The following is an abridged version of a column I wrote for the Feb. 25, 2005 edition of The Citizen. After Thursday's announcement about the plans of West Fraser and Canfor to close mills and give up timber licences, it's worth repeating. The issues are different but the players are the same.
The image of Canfor as a benevolent giant, with the best interests of Northern B.C. residents at heart, is getting a well-deserved and long overdue evaluation, in light of the company's combative stance with its angry logging truckers.
As more truckers have banded together into an association and sought union guidance to help further their demands, Canfor has thrown up its hands pathetically, arguing its up to the logging contractors to fix it. Considering it was Canfor that implemented the system 15 years ago of paying log truckers through the logging constructors rather than directly, it seems strange Canfor now blames that same system for the troubles facing the truckers. Since Canfor also pays logging contractors, the companys response is the equivalent of telling workers who want more money to go to their supervisors and ask them to foot the bill out of their own pocket.
Although Canfor and the other major forest companies like to portray themselves as victims of those awful Americans, it can now be argued that the softwood lumber dispute and the U.S. duties on Canadian lumber have been good for business.
First of all, forest companies across Northern B.C. have built up good will in the regions communities during the last four years by taking a stand against the United States. The tough talk from industry leaders, in the us-versus-them scenario, has appealed to local residents. Organized labour at area pulp mills and sawmills have seen themselves as collaborators with forest companies, cutting long-term deals during cordial negotiations. The result has been labour peace between the two sides, allowing the sector to worry about the hefty trade duties and staying competitive while endless efforts are made in the political and legal arenas to settle the matter.
Second, the forest companies have all spent tens of millions of dollars modernizing mills, improving efficiency and driving down costs, so they can compete with the Americans. Without the softwood lumber dispute as a decoy, forest workers quickly recognize these improvements for what they really are - making more money by employing fewer people.
Third, a not entirely unexpected side effect of the dispute has been higher lumber prices. Theres no incentive for Interior lumber companies to cut a deal with the Americans as demand and prices remain high, so long as the Canadian dollar doesnt creep up too much more.
Finally, industry consolidation has left two players - Canfor and West Fraser - controlling the majority of the available timber in Northern B.C. Besides the predictable layoffs of redundant staff, consolidation puts the squeeze on logging contractors and truckers.
Forest companies can exploit the competition between the contractors, driving down costs even further. Troublemakers looking to improve pay and work conditions can quickly find themselves on the outside looking in, as the handful of forest companies look to more grateful loggers and haulers to supply the mills. Again, the softwood lumber dispute has been used as a cloak to mask the increasing power the forest companies hold over workers.
Suddenly, its clear whats been happening.
The forest giants have reshaped the landscape in their favour. Area residents, from workers to local politicians, have been operating under the misguided impression that what is good for the forest company is good for workers and the community. A single question exposes that fallacy.
What matters most to Canfor and West Fraser as huge multi-billion dollar corporate entities - the opinion of residents and workers in Northern B.C. or the opinion of major shareholders and industry analysts in Vancouver and other urban seats of economic power?
The major forest companies are leaving northern workers and communities behind. Canfors corporate slogan - our roots are in the community - remains true but they forgot to mention the second part - the money grows on trees in corporate head office in downtown Vancouver.