The province isn’t going to wade into the labour impasse that’s keeping 3,000 workers in the forestry sector off the job.
Negotiations stalled between the United Steelworkers union and Western Forest Products earlier in the week, meaning the strike could hit the six-month mark.
B.C. forests minister, Doug Donaldson, said the province wants bargaining to take its course: “Our approach is that this is a labour dispute between a private company and a private union, and those disputes are best settled through collective bargaining.”
However, he said the province is strongly urging both sides to make a deal.
“I made a commitment that I would get in touch with Labour Minister (Harry) Bains. He had met with senior members of the United Steelworkers yesterday afternoon and he had met with the CEO and senior managers of Western Forest Products the day before.”
According to Donaldson, Bains “delivered the message that our expectation is that we want to see a deal get done as soon as possible. They were receptive to that message. That was the approach that we’ve been taking and we hope to see them bargaining a negotiated agreement.”
Donaldson and North Island MLA, Claire Trevena, spoke to those affected by the strike at the the Kwa’lilas Hotel in Port Hardy yesterday.
“I was very happy to meet in Port Hardy, privately with contractors and then generally at an open meeting where there were contractors and members of the business community, and local government,” he said.
“I also had met in Port McNeill previous to that with local government and United Steelworkers, as well.”
Donaldson said that the frustration was “heard and definitely understood.”
He added that he and Bains had met with members of the contractor community who had come down to Victoria, “so the level of frustration is high and it’s not just among contractors, but among union workers as well.”
“It was good to hear directly from people at the meeting, how the impacts of this strike is affecting everyone in the community and the words they used was the collateral damage that was happening, and that was something that was brought up by many people.”
Donaldson said the government is putting a bridge financing program in place for contractors who are at risk of having their equipment repossessed or have had their equipment taken, already.
“We know when this strike ends, we need a healthy contracting sector in order to get the harvesting done and getting the logs moving, once again,” he said. “We’re developing that program and that will be rolled out in the near future.”
Meanwhile, he said the forest sector “needs changes.”
“We heard that in both Port McNeill and in Port Hardy that people want to see a change in policies and management of the forests that surround the communities so that communities benefit first and foremost from the trees that are growing on the lands close to him,” Donaldson added.
He said one step is to review stumpage fees.
“The policies that we put in place beginning last April with the Coast Forest Sector Revitalization Initiative was to try to drive more logs on the island to domestic mills and to bring more of the fibre out of the forest that we left behind,” Donaldson said.
“However we understand the current situation and so what I announced (was), the annual update of the coast stumpage system has been conducted and we’re factoring in the lumber-based factor more than we have in the past to reflect what the system is in the interior.”
He said that will mean a drop in almost half in stumpage to an average of $8.82 per cubic metre from the rate of $18.73.
“That will make a difference on some of the economics around harvesting some of the sales and stands that are out there,” Donaldson said.
“We’ve also deferred the fee in lieu changes for six months on the coast that we had anticipated putting in place this month, and also revised the fibre recovery zones. We got cost data back from industry so we’re able to make the boundaries of those zones a little more precise.”
The province is attuned to the industry’s concerns, Donaldson said, “and we’re putting in place policies that will make a difference.”