Canada USW, forest companies reach stalemate in union negotiations

Over the weekend, nearly 6,500 members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union’s Wood Council in British Columbia went on strike, following a stalemate in negotiations with 31 member companies of Forest Industrial Relations [FIR], a bargaining group; Island Timberlands, a private forestry company; and timber company International Forest Products (InterFor).

The British Columbia coastal region accounts for 12 percent of total British Columbian softwood lumber production and 6 percent of total Canadian production, according to RISI (Resource Information Systems).

The USW issued a 72-hour strike warning that expired on July 21. InterFor workers joined the strike on Saturday.

“This strike is about stopping the race to the bottom that all forest workers are facing,” said Steve Hunt, USW Western Canada director.

Among the core issues argued by the USW are requests for severance for all workers affected by permanent mill closures -- including employees who were laid off during downtime, prior to the permanent closure of the mill. The union also is requesting more input in making employee shift schedules and a halt to companies’ use of contracted, non-union employees to participate in union negotiations.

Several British Columbia-based forest products companies are affected by the strike, including West Fraser, one of North America’s largest lumber producers.

FIR, which represents West Fraser, Western Forest Products and 29 other large lumber producers, has argued conditions are difficult across the industry, and further concessions would put a further dent in an already difficult market.

Terry Lineker, CEO of FIR, said the market pressures faced by forest products companies mean employers must remain competitive or risk a position that “will severely damage the industry.”

FIR has proposed a wage increase of 2 percent effective June 15 of this year, and an additional 3 percent on June 15, 2008. The bargaining group also offered gain sharing “if FIR companies recover from the current downturn,” and agreed to some improvements in shift scheduling, according to a statement from FIR.

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