BC forest Steelworkers issue 72 hr. strike notice

The union representing more than 7,000 of British Columbia's coastal forest workers issued a 72-hour notice to strike yesterday afternoon to International Forest Products Ltd., the last holdout in labour talks aimed at keeping those workers off picket lines. Talks that went through yesterday afternoon went "nowhere," said United Steelworkers negotiator Bob Matters.

"We were at the same place we were when we met a week ago," he said. That set the stage for immediate job action by the 4,500 employees of 31 companies who were issued similar notice weeks ago. Workers at Island Timberlands LP and TimberWest Forest Corp. are eligible to strike today, although Mr. Matters said yesterday afternoon that the decision on when to set up picket lines has not yet been made. "We are not releasing our actual rollout strategies just yet," he said.

Workers at Hayes Forest Services did walk off the job briefly yesterday, but were soon brought back to work. Steelworkers researcher Kim Pollock said the union would prefer "everyone to go together," meaning a complete walkout may not happen for several days.

Coastal logging, sawmill and lumber manufacturing workers have been without a contract since mid-June. The union had kept its workers on the job to prevent hurting the companies it was still talking to, since some of its members work as contractors.

Much of the timber harvested by the $2-billion coastal industry is exported to Asia and the U.S., so the impact of a dried-up lumber supply on other forestry-dependent sectors was not immediately clear.

However, observers have said a strike on the coast, where labour frictions extend back many decades, could easily last the duration of the summer, knocking out the main employer in many small forestry towns. It could also potentially force closures at many of the pulp and paper mills that depend on chips and other raw materials from union-run operations.

Many of those operations have said they have a two to four week supply and Kevin Mason, an analyst with Equity Research Associates, said a long enough strike could take enough capacity out of North American paper markets to boost languishing prices.

"There's a $25 increase that's been announced for September in newsprint and it has no hope of success unless there's capacity taken out of the market," he said. "Some people say 600,000-700,000 tonnes of capacity needs to be taken out. You take a look at Catalyst [Paper Corp.] and there you go."

Smaller value-added flooring and panel industries that depend on some of the coast's towering cedars could also feel a severe pinch, he said. However, other types of forest products are in large enough supply that "throughout Vancouver you're just going to click along and it's not going to be even a hiccup," he said.

"There's not a lack of newsprint out there, so it's not like the Vancouver Sun is going to run out of paper."

The provincial government was forced to step in with an imposed settlement during the last strike, in 2003. Provisions granted to industry in that settlement by mediator Don Munroe have formed the basis of the current dispute, with the union attempting to roll back some of those issues -- which it says harm workers -- and industry arguing that, with the soaring loonie and basement lumber prices, its economic situation is so dire it cannot afford to make any concessions.

With that as a backdrop, months of talks achieved virtually no compromise on three key issues: partial-closure several pay, contracting-out and alternate-shifting, a provision which allowed employers a nearly unfettered ability to rapidly switch workers onto different shifts in the interest of efficiency.

Interfor negotiator Andy Smith accused the Steelworkers of bringing forward a series of unacceptable propositions in its last round of bargaining yesterday.

"On the fundamental issues we don't seem to be able to get through that this industry is bleeding from stem to stern," he said. "Why they think this is the time to draw the line in the sand over putting in an overtime premium for Sunday, which Mr. Munroe saw his way clear to remove last go-around, is beyond me. How's that supposed to work?"


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