Strikers bitter over flexibility in labor contract

As the second week of the coastal forestry strike winds down, the mood on the picket line suggests this is just the tip of the iceberg and the forest industry could be facing a long-term fight.

Sheltered from the beating sun and 30-degree weather by a small cloth tent, striking Steelworkers Union members at Western Forest Products' Chemainus sawmill were upbeat and relaxed yesterday. But despite the buoyant mood the workers made it clear they are determined to make changes to the agreement that has ruled the coast for the last three years. "I think this could be a long one, a lot of the guys believe in what they are doing this time and the companies want what they want pretty bad," said Warren Chadwick, a trimline operator who has been at the mill for 10 years but in the industry for much longer than that. "Nothing was resolved last time, and it's that lack of resolution that's the problem."

Coastal forestry workers had a three-year contract imposed on them by a government-appointed mediator in 2004, which, among other things, afforded forest companies more flexibility in the way it scheduled work.

Both sides of the current dispute admit the job action has nothing to do with wages or benefits.

And while there are a number of issues separating the two sides, the strike appears to hinge on scheduling, which the imposed agreement allowed companies the right to do without consulting employees.

The union claims it has meant unsafe conditions and hours that take too much of a toll in physically demanding jobs while robbing families of normalcy as shifts can change on a whim. The companies counter they need the flexibility to reduce costs as they face the challenge of a strong Canadian dollar, a 15 per cent surcharge on exports to the U.S. market and an American housing industry in a severe slump.

"Any problems that existed [in 2004] exist now, only things have been [magnified] through that time frame," said Chadwick.

Shawn Holmes, who has worked as a trimline operator for nearly 10 years at Chemainus, said the union is more galvanized as the strike has progressed and is in it for the long haul.

"We believe we are on strike for the right reasons. We got rooked last time and I think we are stuck in, there's a feeling this is going to be the one that is either going to change things or not change things," he said, adding they don't want another mediated settlement.

"Government sure didn't do us any favours last time and I don't think we're looking for them to do it again," Holmes said. "But they are so far apart I don't know what's going to happen."

That doesn't mean these workers are content to put in their shifts on the picket line and pick up their strike pay which is a small fraction of their regular cheques.

Many of them admit they are sick and tired of mill closures and being in and out of work. Some are weighing their options outside the forest industry.

"I had an interview yesterday," said Holmes. "And I know there's a good percentage of us who are not going to come back if [the strike] lasts any longer than three or four months."

For Randy Robertson, it would be the end of three generations working in the industry.

"Realistically I will not be retiring from this industry," he said, noting he has 20 years of worklife ahead of him. "I would say this is the last stop, the time to get off the bus because that's what its come to.

"The way things are going I'm being pushed out the door," he said, adding he has considered leaving the industry for years. "And there are good paying jobs out there right now in construction."

This early in the strike, the financial effects of being out of work have not yet hit hard, but they will on both sides, said Chadwick.

"Anyone on a picket line knows this is not a win-win, it's a lose-lose situation," he said, noting companies will lose market share and get stuck with inventory, while workers are left without their paycheques.


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