It’s been more than two months since Tolko Industries announced they’d be shutting down production at the Merritt mill and tomorrow is the day workers will be sent packing.
The union representing those employees, United Steelworkers, says it is disappointed with the way the company handled the shut down, saying workers should have been entitled to the three days of stat pay in December.
“Had the date been Jan. 2… the workers would have been entitled to their Christmas, Boxing Day and New Years Day stats,” USW local 1-417 president Marty Gibbons says. “We’ve asked the company to honour these and pay them anyways, the company has refused.”
Meanwhile, he says the company is legally obligated to meet with the union to try and come up with a plan to help workers transition after a layoff, but it isn’t cooperating.
“The labour relations code requires that the employer meets with us in attempts to negotiate something to help the workers transition,” Gibbons says. “Regrettably, Tolko rejected every single proposal that we put forward and basically told us that they’re not prepared to do anything above and beyond the collective agreement.”
Gibbons says it’s a tough time of year for workers to be laid off, but is thankful the union negotiated a fair severance pay for the workers who will be leaving tomorrow, Dec. 16.
“It’s a good thing we have a strong contract in place that requires the severance pay of 10 days per year of service.”
The mill, which has been in operation since 1987, is a place of employment for 203 people. Tolko has previously said the reason for the closure is due to a significant reduction in the annual allowable cut in the Southern Interior.
It’s not clear how many employees took the severance package and how many will be moving to work for a different Tolko location. The company has three other lumber mills in southern B.C. and two plywood plants.
Gibbons says Tolko hasn’t done anything wrong, legally, but believes the company should have stepped up to help employees transition into other jobs.
“As an individual and a union president, I’m very disappointed that Tolko basically refused to do anything above what they’re legally obligated to do for the workers,” he says. “That’s quite disappointing, especially when other major forestry employers in similar situations have… gone that extra mile to help the workers.”
The “extra mile” Gibbons is referring to includes a number of things he would have liked to see the company do. Along with his allegation Tolko intentionally decided on a shut down date of Dec. 16 to avoid paying stat days, he says the company did not post jobs which will still be available once the mill shuts down.
“We’ve had to file grievances to get these jobs properly posted and the company’s refusing to post them,” Gibbons claims. “There’s a number of other issues that they’ve refused to resolve that are also going to grievance and very likely arbitration.”
Gibbons says WorkBC did step in to help laid-off workers, by sending an employee in to meet with employees who were willing to have a skilled assessment done in order to make the transition easier for them.
Troy Connolly, the executive general manager of lumber for Tolko, was not available for an interview today but he is expected to address the media tomorrow.