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May 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

SPOTLIGHT

Spurring action on rates

A recent work stoppage by log haulers in British Columbia’s central Interior has spurred action from companies and contractors to increase hauling rates, a move that may have an impact on log haulers in other regions.

By Jim Stirling

A truckers’ rally held in Prince George in February in support of higher hauling rates attracted a large number of log haulers and their rigs. Estimates were that more than 200 trucks were involved in the rally.

Log haulers in British Columbia’s central Interior weren’t just busy working on their trucks during spring break-up. They were intent on negotiating a new rate setting structure for their services, the implications of which will reverberate through the regional log harvesting sectors. Frustrations over log hauling rates and the way they are set came to a boil at the end of last winter’s log harvesting season. A group of mainly owner/operator truckers organized a work stoppage and erected pickets at mill yards to prevent log deliveries. The action was taken at a time critical for licensees, who were anxious to supplement their log inventories to keep sawmills running at full capacity during spring break-up.

The truckers were organized under the banner of the Prince George Trucking Association (PGTA). The association enlisted the United Steelworkers-IWA Local 1-424 to act as its bargaining agent. The PGTA’s members were off the job about 12 days, impacting all mills in the Prince George area. Canfor is the dominant licensee in terms of size and rate benchmarking influence. Regional log haulers in places like Chetwynd, Vanderhoof and Quesnel demonstrated their support of the PGTA with limited work stoppages of their own. The sharp curtailment of log deliveries caught non-PGTA aligned truckers and log harvesting contractors in the middle. Others, including secondary manufacturing operations and woodlot owners, discovered quickly that their log supply was also compromised by the PGTA’s actions.

Negotiations between log haulers, logging contractors and forest company Canfor—the dominant licensee in the region—resulted in an interim agreement that included a trucking rate increase of 12.42 per cent.

The impasse was breached when Canfor and then other mills agreed to an interim rate increase of nearly 12.5 per cent in log hauling rates. Other temporary concessions were also negotiated, and the wood flow resumed. The deal was that the PGTA and the licensees would discuss rates, a dispute resolution mechanism, maintenance, turnaround times, safety and associated issues during the spring break-up as framework for a lasting agreement. That arrangement was clouded somewhat when Canfor said the truckers reneged on the agreement by not returning to work as quickly as they said they would. At the beginning of April, however, the PGTA was anticipating a start to discussions with Canfor and the other regional licensees. During the truckers’ work stoppages, the log haulers demanded direct negotiations with the licensees about rates and their other concerns.

But Canfor’s system, for example, has the logging contractors negotiating hauling rates with the owner operators. “But what is the best way?” queries PGTA president Dan Henry. “We’ve got the companies, the contractors and us all with problems and all with solutions.” Working co-operatively makes the most sense, he adds. “It’s a big circle.” The truckers’ work stoppages were no spontaneous reaction; it has been a long time in the making. For years, log haulers have complained their rates have been cut back to the point they fail to keep up with the cost of operation. On the other hand, the costs of doing business are steadily increasing on many fronts, say the truckers.

Frequent changes in fuel prices is one major bugbear the truckers have no control over. Logging contractors, of course, face the same cost escalation problems. It is why they, too, will want to be part of any rate adjustment discussions affecting them directly and indirectly through the log hauling component. Contractors are also being asked to invest in new log harvesting systems and standards of practice. The mountain pine beetle epidemic encourages licensees to increase use of cut-to-length systems to get the most usable fibre from each stem. And the licensees have long been dedicated to cost cutting to improve efficiencies and the competitive edge in a world where softwood lumber duties and a high flying Loonie are among the realities of operation. Regional log haulers are a greying population.

That trend, along with disillusionment about trucking rates and other work conditions, has led many to leave the industry. Others have migrated to areas like the Alberta oil patch in search of work. Consequently, there’s serious concern about the shortage of owner operators and experienced drivers. Those truckers remaining complain about having to work faster and longer hours to try and make ends meet. That in turn heightens safety concerns for truckers and all other road users. At least three regional logging truck drivers lost their lives on the job this past winter. The PGTA’s Henry says he’d like to talk to Canfor at some point about a form of apprenticeship training for log haulers, to help make the profession more attractive to new entrants.

The PGTA has been around for about 18 months, but raised its profile substantially with its job action. The association launched its public campaign by issuing an initial bargaining salvo to Prince George licensees early in February 2005. The truckers demanded a 40 per cent increase in rates along with some benefits. They said they wanted to bypass the contractors and negotiate directly with the companies through its agent, the Steelworkers-IWA. The truckers set a deadline for negotiations to begin. The inference was that association members and supporters were prepared to park their trucks if no progress was made. A rally in downtown Prince George, February 12, attracted large numbers of log haulers and their rigs. Estimates had more than 200 trucks involved.

There were certainly enough trucks to snarl traffic and garner public attention—and considerable support—to the truckers’ concerns. Most of the licensees kept mum publicly during the truckers’ sabre-rattling exercise. A Canfor spokesman said before the rally that the company was always willing to talk to owner/operators about safety issues. But concerns about rates had to be taken up with the logging contractors hiring them. The long-established Central Interior Logging Association, also based in Prince George, has truckers as members and logging contractors of varying sizes, as well. CILA recognizes the truckers’ frustrations and issues concerning rates and safety.

It says it has been working quietly on these issues in a less confrontational manner for months. The PGTA members started their job action, as promised, at midnight February 18. Logging trucks were parked; pickets at area mills went up. A series of meetings followed, including truckers’ rallies. A tentative deal emerged from one session between Canfor contractors and their truckers. It included a 10.89 per cent increase on the base rate paid truckers. Communications between the truckers and other contractors went forth and back while the work embargo stayed in place. Nerves on both sides were a little frayed after a week of the dispute. Licensees were increasingly concerned about getting enough wood in their yards to carry them through break-up.

The bush was quiet and no one was making money. Canfor’s contractors continued to work diligently with their contract truckers and negotiated the “deal makers and deal breakers” with Canfor. The result was an interim agreement for a trucking rate increase of 12.42 per cent retroactive to January 1, 2005. It established an hourly rate of $2.839 a tonne hour on 38.5 tonnes long log highway hauls. Off-highway rates were $2.087 based on 52 tonnes. Other elements of the interim agreement included: confirmation that contractors would waive the administration fee (about one per cent) meaning all the 12.42 per cent increase goes to the truckers; monthly adjusted fuel rates; a benefit program for core truckers; posting of cycle times with a revised review/adjustment process; log hauler participation in road maintenance, safety and log yard committees.

Meanwhile, five independent sawmills in the Prince George area issued an open letter to the PGTA members. It recognized truckers’ concerns and expressed a willingness to work toward instituting acceptable solutions. PGTA truckers working for Canfor contractors voted in favour of the interim agreement on March 2. In the Memorandum of Agreement, Canfor also recognized the PGTA and its right to hire an agent of its choice, the Steelworkers-IWA. Similar deals with other major licensees followed quickly. Independent owner/operators in the Prince George area—and truckers in other regions and provinces keeping tabs on the situation—believe they’ve taken the first vital steps toward a more secure future. And they hope that will be reflected in an agreement between them, the logging contractors, their truckers and the licensees in time for this summer’s logging season. Declares the PGTA’s Henry: “We’re not going to give up and we’re not going to go away. We can’t.”

                                                                                

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