A July 2 strike crew at the Cowichan Bay Western Forest Products sawmill. (Citizen file)

Vancouver Island Western Forest Products strike gets “hot”

Federation of Labour supports striking WFP workers with ‘hot edict’; sides argue over mediation

The BC Federation of Labour has announced a “hot edict” on Western Forest Products in a show of solidarity with striking forest workers.

The move, welcomed by the United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 which represents many WFP workers in mills on the Island, means that members of the BCFED’s affiliated unions have been asked to no longer handle any WFP coastal lumber, log and wood products.

Approximately 1,500 of the company’s hourly employees, including hundreds at WFP mills in the mid-Island, and 1,500 employees working for the company’s timberlands operators and contractors in the north Island and across B.C. commenced a strike on Canada Day.

RELATED STORY: STRIKE ACTION COMMENCES AT WFP MILLS

The strike affects all of the company’s United Steelworkers certified manufacturing and timberlands operations in B.C.

“The announcement of a ‘hot edict’ is a significant but necessary escalation in what is frankly an employer-initiated dispute,” said Laird Cronk, president of the BCFED.

“Through the solidarity of affiliated unions, the company’s products could lay dormant.”

Babita Khunkhun, a spokeswoman for Western Forest Products, said the company respects the right of the union to exercise the hot-edict option.

She said WFP has a mitigation plan in place to deal with such situations during the strike, but couldn’t say exactly what the company will do about the hot edict.

“Right now our main focus is on returning to the bargaining table,” she said.

“There are currently no talks taking place, but we’re hopeful that the union will soon come back to the table. We’re ready to resume discussions at any time.”

But on July 12, the Steelworkers issued a press release stating the company has rejected its offer of mediation through Vince Ready, an experienced labour dispute mediator that has worked with the education and construction sectors in the province for many years.

Brian Butler, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-1937, said WFP’s rejection of Ready as a mediator took the union by complete surprise.

“Western Forest Products’ refusal to agree to someone as qualified as Vince Ready is the complete opposite of WFP’s publicly stated position that they want mediation,” he said.

“It is clear by their action that they are not serious about negotiating a collective agreement with our union.”

Susan Dolinski, WFP’s vice president of corporate affairs, said it’s the Labour Relations Board who chooses mediators in these situations, not the union or the company.

She reiterated that WFP is fully committed to negotiating and getting people back to work.

“Both sides want mediation and we recognize that Vince Ready is one of the top mediators in the province,” Dolinski said.

“But we also provided a list (to the LRB) of our preferences for a mediator, including Mark Brown. It’s part of the process for both sides to discuss our preferences for mediators, but there are times when some are available and others are not.”

Dolinski said its notable that the United Steelworkers released the statement alleging WFP is rejecting mediation soon after the LRB ruled a portion of the strike is illegal.

She said approximately 150 of the striking workers, including employees of the Mount Sicker Timber Company, could soon be forced back to work because their strike action was not conducted appropriately.

The United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 have stated that its members, who voted 98.8 per cent in favour of striking, started the job action because the company has not seriously addressed union proposals and continues to keep “massive concessions” on the bargaining table as both sides try to negotiate a new collective agreement.

RELATED STORY: COWICHAN BAY SAWMILL TO SHUTTER OPERATIONS FOR TWO WEEKS

The company has said the strike is taking place at a “very challenging time” for the industry that is facing a market downturn due to low lumber prices and high costs because of the softwood lumber duties.

Steven Hunt, a USW spokesman, said the union is seeking to achieve a new agreement that ensures workers are treated with respect, share in the success of WFP and that benefits that have been successfully achieved in previous bargaining are protected.

“The company is attempting these draconian roll-backs to worker benefits and rights despite continued profitability,” he said.



robert.barron@cowichanvalleycitizen.com

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