Coastal Forestry Contract Talks Continuing

Rising Canadian dollar, U.S. housing market slump, and the American export tax on Canadian lumber blamed for wage arguments as strike looms.

VANCOUVER (CP) - Picket action by B.C.'s coastal forestry workers was put off for another day while the union continues negotiations with two forest companies.

Just past Saturday morning's strike deadline, United Steelworkers union spokesman Steve Hunt said negotiations continued late into Friday night with representatives from Interfor and Island Timber.

More talks are planned for Sunday.

''I think we were lucky, in some respects, we managed to keep bargaining going,'' Hunt said. ''With those two tables going, we found it best to keep on going and keep on striving for a new pattern agreement.''

The union was in a legal strike position Saturday morning, but Hunt said new positions from both companies were the key in keeping his members off the picket line.

After what was called a ''final offer'' Friday, contract talks broke off with the Forest Industrial Relations group, or FIR, which represents 31 coastal forest companies.

The FIR proposed three-year agreement included a two percent wage increase starting June 15, and a three percent raise June 15, 2008. The bargaining group also said it would match a general wage settlement for B.C. Interior forest companies for the third year of the contract.

''Our industry has not made a profit in many years. And currently we're not making enough to cover the depreciation on our assets,'' said Ron Shewchuk, the spokesman for FIR.

''So we feel the offer that we've made is fair and reasonable, in fact we've stretched quite a bit. But we have stretched as far as we're willing to go.''

Hunt agreed that times were tight for the industry, with the rising Canadian dollar, the slump in the U.S. housing market, and the American export tax on Canadian lumber.

''But when times are really good and they're making tons and tons of money, they forget about those times. They never tell you about them,'' he said. ''You've got to average it over many, many years.''

There are only three companies outside the FIR bargaining group, and the union is negotiating with two of them.

Hunt said the union won't put up pickets at FIR-connected firms for now because the lumber industry is so connected that it could affect Island Timber and Interfor.

The union wants to use any agreement it negotiates with those two firms as a pattern agreement, averting strike action.

He said FIR will have to make a decision if it will go along with the deal.

''If they don't want to take the agreement that the rest of the industry has, then we're going to have a fairly significant problem.''

The main issues holding back a settlement are scheduling hours of work, contracting out and severance pay for partial closures in logging and manufacturing.

Industry analysts have said a strike by coastal workers could mean losing some Japanese customers to other countries.

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