A forest of lumber workers have voted in favour of strike action, sending a message to more than a dozen regional mill operations.
More than 1,600 workers voted in the strike poll (held Aug. 3-11). According to United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1-2017 president Brian O'Rourke, 1,509 members voted in favour of a strike, which was a 93 per cent affirmation.
It gives the workers the ability to issue 72-hour strike notice should they wish to withhold services due to a contract impasse, but they have not hit such an impasse.
"I'm not anticipating anything like that," he said. "We started off negotiations with what we considered small hurdles. We didn't seem to be making any headway whatsoever. We talked it over internally and concluded the only way forward then was to test the membership and see if there was a mandate from them for a strike. Now we have that mandate."
The last time the parties were at the bargaining table was July 23. With this next step taken by the employees showing their resolve, and the vast majority united behind the bargaining message of O'Rourke's negotiating team, the employers' group (an association of forest products companies known as CONIFER) now has some decisions to make about their next position.
The CONIFER group is a collection of companies that operate 13 operations across the region including: Canfor's Houston sawmill, Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake, the Conifex mills in Mackenzie and Fort St. James, Canfor's mill in Fort St. John, the West Fraser planer mill in Williams Lake, Tolko's Lakeview and Soda Creek mills in Williams Lake plus Quest Wood site in Quesnel. The sites in the close Prince George vicinity include Dunkley Lumber, Lakeland Mills, Isle Pierre-Canfor and PG Sawmill-Canfor.
A conference call for the USW's bargaining unit is scheduled for today at which point the union negotiators will discuss their next steps.
"From there we will be notifying the CONIFER group spokesperson to set a date to get back to the bargaining table at a mutually agreeable time," said O'Rourke.
He added that this strike notice is a strong message he hopes will motivate the employers' group.
"We haven't even gotten down to wages and stuff, it was easier stuff put forward by our membership that we felt was quite reasonable - things we will keep inside the bargaining room - but we couldn't believe it was anything they would say no to. This has been somewhat surprising," said O'Rourke. "We had hoped it would go a whole lot smoother, but I'm being optimistic and not expecting turmoil. We haven't had a labour distruption in the forest industry since 1986 and I don't anticipate one now. We believe we are in one of their (forest products companies) best times ever, as we speak. The prices are strong; they are moving their inventory."