Robert’s column

Robert Barron column: Let’s hope the strike is really over

I’m quite curious to see what terms the United Steelworkers agreed to

I’m quite curious to see what terms the United Steelworkers agreed to in order to recommend its members go back to work at Western Forest Products.

Thousands of coastal forestry workers, including hundreds at WFP mills in and near the Cowichan Valley, have been on the picket lines since July 1.

Many of them suffered greatly as the months dragged on with no end in sight as they tried to pay their mortgages and vehicle payments, as well as raise families, on their meagre strike pay.

But, in my discussions with the strikers over that time, they remained steadfast in their belief that WFP, B.C.’s largest coastal forestry company, was not treating them fairly in the bargaining process.

The company was demanding that the workers make dozens of concessions, with some of the biggest stumbling blocks involving pensions and benefits, and the union wasn’t having any of it.

Western Forest Products has maintained since the beginning of the strike that the industry is facing challenging times because of an ongoing market downturn due to low lumber prices, and high costs because of the softwood lumber duties, and needed concessions from its workers to remain competitive.

There appeared to be no compromise and the low point came last week when special mediators Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers walked away from the bargaining table claiming that no compromise was possible.

Many of the frustrated workers came to the conclusion that the company had no interest in coming to terms with its Canadian workers, and was focusing its sights and energies on the new mills in the U.S. that it had recently acquired.

Then, remarkably, just days after the government reappointed Ready and Rogers as special mediators with enhanced powers (whatever that means) to come to an agreement, an announcement was made that a tentative settlement had been reached.

Brian Butler, president of Steelworkers Local 1-1937, made it clear, however, that the terms of the agreement would not be released until the workers have had a chance to go through it and participate in a ratification vote that could officially end the long strike.

But Butler said he was “pleased to report that the tentative agreement does not contain any concessions, which was a key mandate from our members.”

Just how the union managed to get the company to come to terms with absolutely no concessions has me scratching my head considering just how strongly WFP stuck to its guns about the concessions over the months of the strike.

Many of the workers feel the same way and are also anxious to see the details of the agreement.

Curtis Spencer, a worker at WFP’s mill in Cowichan Bay, said he received the news of an agreement with caution when I talked to him on the picket line on Feb. 10, the day the tentative deal was announced.

He said he didn’t have much to say until he saw the details and, until then, he’s not abandoning the strike.

“If we do go back to work, I’ll be excited,” Spencer said.

“But the strike is still on until the agreement is ratified.”

I imagine there will still be lots to say from both sides when the details of the settlement are released.

But, for now, I’m crossing my fingers for success that this strike, which has impacted so many, will finally be over.

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