Updated story: Sawmill workers start rotating strikes

Northern B.C. sawmill workers began rotating strikes Tuesday morning when a picket line went up at Tolko's Lakeview Lumber in Williams Lake.

The move is an escalation of job action by members of United Steelworkers Local 1-2017 after invoking a ban on overtime last week on all 13 operations represented by Council on Northern Interior Forest Employment Relations (CONIFER).

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"This is step two of our process and currently our plan is to continue and maintain doing rotating strikes throughout the Conifer member companies," Local 1-2017 business agent Brian O'Rourke said.

Members have been in a legal strike position since October 6.

According to a Sept. 19 posting on the USW Local 1-2017 website, CONIFER was offering annual wage increases ranging from 0.5 to 1.5 per cent over five years and is also seeking a series of concessions.

But CONIFER executive director Mike Bryce said Tuesday the offer was changed at the end of September to two per cent per year for five years. He said the previous wage offer was part of a package that would have seen more of the cost of the pension plan shifted onto the employer.

"At the end of September, the effort to integrate those two subjects ceased and we simply transitioned to just a direct wage offer," he said.

Given the high price producers have been attracting for their product, the USW has contended employees deserve better than what CONIFER has been offering.

The benchmark price for 1,000 board-feet of top-quality western Canadian two-by-fours hit US$540 this past spring, according to the trade publication Madison's Lumber Reporter, compared with US$315 at the start of 2017. But the reigning price has since declined and stood at US$366 as of Friday.

Bryce said CONIFER's goal is to reach an agreement that accounts for the "long-term realities of a cyclical industry" rather than bargain in the context of current market conditions which are "changing dramatically."

Talks between the USW and the Interior Forest Labour Relations Association, the bargaining agent for sawmill owners in the Southern Interior, are in a similar situation according to O'Rourke. "We're reviewing a document that they (IFLRA) handed us but at this point there is nothing we see favourable," O'Rourke said.

But he stressed bargaining is still at the early stages, "so there's still time for change."

O'Rourke declined to say where picket lines will go up next.

"But our plan is to strategically hit these employers and put on some pressure to get them back to the table," he said.

At CONIFER's request negotiations went before a mediator for five days. Bryce said progress was made before USW discontinued the process.

The sides are negotiating on behalf of 13 sawmills that employee roughly 1,600 workers: Canfor's PG Sawmill and Isle Pierre operations as well as its sawmills in Houston and Fort St. Joh; Lakeland Mills in Prince George; Dunkley Lumber Ltd. south of Hixon; Conifex's mills in Fort St. James and Mackenzie; Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake; Tolko's Lakeview Lumber and Soda Creek mills in Williams Lake and Quest Wood in Quesnel; and West Fraser's Williams Lake Planer. 

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