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Sawing off Our Future

BC's wide open timber industry is killing jobs, and people.

By Bill Routley 13 Jun 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Routley is president of Steelworkers 1-80.

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Benefits flowing to U.S.

After years as the backbone of many coastal communities, the forestry industry is currently undergoing rapid change.

With the provincial government's blessing, corporations have broken the industry into pieces. Our valuable forest lands no longer provide benefits to the best advantage of all British Columbians. Instead of providing high-quality logs to B.C. sawmills as a matter of course, companies can now take millions of cubic metres of raw logs from both public and private lands and sell them to the highest bidder outside B.C. While some companies are closing profitable sawmills for lack of timber, others are making millions by exporting raw logs or have invested in the U.S. while their B.C. mills languish. All over the coast we're losing jobs, processing opportunities and other economic benefits.

The B.C. government has allowed corporations to impose long, more physically-taxing shifts in many workplaces. Under a contract the government imposed on our union in 2003, employers can unilaterally impose virtually any 40-hour a week shift schedule they like, even shifts up to 12 hours a day -- despite research showing that long working hours cause serious fatigue and accidents.

The province has also allowed companies to contract out more work, again contributing to higher accident rates -- in 2005, 43 workers died working in the B.C. forest sector. On the coast, most of them were in contracted-out logging operations. With our Forest Fatalities Summit in December 2005 and a Forest Fatalities Lobby in Victoria early in 2006, my union, the Steelworkers, publicized the carnage and pushed for action; the fatality rate has fallen but there are still far too many serious accidents, especially in non-union operations. The recent Ted Gramlich inquest revealed how unsafe work can be in non-union logging shows; the recent $297,000 fine levied against Weyerhaeuser after the death of New Westminster sawmill worker Lyle Hewer shows that our mills are also hardly as safe as they could be, either.

Tougher rules needed

Companies can now do what's best for their bottom lines and their shareholders without being required to provide maximum benefits to British Columbians. Steelworkers agree with citizens of our province; in addition to profits for forest companies, they want our forests to provide good-paying jobs, a wide range of economic benefits, support communities and help pay for quality services like health care, education and child care.

In our current negotiations with the coastal forest industry we are pushing companies for better safety standards and less contracting out. Recently we sent lobbyists from across British Columbia to fight for a halt to the flood of log exports so that more benefits can again flow to people and communities. We are pushing the B.C. government for tougher rules on log exports and safety, more B.C. manufacturing and more benefits to communities. In bargaining, companies want concessions that will mean that ever fewer benefits flow to communities.

We want to work with the B.C. public, our members and with reasoned employers to build a more secure stable and prosperous industry that provides a fair return to companies, citizens and our members. In spite of its problems, with a buoyant Asian market, overall the industry is in fact making money. Firms that export logs are extremely profitable. It's only fair that they share their good fortune with British Columbians.

To get there though, we will need strong support from people who live and work in our communities. B.C. coastal residents must tell companies they want more of the benefits to flow back to workers and communities. We need to let them know we want both industry and communities to flourish. We care about our industry and we care about our coastal communities' way of life. Today we are fighting to put them both on a more secure footing.

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