Tentative deal reached in eight-month forestry labour dispute

Relief over a tentative agreement reached in the longest strike in coastal forest history was tempered in some circles Monday with the realization the industry is still facing problems.

Challenging markets for B.C. wood, the difficulty of restarting a massive industry, loss of workers and equipment and a new operating regime for forest companies all stand in the way of a smooth transition for the industry, according to insiders.

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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.

“It’s not like you just press play here,” said David Elstone, executive director of the Truck Loggers Association, which represents 500 logging contractors. “We’re encouraged the strike is over, but there are a lot of things that will have to be watched to see how they unfold here.

“But obviously not operating was the biggest problem [the coast] had.”

That could soon be a thing of the past.

Just four days after the province re-appointed special mediators with enhanced powers, Western Forest Products and United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 confirmed they have agreed to the terms of a tentative collective agreement.

The agreement is subject to a ratification vote by USW membership. The union’s bargaining committee has advised that it will be recommending that its members accept it, a statement from the company said.

“With the assistance of special mediators Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers, we have reached a fair and equitable agreement that balances the needs of our employees and our business,” said Don Demens, president and chief executive officer of Western Forest Products. “This has been a particularly challenging time and I’m pleased that we were able to find common ground through the efforts of all involved.”

Brian Butler, president of USW Local 1-1937, said details of the agreement will not be released until members have had the opportunity to review and vote on the deal, but it does not contain any concessions, “which was a key mandate from our members.”

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring said news of the settlement comes as a relief, but the coastal forest industry is not out of the woods yet. “My concern now is the environment in which Western is being asked to operate,” he said, pointing to changes such as fees for leaving waste wood in the bush and stumpage-fee increases. “The question is whether the company is going to be able to sustain itself and remain profitable given those regulatory restrictions. The labour situation is resolved, but the broader situation may require another look.”

Siebring said it will be a long time before his community returns to normal, even if workers are back on the job in weeks, as the first cheques will go to pay off the bills incurred over the last eight months.

“It won’t be instantaneous, but what it does do is it injects some optimism back into the economy,” he said.

Elstone said the Truck Loggers Association was relieved when news broke Monday that a deal had been reached.

“It’s amazing what happens when there is a bit of pressure applied,” he said.

Elstone said contractors, “who have had no voice in this,” will finally be able to get back to work after eight months. “They have had to sit idle this whole time and haven’t been receiving strike pay,” he said. “They have been living off the equity and capital they had in their businesses, which took many years to build up.

“For some of them, they will be starting all over again. Some are close to financial ruin.”

In January, the province announced the creation of the $5-million Coastal Logging Equipment Support Trust, offering bridge loans until contractors returned to work. According to the trust, no contractors have applied for the money so far.

Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom, whose community has been hit hard by the strike, was elated by news of the agreement.

“It will take some time for people and businesses to dig out of their financial situations, but it’s wonderful to finally be able to look to the future again.”

Just when loggers and mill workers will be back on the job is up in the air.

As of press time Monday, a date for a ratification vote had not yet been set.

And Elstone said even after the vote, there will be a lot to do before the saws can be fired up.

He said over the last eight months, the industry will have lost workers — unionized employees, contractors and some of their crews who could not wait out the strike. Equipment has also likely been sold by some companies.

“There are practical issues — like does your crew still exist?”

Other challenges Elstone pointed to include the fact some equipment might not be accessible until after the winter, there may be no cut blocks ready to be logged, and contractors will be out of pocket to refuel and move equipment back into place — not to mention weak markets.

The good news, however, is that spring markets are typically better, with more demand for product, he said.

The provincial government stepped into the coastal forest industry strike on Thursday, giving the two mediators special powers to hammer out an agreement.

Labour Minister Harry Bains cited the devastating impact the dispute has had on forestry-dependent communities as the reason the province got involved.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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