CBC NEWS — Almost 3,000 members of the United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 walked off the job on July 1, 2019 — and now some may be returning to work as early as this week, the union’s president said.

As workers prepare to go back to their jobs, Brian Butler says there is still anger toward the company over some issues but he is pleased with what members have achieved under the new deal.

“We made good gains in job security, on our monetary package and health and welfare areas of the agreement, and those are juxtaposed against the massive concessions that Western tabled heading into bargaining and left on that bargaining table for months and months,” said Butler in an interview Wednesday on All Points West.

An October news release from the union said Western Forest Products was pushing for five concessions, explaining that the company wanted to:

  • gut all local agreements and practices
  • contract out logging operations by phases
  • take money out of the long-term disability program
  • move benefits away from a trusted plan
  • and change its position on leave of absences.

Butler said the union had a mandate to make no concessions to the company and did not.

“They misjudged the strength of our membership and their resolve to not make concessions,” he said, adding the company has been making record gains for years and the concessions on the table were unwarranted.

A show of support for B.C. forestry workers during a rally of logging trucks in Vancouver in September 2019. More than 100 trucks travelled across the province to the city to protest the state of the industry. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Now that the agreement has been ratified, Butler said manufacturing will slowly ramp up this week and a “fair number” of people will be recalled to begin maintenance in February and March.

Butler expects logging to be slower to get going because there are still some areas of northern Vancouver Island under snow and because some access roads into job sites require repairs.

According to Butler, financial strike assistance will carry on for a period of time after people return to work, and for those workers who will not be returning soon the union is working to secure them employment insurance benefits.

“This was never a strike about financial issues; this was a strike about fundamental workers’ rights issues that had been stripped [from] us,” said Butler.

He said one of those rights remains a bone of contention for the union.

Butler said in 2004 the union lost the right to have control over alternate shifts, which include split shifts that Butler called “quite awful to our members.”

He said this can include having two 10-hour shifts on top of each other, with day shifts beginning at 5 a.m. and employees getting off work at 3:30 a.m. the next day.

Striking Western Forest Products workers and supporters of the United Steelworkers Union rally in Nanaimo, B.C. — where the company is based — on Nov. 6, 2019. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The union did not get back the right to control alternate shifts, but Butler said it did gain the right for members to propose other alternate shifts they feel are safer and equally profitable for the company.

Western Forest Products also changed its drug and alcohol policy, which Butler said used to penalize employees who were found to have traces of substances in their body, even if they were not impaired on the job.

Butler said the new policy is now aligned with the rest of the industry, which means an employee is entitled to see a substance use professional rather than being fired.

The president and CEO of Western Forest Products welcomed the new agreement with the union.

“This has been a particularly challenging time and I’m pleased that we were able to find common ground through the efforts of all involved,” Don Demens said.

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