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B.C. labour minister pledges decision on stalled forestry strike talks ‘within 24 hours’

Striking United Steelworkers forestry workers seen on the picket line in Chemainus in January, 2020.
Striking United Steelworkers forestry workers seen on the picket line in Chemainus in January, 2020. Global News

B.C.’s labour minister says he’ll decide within 24 hours whether or how to intervene in a protracted forestry strike on Vancouver Island.

Harry Bains said he was looking at “a number of options” under the labour code after veteran mediators Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers pulled out of the bitter dispute between Western Forest Products (WFP) and the United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 (USW) Tuesday.

“I’m more troubled that one of the best mediators in the business, if not the best, has decided to book out,” said Bains.

READ MORE: Mediators pull out of talks in bitter, 8-month Vancouver Island forestry strike

“There are so many innocent bystanders and so many British Columbians who are hurt who depend on forestry. Many have direct jobs and many have indirect jobs that are linked to the forestry industry.”

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The opposition BC Liberals are increasing pressure on the NDP government — which has to this point resisted intervening in the dispute — to form an industrial inquiry commission to try and bring the two sides together.

B.C.’s Labour Relations Code allows for such commissions to work with feuding parties, who must agree to be bound by a report into their dispute.

B.C. premier gets frosty reception at truck loggers convention
B.C. premier gets frosty reception at truck loggers convention

“Without a step like that, this dispute will carry on for some time,” said Liberal forestry critic John Rustad.

“When you look at the people that are being impacted, the communities that are being impacted, the fact that most of the coastal industry right now is down primarily because of the strike, and the spinoffs that are happening around it — government has the responsibility to speak for people that are not at the table.”

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Earlier Wednesday, the mayor of one of the Vancouver Island communities hardest hit by an eight-month strike said it was “unconscionable” that talks between the two sides have again broken off.

Port McNeil Mayor Gabby Wickstrom said she’s frustrated the two sides haven’t actually met face-to-face since mid-December, and warned the dispute was having a devastating effect on Vancouver Island communities.

READ MORE: B.C. puts up $5M for forestry strike, but critics not impressed

“This is not about 3,000 people who chose to go on strike. This is about thousands more,” she said. “It’s estimated 6,000 contractors who are caught in this as well.

“And also now thousands and thousands of other people who directly service the forest industry and people who don’t, coffee shops, clothing stores. It’s not just us, it’s up and down the island.”

However, one key stakeholder in the process has no interest in government intervention: the union.

“The BC Liberals, when they were government in 2004, imposed a collective agreement that resulted in workers having the right to safe jobs stripped from them, and some significant contracting out was given by the mediator as well,” said Union Local president Brian Butler.

Logging truck convoy rolls into Vancouver
Logging truck convoy rolls into Vancouver

The issues in dispute are a direct result of the action taken in 2004 to have a binding process. Two wrongs don’t make the right in this situation.”

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Butler said job security, not wages, remains the union’s top sticking point, and that the company is demanding the right to contract out jobs.

WFP did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Global News on Wednesday.

But in a statement posted to its website Tuesday, it said the union had rejected “superior wage and contract provisions,” and was waiting from word from the Ministry of Labour on next steps.

READ MORE: ‘It’s overwhelming’: Families face cold Christmas as B.C. logging strike talks break down again

“We recognize the profound impact the strike is having on our employees, contractors, their families and communities,” reads the statement.

“We remain committed to reaching a fair and equitable agreement that recognizes the important contributions of our employees, while maintaining the sustainability of our business so that we can continue to serve our customers.”

Wickstrom said she hopes the shock of losing some of the province’s most respected mediators will put pressure on the union, the company and the province to find a solution.

But she said she’s fearful the two sides left to their own devices won’t get far.

“If they couldn’t reach a deal with Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers at the table, how could they possibly reach a deal on their own?” she said.

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