western said it was pleased a North American Free Trade Agreement panel has asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to reconsider a ruling on injuries suffered by the U.S. lumber industry.

“While we are pleased with the panel’s decision to send the industry’s injury case back to the USITC for review, we are disappointed that the panel did not make a similar finding in relation to the USITC’s ruling that cedar/redwood is a distinct product group from commodity structural lumber,” said Demens.

“Softwood lumber duties continue to disproportionately impact high-value, specialty wood products, including western red cedar, that have been unfairly brought into the dispute over structural lumber.”

Susan Yurkovich, president of the B.C. Lumber Trade Council said she was pleased the panel noted the original injury determination was flawed in a number of respects.

She also noted it was par for the course as in previous softwood lumber litigation, not one of the USITC’s affirmative determinations on injury survived appeal to a NAFTA or WTO panel. “In its decision, the NAFTA panel rightly questioned how the USITC could reach an affirmative determination of injury when the U.S. industry was enjoying the most profitable period in its history without evaluating the industry’s performance in light of the business cycle, particularly in the wake of the recession of 2008-2009,” she said.

The panel has given the USITC 90 days to issue a new determination.

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