'It was horrific news': Forestry strike negotiations break down in north island
VICTORIA -- Veteran mediators negotiating with Western Forest Products (WFP) and United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1-1937 have stepped away from the bargaining table after discussions broke down Sunday.
The mediators' withdrawal is discouraging for members of the Port McNeill community and thousands of forestry workers along the coast who have been locked in an eight month strike with Western Forest Products.
In a letter to both parties, the mediators said that the opposing groups were too entrenched for an agreement to be made at this time.
In a statement made Tuesday, WFP said that it was disappointed to hear about the mediators' withdrawal, and that the forestry company has reached out to the Ministry of Labour for advice on moving forward.
"We are disappointed that despite previous proposals offering superior wage and contract provisions to what the USW and the forest sector have agreed to throughout British Columbia we have been unable to reach a negotiated settlement," said Don Demens, president and chief executive officer of WFP in a statement.
"We recognize the profound impact the strike is having on our employees, contractors, their families and communities," he said. "We remain committed to reaching a fair and equitable agreement that recognizes the important contributions of our employees, while maintaining the sustainability of our business so that we can continue to serve our customers who, through their purchases, support thousands of jobs in communities on the coast of British Columbia."
Meanwhile, in a statement made Tuesday, the USW Local 1-1937 said it would continue to defend union members' rights and believed that the mediators' departures was due to WFP's position.
"It is truly unfortunate that WFP has put corporate greed over our members' rights to have safe and secure jobs," said Rick Nelson, 1st vice president of USW Local 1-1937 in a statement.
"It is clear to the Union that WFP's refusal to move on a single issue dating back to November is at the centre of the mediators' withdrawal."
With negotiations hitting another setback, many island communities and approximately 3,000 forestry workers across B.C.'s coast remain concerned about the future.
Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom told CTV News that the mediators' withdrawal was "horrific news" for her community.
"It was horrific news yesterday to tell you the honest truth," said Wickstrom. "They’ve been negotiating for a long time with one of the best and to hear that both of [the mediators] walked away because they don’t feel like they’re able to reach a resolution was awful."
Wickstrom says that while her community is facing critical challenges, the ongoing strike impacts Vancouver Island as a whole.
"I think the thing that I really want to communicate to people is that this isn’t about just 3,000 workers who chose to go on strike," she said.
"Now we're talking about thousands of other businesses and thousands of people affected by this… there are mills that are going to be shutting down as well because they don’t have lumber. So we’re at a critical point here," she said. "This isn’t about just Port McNeill, though we are feeling it very much. It’s all up and down the island."
Wickstrom encourages anyone who thinks that government intervention would be helpful with the strike to reach out to the provincial government through letters and phone calls. In particular, the mayor believes that a call for an industrial inquiry commission would help both parties reach an agreement.
"We’ve never asked for binding arbitration but an industrial inquiry commission could be something that would put all the cards on the table, and it is meant for this kind of thing when two sides reach an impasse," she said.
"I’ve talked to a few contractors who have said that they’re at the 'do or die' point now."
On Wednesday afternoon, Labour Minister Harry Bains said that the province would announce its next steps on the strike as early as Thursday.
“I am disappointed to learn today that mediators Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers have advised Western Forest Products and USW Local 1-1937 that negotiations remain at an impasse,” said Bains in a statement.
“As a result, I am considering options available to government in order to help parties move forward in the collective bargaining process. The impact of this dispute is being felt by many in the province and action is needed to ensure a vibrant coastal forest sector in BC with sustainable jobs now and into the future,” he said.
Next steps that the B.C. government could take include appointing a new mediator or fact finder, appointing a special mediator with terms of reference or appointing an industrial inquiry commission.