CANADA

Sudden silence in the rain forest

MALCOLM GRAY July 27 1981
CANADA

Sudden silence in the rain forest

MALCOLM GRAY July 27 1981

Sudden silence in the rain forest

British Columbia

The woods, sawmills and pulp mills are silent across British Columbia as the province’s biggest industry settles in for a strike that could wreck the provincial economy. In Victoria, $500,000 a day in government revenue has been shut off, but it is in the small one-industry towns, places dependent on the money made from hauling trees out of the bush, that the strike will be felt first. Even in Vancouver, though, where the sound of a chain saw is never heard, a long forestry strike would have an impact. Twenty per cent of the crowded Lower Mainland’s work force is employed by the woods industry, and a large part of the lumber and pulp produced by the province’s 700 sawmills and 24 pulp and paper mills passes through the port. B.C. produces one-quarter of the world’s pulp supply and is the largest net ex-

porter of lumber in the world. Last year, forest products were worth $5.6 billion of the $9.1 billion worth of goods shipped from B.C.

As the weather finally turned warm across the province, the first week of the shutdown was marked by a feeling

of release after a frustrating period of inconclusive bargaining and tense wildcat walkouts. Early on, there was no friction on the picket lines and at Western Forest Products’ Marpole sawmill in Vancouver, management even sprung $32 for horseshoes and pegs, setting up the pit for their striking employees outside the plant gates. As more than 52,000 woodworkers and pulp mill employees turned in their time cards for picket signs, they received three to four weeks’ vacation pay—and many went on a spending spree that store owners in the lumber towns knew would soon be replaced by a drop in sales.

But others took the shutdown more seriously. “I’m not even buying lawn seed,” said 34-year-old Jim Lucas, who works for MacMillan Bloedel in Port Alberni. Lucas is a millwright, proud of what his skills mean in a Vancouver Island town where his employer has 5,700 workers and an annual payroll of more than $111 million. He is a tradesman, one of the aristocrats of forestry workers and a member of a militant group that focused discontent over the companies’ wage offer at a time when B.C.’s yearly inflation rate (14.3 per

cent as of June) was running ahead of the rest of the country.

High interest rates have slowed down house-building in Canada as well as in Japan and the United States, two of the main foreign markets of B.C. lumber. With little chance of more sales the companies said they could offer no more than a 26-per-cent increase over two years. That would give an ordinary worker $31,132 in the second year of the contract while tradesman would be paid $35,277. It wasn’t enough for the trades-

men. They want to widen the gap between skilled and ordinary workers. For union negotiators, the organization of skilled workers such as mechanics, electricians and millwrights into the Forestry Industry Trades Association (FITA) was an unsettling and surprising development. FITA cut across the jurisdictional lines of the two pulp unions and one woodworkers’ union. Even within their unions the tradesmen form militant minority groups, which leaders negotiating with the forestry

companies cannot ignore.

Jack Munro, the regional president of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), has nothing good to say about this special interest group within his 48,000-member union. “They’re a pretty selfish bunch who don’t hold elected positions,” he said. “If they want to contribute, they should run for office and assume all the responsibilities.” The emergence of a trades ginger group was an added complication in negotiations, which at times seemed likely to succeed. Forestry bargaining in B.C. has usually managed to avoid strikes but it is a complex procedure that involves different interest groups on both sides of the table. The IWA, the 9,500member Canadian Paperworkers Union and the 7,000-member Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada negotiate separately and the two pulp unions are bitter rivals.

So far the provincial government has stayed out of the dispute, although it is keenly aware that a long strike would wreck Social Credit’s most cherished commitment—a balanced budget—but it does have a precedent for intervention. In 1975, during the last big forestry strike, the New Democrats forced workers back into the woods and mills after a three-month shutdown. They also lost a general election called soon after the legislated return to work.

MALCOLM GRAY