United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 members on the picket line Tuesday morning outside the main gate to the Western Forest Products Chemainus sawmill, from left, are: David Karras, Randy Robertson, Brian Bull, Robert Joyce, Brad Mitchell and Kevin Blatchford. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Strike action commences at WFP mills

Union sets up picket lines Monday after issuing 72-hour notice Friday

Picket lines went up at Western Forest Products mills and logging operations on the coast, including the Cowichan Bay sawmill, as of 4 p.m. on Canada Day.

United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 issued 72-hour strike notice Friday afternoon following a 98.8 per cent vote among its members in favour of taking strike action.

“Due to the fact that Western Forest Products has not seriously addressed the local union’s proposals and because WFP continues to keep massive concessions on the bargaining table that threaten our members, the local union issued Western Forest Products Inc. 72-hours notice of strike action at 3:45 p.m. on Friday, June 28,” read a statement from the union.

Western Forest Products Inc. confirmed in a statement that approximately 1,500 of the company’s hourly employees and 1,500 employees working for the company’s timberlands operators and contractors in B.C. commenced a strike as of 3:45 p.m. Canada Day. The strike affects all of the company’s United Steelworkers certified manufacturing and timberlands operations in B.C.

Western and the USW have been in negotiations since April for a new collective agreement to replace the prior five-year agreement that expired in mid-June. The company noted it applied to the B.C. Labour Relations Board on June 25 for the appointment of a mediator to assist in negotiations and made multiple requests to meet with the USW and a mediator, but the USW had not agreed to meet to date.

“It is extremely disappointing that the USW has chosen to take strike action,” said Don Demens, president and chief executive officer of Western. “After cancelling scheduled bargaining sessions and refusing mediation, it’s clear that the USW is intent on inflicting damage to the coastal forest industry which already faces significant market challenges, including having to pay the highest softwood lumber duties for shipments to the United States of any jurisdiction in Canada and the loss of market share in Japan due to Japanese government subsidies for their domestic industry.

“We remain hopeful that they will agree to meet with a mediator so as to minimize the disruption on our employees, communities and customers.”

The union countered in its statement it is available to bargain with WFP at any time and “we believe an agreement can be reached quickly once talks resume.”

The strike action, the union statement added, was not taken lightly. But it wanted to send a message that the membership’s proposals need to be seriously addressed and concessions removed entirely as well as rescinding all cancellation letters regarding local agreements and practices.

At Cowichan Bay sawmill, a group of workers were blocking the main gate, located just off Cowichan Bay Road.

Shop steward Daniel McGonigle spoke for the group who were striking in the rain Tuesday morning, July 2.

“We started at 4 o’clock yesterday. The company and the union have been in a deadlock for a significant amount of time. The union has felt the company has had some very unreasonable demands in their negotiations. They’ve come after our pensions, our vacation times, some floaters. They’ve come after some pretty outrageous stuff. They basically came to a standstill. They didn’t want to negotiate at all. We finished up voting, which was a 98.8 per cent yes for our strike vote. It was for the Steelworkers for the entire Western Forest Products. They issued the strike vote. Western Forest Products tried to issue an emergency injunction, trying to get a 72 hour delay, to try to get us to the Labour Board to try and take their wood out of the salt water into fresh water, to get their wood out of the teredos. But they lost. So we were all sitting at the union hall waiting to hear the judgment and when we found out at 3:50 that the union won the hearing we got the go-ahead to come immediately. We rushed down here to set up our picket line.”

The company sent a porta-potty for the workers who were on strike Tuesday morning.

This was the second lot of pickets. A group had served from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Monday and then another lot came in at 5 a.m. Tuesday.

Strikers say they’ll be there as long as it takes. There are 130-150 workers at the mill. There are also Steelworker contractors, like millworkers.

“It’s not like it used to be, when the forest industry was huge, but there’s still a trickle down effect on the community from a strike. Marpole, Surespan, Promac: they’ll be concerned.

“Lots of the millwrights have already moved on to mines, or Alberta. They’re gone to greener pastures already. They can work anywhere. Even when the strike’s over there’s going to be a lot of guys gone.”

At the Chemainus sawmill, the picket line will be manned 24/7 – at least in the beginning. Plant chairman Randy Robertson said he wasn’t really surprised the union is at this point with the company.

“We’ve been having issues with this company for some time,” he conceded. “I expected to go on strike.

“We’ll see what happens. We’re hoping they’re willing to negotiate a fair contract for us.”

“Western Forest Products, they really don’t care about the people that work for them,” said 26-year employee Brian Bull.

A local agreement where members work in teams on a number of jobs and rotate on those jobs each work day is a big issue in Chemainus and in jeopardy of being compromised.

“The job I’ve done for over 10 years, they’ve told me I’m going to take a $2.51 pay cut,” noted Bull. “They’ve deemed it to be what it’s worth.”

The job rotation system has been hailed for its innovation, yet faces uncertainty in these negotiations.

“It’s better on your mind, better on your body,” said Robertson. “It takes the monotony out of it. The team system at this mill has made the mill more profitable.”

There have been numerous issues between the company and employees in recent years.

“It’s frustrating coming to work every day,” conceded Bull.

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Tuesday’s strike crew at Cowichan Bay sawmill included shop steward, Daniel McGonigle, second from left. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

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