Forestry industry group Conifer says ‘sober second look’ needed in talks

VANCOUVER — A group representing forestry firms in the B.C. interior said it walked away from negotiations with the union hoping it would spur “a sober second look” at the economic realities of the industry before bargaining begins again.

VANCOUVER — A group representing forestry firms in the B.C. interior said it walked away from negotiations with the union hoping it would spur “a sober second look” at the economic realities of the industry before bargaining begins again.

Michael Bryce, executive director of the Council on Northern Interior Forest Employment Relations or Conifer said Friday he believes there is a willingness on both sides to come to an agreement.

However, he said talks with the United Steelworkers union came to a standstill, which is why Conifer halted talks on Wednesday.

“We just took a time out to allow for some reflection,” Bryce said.

No new talks had been scheduled as of midday Friday. The contract expired at the end of June.

“What we are sincerely hoping is that everyone take a sober second look at where we are at and realize we have a collective responsibility for both sides to re-engage in this process with a higher level of awareness of the realities we all face,” Bryce said.

He said the company is looking to bring down costs “that will enable us to ride out this crisis” in the forestry sector.

The negotiations are being held during one of the worst economic periods in the history of Canada’s forest industry.

Lumber sales are in a slump thanks to the housing crisis in the United States and the recession that followed. Forestry companies have slashed production and cut staff to try and match supply with decreased demand.

A higher Canadian dollar, imports taxes and the mountain pine beetle are also causing forest company to lose millions of dollars.

In its negotiations so far, Bryce said Conifer had agreed to a union demand that involved seniority retention.

In turn, he said the company asked for a “subtle” change to vacation pay, but the union disagreed.

Bryce also said the company asked the union to consider a list of areas where cost savings could be found.

USW Wood Council chairman Bob Matters said Conifer changed the bargaining rules.

“They want us to accept some concessions in the entire collective agreement and they wanted to start with vacation pay,” Matters said Friday. “We had to acknowledge we would accept it as a prelude … which is an absurd position.”

He said the union is looking for a “progressive collective agreement” while realizing the challenges the industry is facing.

The union represents about 3,000 workers at about 13 mills run by 10 forestry companies Conifer represents, including West Fraser Timber Ltd. (TSX:WFT) and privately held Tolko Industries.

Matters said the union is “more than happy” to go back to the bargaining table, and is just waiting for a call from Conifer.

Conifer said this week it won’t go back to the table until the union is ready to “face up to the reality of a severely depressed market and an industry that is fighting for survival.”

Conifer is the first of the forestry firms to negotiate with the USW for a new contract this time around, and its progress could be considered a benchmark for other negotiations. The union represents more than 9,000 forestry workers in the province.

The negotiations come two years after about 7,000 B.C. coastal forestry workers represented by the USW went on strike for four months after a dispute that included hours of work and contracting out.

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