July 9, 2009
BURNABY, BC – The United Steelworkers Provincial Negotiating Committee (PNC) faces tough sets of contract talks in the BC Interior Forest Industry to renew collective agreements which expired on July 1, 2009.
The PNC will meet with the Council on Northern Interior Employment Relations (CONIFER) in Prince George.
The union’s membership has been heavily hit by a series of layoffs in northern and southern Interior regions. Between 3,000 to 4,000 members are affected by both temporary and indefinite shutdowns.
The global economic crisis and meltdown in lumber markets, along with a rising Canadian dollar, have taken their toll on the industry and its workforce.
“We have not seen a set of economic circumstances that are this serious since the early 1980s,” says USW Wood Council Bob Matters, who heads up the committee which includes Local 1-405 president Stan McMaster, Local 1-417 president Marty Gibbons, Local 1-423 president Bruce Gardner, Local 1-424 president Frank Everitt and Local 1-425 president Bill Derbyshire.
Matters notes that US lumber markets are about half of what they were in earlier 2008.“Even if the companies had free labour they would not be able to sell more lumber in this downturn,” he notes.
CONIFER represents operations including Tolko Abitibi-Bowater, Ainsworth OS, Carrier Lumber, Conifex, Dunkley Lumber Ltd., Excel Transportation, Hampton Babine, Lakeland Mills Ltd., Stuart Lake Lumber, Tolko Industries (Lakeview Lumber Division, Quest Wood Division and Soda Creek) West Fraser Mills Williams Lake Division and Winton Global Lumber Ltd. The other three main negotiating tables in the Interior will be with the employer association Interior Forest Labour Relations Association, Canadian Forest Products and West Fraser Timber.
The union will be beating back the corporations’ attempts to extract wage concessions from the union.“We have already told this industry that we don’t want to talk concessions, but that we do want to talk about working with the industry to make it more competitive, more innovative and look at processes which produce new product lines,” says Matters. “Current layoffs and mill shutdowns are not being caused by union wages and benefits. They are being caused by the steep downturn and disappearance of lumber markets."
Current lumber prices are bobbing up and below the $200 per thousand board feet for Spruce/Pine/Fir 2 x 4’s, while July lumber future are being sold at $182.10, and September futures are at $204.20. November futures are lower yet.
“Our membership has worked diligently with these employers to improve production and has bent over backwards in being ‘flexible’,” says Matters. “It’s up to the industry to be much more creative than simply call for rollbacks.”
Matters says that job security issues are at the forefront for USW members. “Many of our members have been laid off for extended periods of time. Some are coming up to two years and some have gone over the time when their seniority protection has expired under the collective agreement,” he adds. “The industry and government have to take steps to keep our people employed in and near their communities,” says Matters. “Too many members, especially in communities like MacKenzie, have been forced to leave town because they can’t support their families on EI or when their EI runs out.”Workers are being forced to leave town. In Mackenzie there are many 4 bedroom homes on the market for under $100,000. “This industry has to do more to keep workers and communities intact,” says Matters. ”We can talk about ways of doing that at the bargaining table.”
In the north the PNC has exchanged proposals with Canfor’s northern operations and West Fraser. The union also has two Canfor operations in the southern Interior, which it will negotiate with.
In the south, the union has exchanged proposals with the Interior Forest Lumber Relations Association which has member companies including Ainsworth (Savona and Lilloett), Aspen Industries, Aspen Planers, Atco Wood Products, Galloway Lumber, Selkirk Forest Products, Springer Creek Forest Products, Tembec (Elko, Canal Flats, Radium and Woodlands), Tolko (Armstrong stud and plywood, Heffley Creek, Kelowna Lumber and Veneer, Nicola Valley, Lumby and Roads and Woodlands out of Lumby), and Weyerhaeuser Canada.