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The Last Word
Patience wearing thin for Prince George mill workers
By Jim Stirling
Patience is threadbare for scores of workers at two Prince George sawmills.
The Winton Global Lumber and Rustad mills in the British Columbian city are victims of the housing market meltdown and ensuing financial crisis in the U.S.
The sawmills were shut down on an indefinite basis and the work force sent home. That was about four years ago in Winton Global’s case and more than two years ago at Rustad. Nothing had changed by the end of July 2011. Except for the spiralling levels of frustration.
Re-open the mills or pay up on severance costs is the clear message from employees to the sawmill’s owners. The Sinclar Group is the principal owner of Winton Global—Canfor Corp owns about a third of the company—and the Rustad sawmill is also Canfor’s.
A dispassionate observer can appreciate the basic issues of the impasse from both perspectives. Maintaining a shuttered, non-productive sawmill for years is a liability and financial drain for company owners and shareholders. Sawmills, like airplanes, can best fulfill their designed purpose when they’re functioning optimally.
Just about everyone to make a prediction about when the U.S. housing market will return to sustained growth has been proved wrong. The only point upon which industry watchers still concur is the market will return. And when it does, depending on what else evolves in the maelstrom of U.S. politics, Canadian sawmills will benefit.
But that is cold comfort for the Winton Global and Rustad sawmill workers in Prince George. They and their families are in an untenable situation, through none of their own making.
From the mill owner’s perspective, the longer they hang on, the more likely the U.S. market will begin to recover. And they would still have the core workforce, experienced and familiar with each mill’s operation. The owner’s alternative: paying out severance and taking their chances with recruiting and training new workers when the time comes. The new workers would be tough to find but one suspects it’s honoring the severance pay part that especially sticks in the owner’s craws.
Considerable numbers of the employees have invested 20, 30 and 40 years of their working lives in the mills. Meeting the financial obligations would cost the mills millions of dollars. It’s easy to see why they’re loath to take that route and defer a decision to re-open month after month after month.
The in-limbo workers’ perspective understandably differs. For most of them, the dislocation and problems caused by the mills’ closures is simply too much for too long. An unknown number of mill workers—skilled tradesmen particularly—have already moved on. Through necessity, they’ve found other ways to meet the financial obligations of their families. In some cases, that’s meant taking jobs away from Prince George and outside the forest industry. Alberta’s oil patch has been the answer for some. But separating a breadwinner from the remaining family simply compounds the stress on the unit.
It’s not difficult to comprehend, therefore, why it all spilled over for a group of Winton Global sawmill workers late in June. They voiced their concerns publicly during a rally at the company’s Prince George office. They want the mill to re-open or have the company meet its contractual obligations and pay out in full what is due their employees.
The sawmill workers, members of Local 1-424 of The Steelworkers Union, have indicated a willingness to re-negotiate wages to help get the mills open again. The Steelworkers have successfully forged deals with other regional sawmills to get their members back to work.
At the protest rally, the union’s Frank Everitt indicated Winton Global had identified one million housing starts as the magic number to re-open the mill on a profitable basis. The latest housing start stats were languishing around half that. Greg Stewart, Sinclar’s president, said he sympathized with the sawmill workers’ predicament but could offer little encouragement. “At this point, I can’t provide any more certainty,” he confessed.
Exacerbating an already raw situation from the sawmill workers perspective is Winton Global is reportedly selling timber on their forest lands for other operators to use. Under recent B.C. government rules, Winton Global is perfectly within its rights: the timber is no longer tied to use at a specific mill. Some of Winton Global’s disgruntled employees wrote a protest to Steve Thomson, B.C.’s forest minister. “This company has has not made any effort to re-start operations and have made no effort to seek new markets or technology that may increase opportunities for the operations. Due to changes in the forest act, Winton Global retains their forest licenses and they are allowed to sell timber to other operations while employees are held hostage with no consideration for their years of service,” the employees wrote in part. If the mills do soon re-open, the workers’ mood may well be more corrosive than cooperative.
It’s undoubtedly a tough situation for all concerned with no cookie cutter answers. When the immediate situation in Prince George is resolved, one way or the other, that should not be the end of the matter. Some sort of statute of limitations on market-induced layoffs needs to be formulated, negotiated and implemented. Four years of uncertainty it too long.