Workers from USW 1-1937 in Port Alberni just after shift change in front of Alberni Pacific Division (APD) Sawmill. Union rep Hira Chopra, third from left, said Western traditionally has paid benefits while workers were on strike and workers paid the company back once they returned to work. (SUSIE QUINN/Black Press)

Striking Western Forest Products workers could lose benefits in September

Union, forest company at odds over Vancouver Island benefit payments as strike enters third month

Benefits for striking Western Forest Products workers on Vancouver Island could be disrupted at the beginning of September, according to the company and union.

United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 employees have been behind picket lines since July 1 and the company has maintained benefit payments to striking workers, but Susan Dolinski, Western’s vice-president of corporate affairs, said that is contingent on payment from the union, which it isn’t receiving. In an e-mail to employees, the company said it is not obligated to provide benefits when a collective agreement is not in place.

“So we’ve been pursuing that option from the USW and so far, they’ve made no commitment to pay that, so we’ve fronted the cost, frankly, for the union for the last two months and while we awaited payment,,” said Dolinski. We also felt the need that as we approach September, we really needed to notify people that this could come to an end if they don’t pay.”

Brian Butler, local president, disagrees with Western’s position and told Black Press he believes the two sides are bound by a 1993 decision, passed by the union and industry trustees, stating that benefits will be maintained during a labour dispute and repaid on a graduated basis once employees are back at work. The company has claimed the provision has been cancelled, said Butler, but it hasn’t produced evidence suggesting that is the case.

RELATED: WFP strike on Vancouver Island set to enter third week

RELATED: Western Forest Products workers on Island on strike

“The parties are at odds over that and I believe the joint trustees are meeting shortly to have that discussion, because if they do cancel benefits, it’s likely we would challenge that legally, both with the plan and WFP … the trustees are meeting shortly to determine what action took place that actually gave WFP, what they think is the right to cancel, which we say they don’t have, so the trustees have to clarify that,” said Butler.

Both Dolinski and Butler said no talks are currently scheduled, but noted negotiator Vince Ready has met with both sides in an effort to engage in preliminary discussions.

Dolinski said the strike is entering its third month and the company has been working in earnest to get back to bargaining.

“We have demonstrated, early on in the conversations with the USW, as well as in the conversations we’ve had with [Ready] our strong desire to resume discussions … We know that 70 per cent of the forest industry in this province that’s represented by the USW has already settled,” said Dolinski. “So in the north and southern interior of the province, those collective agreements have been settled and so we really want to get to a place where we can come to an agreement, as has been done in those parts of the province.”

Butler said the union seeks a deal that fits the coastal forest industry.

“Western likes to tout what took place in the Interior forest industry, but they’re completely different industries,” Butler said. “The Interior is a commodity 2×4, 2×6 industry that supplies the U.S. market and the coast is a high-value industry that produces high-quality products for very different markets than the Interior … we’re seeking good increases commensurate with what our members produce for the company.”

Butler said the union is also seeking to counter, what he calls, “draconian things” currently in place.

“We’re seeking changes on the [drug and alcohol] policy and we’re also seeking an end to unilaterally implementing alternate shifts, which are fatiguing … to workers’ health,” said Butler.

Union members at Port Alberni were surprised to hear Western is considering cutting their benefits if the strike continues past Sept. 1.

“They always cover our medical and all the benefits, and they are paid back after the strike,” said union representative and longtime employee Hira Chopra. “I don’t know why this one is different.” Chopra said during the last strike on Vancouver Island in 2007, Western covered employees’ benefits while they were on the picket line, and employees paid the company back.

– With files from Susie Quinn



reporter@nanaimobulletin.com

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