For more than four months, British Columbia has been a battleground of class struggle, with nearly 3,000 forestry workers out on the picket lines since July 1. Both the union and the bosses have entrenched themselves, and have been waging a war of attrition. But since the BC lumber industry has gone into crisis over diminishing profit-margins, and more mills are going belly up, the whole situation has created a heated existential question for the industry. What is the way forward?
Workers on strike!
Following the expiry of the last collective agreement in June, an impasse was reached between the United Steelworkers Union Local 1-1937 and Western Forest Products (WFP) Inc. The bosses want to cut seniority benefits, pensions, and disability benefits, as well as implement a two-tier wage system. To add further insult to injury, management was insistent on a new drug testing policy that would force all workers to comply with random drug tests by the corporation. The use of random tests is seen as a way to harass and bully particular workers. After three months of discussions leading nowhere, the union voted to strike with 98.8 percent in favour.
It soon became clear that neither the workers nor the bosses would capitulate easily. WFP, raking in tens of millions of dollars in profit annually, could afford to wait out the strikers. Initially disadvantaged, the striking workers quickly gained the support of the wider BC labour movement. The BC Federation of Labour (BCFed) declared a “hot edict” on all WFP products, meaning that no property owned by WFP was to be touched by any and all unionized workers affiliated to the BCFed—including the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Hospital Employees’ Union and the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union.
This call for solidarity has been enthusiastically picked up by the labour movement and is costing the bosses millions in lost revenue as lumber sits untouched in yards and mills. In particular, the Marine Workers Union, by refusing to move WFP products, have effectively ground WFP production to a halt. Through such solidarity actions, the support provided by the labour movement has shifted the scales in favour of the strikers.
On Aug. 20, WFP antagonized the picketing workers by refusing to pay for their medical benefits during the strike. An anonymous worker interviewed by the Campbell River Mirror is quoted as saying, “If they get their benefits cut off, their kids get sick… they have to pay for all their own prescription drugs, everything…” and that, “It’s going to create animosity that’s going to last for years.” Rather than dampening the struggle, these actions by the bosses have only steeled the workers’ determination to continue the strike.
While negotiations were planned to commence on Sept. 13, the talks soon deteriorated. Neither side would budge an inch. But as the months drag on into the fall, and weariness enters the workers’ ranks, a new offensive is needed to break the deadlock. Indeed, the cross-union solidarity of BC workers, along with the “hot edict”, is the correct path forward. Only through a united assault against the bosses will the workers achieve victory.
An industry in crisis
This strike, however, is the outcome of a deeper crisis affecting the sector. The BC lumber industry has been at odds with American competitors since the late 1980s. Trump’s protectionism has also served to exacerbate the crisis. Western Forest Products Vice-President Susan Dolinski explained the problem, “We’ve got a weak market in the U.S., which is driven by bad weather, so slower than usual construction in the US. As well, lumber prices are down about 50 percent of what they were last year…” In other words, the crisis affecting the Canadian lumber industry has been a drawn-out development of international trade.
To make up for their loss of profit, the bosses are trying to put the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of the working class. This means reduced wages, cancelled benefits, and mass layoffs. For example, the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development stated in September that this economic slowdown has meant that over 4,000 workers lost their jobs in the logging industry this year alone. Likewise, Union president for United Steelworkers Local 1-423 Pat McGregor told Global News that, “Log costs are high …We’re being told 75 percent of the cost for the employer is getting the wood from the bush into the mill.” And he added, “your mill can be next.”
Naturally, the crisis in the logging industry has created significant anxiety and frustration for rural BC workers. We could see this when on Sep. 25, hundreds of forestry workers convoyed into Vancouver to protest the loss of jobs due to the industry slowdown. One convoy organizer, Howard McKimmon, expressed the frustration of rural BC, “Small-town BC forest communities are fed up, we’re done… It’s time for the government to take some action and take some measures to get this province back working in the forest industry.” There is an obvious sense of neglect and exclusion felt by rural BC workers, whose entire communities are threatened with extinction due to the shuttering of the mills.
But while workers are being told that times are tough for the industry, that everyone needs to tighten their belt and “do their part”, this advice never applies to the bosses. The United Steelworkers union website states, “According to WFP’s 2017 and 2018 financial reports, the company made over $1 billion in sales and made a net profit of $74.4 million and $69.2 million respectively. In addition, the salaries of the CEO and Vice-President have steadily increased from $1.5 million in 2015 to $2 million in 2017 for the CEO, and from $500,000 in 2015 to $1.2 million in 2017 for the Vice-President.” Even though the market is tightening, WFP still makes on average $70 million annually in net profit. The bosses demand selfless sacrifice of the workers, but they themselves continue to accumulate more wealth in their greasy hands.
Only socialism can save the lumber industry
As of now, no one, including the BCNDP government, has put forward a viable solution to the current crisis. The BC Liberals put forward a “five-point program” of reducing corporate taxes, creating a “forestry competitiveness committee” and asking for help from the federal government to relieve laid-off workers. Even if this was achieved in full, it would amount to nothing but handing fistfuls of money to the bosses while they continue to drive down wages and close mills. We have seen this in Oshawa, where the government gave millions away to General Motors just to have the bosses close up shop, leaving their workers in the lurch. Nothing would be different in BC if the government follows this plan.
The WFP strike has proved to be solid. The bosses have failed to pull the wool over the workers’ eyes with “mediators”, and bullying tactics have only galvanized the strike. But strikers are looking for a way to break the deadlock. Dale Marsh, a striking WFP worker in North Cowichan BC asked in an interview, “What has to happen in people’s lives for the government to see this struggle?” Dianna Marsh, Dale’s wife, commented, “I really believe that it’s not going to end,” and that, “Somebody needs to step in, somebody needs to step up…” In fact, many workers are looking for an out, and looking in particular to the BCNDP government.
In other disputes right-wing governments have legislated a contract in the interests of the bosses. If the right can legislate for the bosses is there no reason why the BCNDP could not legislate a solution in favour of the workers? After all, the BCNDP is affiliated to the BCFed, and is nominally the unions’ party. The problem is that the government fears that doing so would cause the capitalists to pull out investments, destroying logging communities. The alternative to this capitalist logic is to put the industry into the hands of those who built it. If the bosses do not wish to run production then the workers should occupy the plants and take them over.
Gluttonous bosses, like those of WFP, are an expensive parasite on the lumber industry. They cost millions of dollars in the form of shareholder dividends, and executive pay, yet they add no value. If the bosses cannot promise good working conditions, living wages, and reliable, stable jobs, then it should be the workers themselves who control and manage the lumber industry. If the workers were to control the mills without the burden of corporate mismanagement, they would be able to revolutionize production while providing cheap raw materials to build social housing, schools, and community infrastructure. This dispute shows us that the capitalists are increasingly incapable of providing decent conditions and employment in forestry communities. If capitalism no longer works we have to turn to socialist solutions.