Coastal Forestry Workers Defending Their Rights
– Interview with Brian Butler, President, USW Local 1-1937 –
Forestry workers rally in Campbell River, September 26, 2019.
Coastal Forestry Workers employed by Western Forest Products (WFP) and some of its contractors have been on strike since July 1. The 2,600 workers are members of United Steelworkers Local 1-1937. About 1,300 work for Western Forest Products and 1,300 for contractors. Their five-year contract expired on June 15 this year.
WFP approached negotiations with the union by putting 24 concessions on the table. It has refused to move off those concessions or discuss the union’s concerns, during negotiations and mediation, which concluded on September 13 when the mediator informed the union that the company was not willing to move so there was no point for further discussions at that time. Included in the concessions demanded by WFP are the conversion of the pension plan from a defined benefit to a defined payment plan, two-tier wages with a lower starting rate for new employees, and changes to the benefit plan, long-term disability coverage, and vacation pay.
Renewal Update interviewed Brian Butler, President of USW Local 1-1937 to learn more about the issues at stake, particularly working conditions which were a main focus of the Campbell River rally on September 26. He noted that over the past five years the working conditions of coastal forestry workers have deteriorated in ways that compromise their safety and cause maximum disruption to their lives. The company has singled out and terminated individual workers and is making every effort to break the union through contracting out and dividing the workforce into smaller separate entities.
The following are excerpts from that interview.
Renewal Update: At the rally in Campbell River on September 26 we heard from the union leadership and the workers that there are major concerns over working conditions, including the drug and alcohol policy and “alternate shifts” and contracting out. Can you explain?
Brian Butler: Shortly after the last contract was signed in 2014, WFP introduced a drug and alcohol policy. It originally stated that if there was an incident and there was suspected impairment, there would be testing. If the person tested positive they went and saw a substance abuse professional who would determine whether the person had a drug or alcohol problem and needed treatment […] discipline was guided by that. In 2017 they got rid of the substance abuse professional process. […] If you tested above the thresholds that they had, they just fired you because you had violated the policy. So consequently, you can have a 30-year employee who used marijuana on the weekend. Wednesday of the following week they have an incident at work. They’re tested. They find THC in their system. It’s above a level established by the company. They’re fired. The company also determines who gets tested and who doesn’t. It’s a targeted process, where they pick and choose who they test, when they test. […] They seem to use it more as a weeding tool to get who they don’t like out of the bargaining unit. We’re fighting back against it. We have arbitration scheduled for this fall coming up and at the bargaining table we’ve introduced proposals to make it a fair process by which they shouldn’t be able to terminate someone unless they can determine impairment and that people should get help.
Alternate shifts were imposed on us in 2003 negotiations. There was a strike. The Liberal government of the day put us into binding mediation and as part of the binding mediation process the mediator instituted an alternate shift process. Prior to that any alternative shift had to be agreed upon by the workers. […]
Alternate means alternate to a standard Monday to Friday eight-hour shift. That brought in different shift configurations. Instead of Monday to Friday eight-hour days, it brought in shifts where you work compressed work weeks, so you work four 10-hour shifts or you’d work six days on, three days off, or four days on, four days off. The six and three was 8.6 hours a day, the four and four was 11.4 hours a day.
The problem with that on the manufacturing side of things is that they then put on multiple shifts. If you were used to working eight-hour shifts and you’ve been working there for 30 years, all of a sudden you have to work 10-hour days and when you work 10-hour days in manufacturing, a day shift and an afternoon shift, when you butt those two shifts together, the work day is a lot longer. So instead of starting at 7:00 am you now start at 5:00 am which means you have to get up at 3:00 am to get to work, and the afternoon shift ends at 3:00 am which means you don’t get to bed till 5:00 am so it basically turns everybody into a graveyard workers. It also shortens the amount of time you have away from work during your four-day work week. And because they want more shifts in the week, they do a schedule where they have split days off. So one week you work Monday to Thursday, the next week you work Tuesday to Friday, the next week you work Monday and have Tuesday off and then work three days and have two days off. So people don’t know whether they’re coming or going. This is fatigue-inducing. We have lots of incidences of people driving away from work and falling asleep at the wheel. This is in manufacturing.
The logging shifts are more of the four on/four off or six on/three off. For instance, in truck driving you’d work 11.5-hour days but by the time you do an 11.5-hour day plus your pre- and post-trip, it’s a very long day and people are fatigued. Log truck driving and hand falling are the two most dangerous occupations out there. People get killed on those jobs. […] Workers lose family life, the ability to volunteer in their community. Marriages break up. It’s just a really bad shift. So we’re looking to get back to a process where parties can agree upon shifts and not just have them dictated by the employer.
RU: You have said that one of the aims of WFP is to break the union. Can you elaborate?
BB: One of their key proposals is the contracting-out issue. What they want to do is to break the union up into smaller and smaller pieces. […] So, if you take one of the big logging operations, which has well over a million cubic metres annual harvest, they want to take that parent company crew and break it into phases. So the falling phase is one contractor, the yarding phase is another contractor, the loading phase could be another contractor, the trucking phase, road-building phase, dry land sort phase. Once you break the bargaining unit into smaller and smaller pieces, you then have a bunch of contractors in there who bid low to get the work and then they cheat on their contract in order to make ends meet. They rip people off on overtime or don’t pay travel time or are delinquent with benefits. So what happens is the union is constantly fighting with these contractors, over and over and over again, a lot of times probably bankrolled by WFP to create problems for the union.