by James Chumsa
Vancouver Island sawmill workers employed by Western Forest Products (WFP) are on strike. About 3,000 employees organized with United Steel Workers Local 1-1937 are picketing to save their pensions, seniority rights, and Long Term Disability from being cut by WFP along with several other benefits.
Company cries poor after “record year”
While President and CEO Don Demens claimed early in the year that his company is facing several setbacks and the forestry industry is experiencing weak markets, USW believes otherwise. The union local reported in their March 15 newsletter that WFP is actually doing very well, citing the facts reported a month earlier in a Times-Colonist article titled “Record year for Western Forest Products, Island’s biggest forest company”.
According to financial reports in 2017 and 2018, WFP made over a billion dollars in sales with a net income of $74.4 million and $69.2 million respectively during those years. The salaries of the CEOs and Vice Presidents of the company has been steadily increasing, with Demens making a total of $1.5 million in 2015 to $2 million in 2016 and 2017. Senior Vice President Stephen Williams made half a million in 2015 with $1.1 million in 2016 and $1.2 million in 2017.
The USW bargaining committee noted how Demens reported these supposed setbacks to operations on February 28, three weeks before bargaining began on April 15 where WFP tabled 24 concessions to cut benefits from workers. The USW tabled 65 proposals to protect the rights of their members. The union suspects that the company is making false claims of poor markets as an excuse to cut benefits and reduce wage increases for employees.
The union is currently trying to negotiate a new 3-year contract with WFP to replace the 5-year one that expired in June.
Negotiations scheduled for June were eventually cancelled by the union. According to a statement made in a Chek News by Brian Butler, the local president, the union felt that WFP was ignoring their concerns and that the company’s concessions were too much. Bulter backed the decision to cancel bargaining sessions by saying that “this will apply significant pressure on Western and get them back to the table and get them to remove their concessions from the table and actually seriously deal with our member’s issues.”
On June 10 a strike vote held by Local 1-1937 resulted in an overwhelming 98.8% of members voting “yes” in favour of the action. The official strike began on Monday July 1st at 3:45pm after a 72 hour noticed was delivered the previous Friday to WFP and those contracted to them such as Forest Industry Relations (FIR) and accredited companies.
Many USW members have openly expressed their discontent with WFP on the picket lines with several reasons why. What upset employees the most is that while the company attempts to reduce their benefits and wage increases, the president and vice presidents of the company have received bonuses and pay rises in recent years. The union has noticed that Demens received a 30% increase in his compensation in the two year period from 2016 to 2017 while they feel the 5% wage increase over 5 years the company proposed for it’s employees will not be enough to catch up with the increased cost of living
Injuries, broken equipment, drug policy
Employees were sad to see how many competent sawmill managers have been driven away due to the company’s micro-managing and strict enforcement of production quotas. Trying to meet these high targets in a short amount of has also worn out employees and equipment as well as increased the rate of injury.
There are also reports from mill workers that broken equipment is not being properly repaired, which can severely cause issues with the rate of production and safety risks. At the Duke Point mill, it was reported that they only have one day out of the week to perform maintenance while it used to be two days each week. Workers there feel that only one day a week is not enough to properly maintain their equipment.
Workers are not happy with how WFP handles incident reports. Any worker who is injured, requires first aid, or if equipment is damaged the company can demand a drug test and fire that employee if results are positive. The company has gotten stricter with their drug policy as well as more inconsistent; often choosing to test those who have stood up the company while letting other employees have a pass. Since legalization in October 2018, many employees can legally use marijuana to relax on their days off, but many are worried about how the substance will stay in their system several days after and could appear in the drug tests.
Two-tier wages, scheduling, scare tactics
The company also wants to introduce a two-tier pay system for new employees, where those in training would be only paid 60% of the normal rate. WFP has also reduced the training period from 12 weeks to only 6 weeks.
Scheduled shifts for sawmill workers has been sporadic as many employees are complaining how it is difficult for them to adjust their sleep schedules. One employee said that it is quite common to be put on a 10 hour shift from 5pm to 3am one day, with a day off in between before working another 10 hour shift from 6am-4pm. Another worker said that sometimes they can be scheduled with only 8 hours between two shifts, and one occasion they only managed 4 hours of sleep that night due to the 45 minute commute there and back from home to work plus the fact that traffic was slow due to an accident on the highway.
WFP has announced several shutdowns this year, which the union and many workers believe are being used as a scare tactic. Workers at the Duke Point mill have gone through what they call a “cold shut down” where production is halted but parts of the mill still run such as the planer and employees clock in to do their usual shifts.
Pensions and holidays
WFP has also attempted to replace the employee pension plan with an RSP, which is one of the major issues the union is trying to fight. The cancelling of the old pension plan would be detrimental to those who have been employed by the company and have already been paying into it for several years.
WFP is also also attempting to cut holidays. Currently the only holiday benefits employees are receiving from WFP are 25% off gift cards for Save On Foods, while some employees are lucky enough to also get a steel water bottle with the WFP logo on it. The company has not hosted any Christmas Parties recently.
The union is also worried about employees for WFP losing their holidays. Currently workers are given one floating holiday or “floater” a year which is a 1 day paid vacation.
The strike has been operating with picket lines consisting with usually between three to six union employees outside the main gate of each mill, with picketers taking 4 hour shifts each before switching with a new crew of strikers. The picket line lasts during whatever the usual hours of operations are for the mill, which at Cowichan Bay would be 5am to 9pm while at Duke Point 6am to midnight. Schedules who will be working each picket shift is sometimes posted nearby. Employees of various ages and experience levels can be found at these pickets, some of them have worked for WFP for 3 years while others have worked for 30.
Hot cargo and solidarity
According to one sawmill worker at the Cowichan Bay plant, the strike has prevented WFP from moving $9 million worth of wood product as it now lays stagnant. Strikers have even have gone out on the water to mark floating log booms with tags that read “HOT” to let the maritime union workers supporting USW to know not to pick them up.
The USW Local 1-1937 Facebook page has been posting daily and hourly updates of the strike by sharing photos of the support they have received on picket lines. The page has given credit to other unions supporting the strike such as the Hospital Employees Union, CUPE, and the BC Ferry and Marine Workers.
Political parties are also showing their support for the strike. Bob Chamberlin, NDP candidate in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection, as well as Joe Lychak, Communist Party organizer in Nanaimo, visited the Duke Point picket on July 5.
WFP’s official motto is “defining a higher standard” though a many employees of the company claim otherwise and say that from there experiences WFP is actually defining a lower standard when it comes to the treatment of their employees. Some workers are even saying that WFP stands for “We Fuck People”.