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Union, Employers Sign Landmark Deal In BC

By John Clarke
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

For Keith Bennett, it was his last labour contract before heading off into the sunset retirement as president of Forest Industrial Relations Ltd. (FIR), the forest industry's main bargaining arm in BC. It was a happy swansong.

For Dave Haggard, concluding his first negotiation as the new national president of the Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada (IWA-Canada), it was a great beginning.

By the reckoning of many in the industry, the negotiations leading to the recently signed agreement were the best in years in the solid wood sector.

The contract does not, it should be noted, make any mention of overtime bans, work reductions or work sharing to create more jobs. The Glen Clark government has been trying to encourage such an approach with incentives to companies that produce more jobs. It will take some grand imagination to see how this contract will help the government's initiative.

What the deal does include, however, amounts to a precedent-setting charter for labour-management relations in the new forest industry in Canada, the primary thrust of which is the establishment of an Education Trust Fund, financed by the employers. The purpose is to make members of the IWA-Canada better trade unionists or at least better-informed trade unionists.

Employers in the Northern and Southern Interior, represented by different associations, will be included in this new order. The industry will be paying $500,000 a year into the fund, based on a contribution of one cent per hour per worker.

That something like this could be fashioned in a place like BC in the midst of a radical industrial change will have heads being scratched across the country. But the reality is in a clause writ large in the agreement. It says: "The strength of the IWA- Canada relies on the continued commitment of the membership to effect positive change. There is an increasing need for our leaders and membership to understand and respond to emerging issues affecting the forest industry and/or our membership. We need to renew and build upon the historic principles of the IWA-Canada through a comprehensive education program which will enrich union membership and enhance the objectives of the IWA-Canada as a proud and progressive union."

It goes on to specifiy that the fund will be used to develop and deliver programs, including administrative costs, time lost from work to attend education and training, and travel and accommodation costs involved.

FIR insisted on this "mission statement." Some employers felt strongly that this was the sort of initiative the union should finance itself. But others thought, equally strongly, that a better educated workforce might be an advantage for the industry when it came to pushing for certain issues and fighting others. FIR wanted the idea firmly defined so that there would be no wandering from the main objective with the passage of time.

Even so, a shakedown period will be needed to nail a few things down. FIR would like workers to learn more about how markets work, what competitors are doing, and how international agreements like the softwood export deal with the US affects management policy. The IWA wants its people to know more about land use, enviromnental and economic issues as well. But it also wants them to broaden their knowledge in areas like running union meetings, utilizing parliamentary procedures, handling grievances and in collective bargaining generally.

Although the proof will be in the details, these two perspectives seem relatively similar. That hasn't always been the case, to be sure, in labour-management relations in BC. But it is recognized that you cannot go through the radical changes the industry has had to negotiate in BC - including adjusting to the tough Forest Practices Code, the implementation of broad Forest Renewal programs, a government-sponsored job creation accord, and a restrictive export deal with the US - without changing the character of labour-management relations.

It is also recognized that the mix of union members will be changing in BC, and this could bring problems. The IWA- Canada will be recruiting a lot of new members as forest renewal work expands with more tree planting, thinning and intensive silviculture. Nobody expects that forest renewal workers will earn as much as loggers and skilled mill workers.

Thus the membership will be split into two tiers and there is a potential for unrest between the two groups. An education program may help.

But these workers will first have to be enticed into the union, probably over some determined opposition from existing tree planter associations. Would the education sessions help union organizing efforts?

There is no concensus at this point on how the fund will be managed. It will be jointly trusteed by representatives of the IWA-Canada and the industry. But union insiders insist the trusteeship will extend only to auditing by an independent accounting futn. If that is so, then what the fund will be turned to will be firmly in the hands of the union.

There will be a pay increase of five per cent over the next three years on rates ranging from $19.66 an hour to over $27 an hour. There'll be improvements in things like extended health care, medical leave travel allowances, pension plan, sev- erance pay and so on.

But these are items that - except for the education fund - protect existing members rather than showcasing a brave new world for new members. The education plan is new to the forest industry in Canada; the only significant other union with such a system is the Canadian Auto Workers in its agreements with the big car companies.

It is a bold move that many other unions will now be watching. Labour generally has been in retreat since the pace of industrial change began picking up a decade ago. Economic growth has not been matched by job growth and the union presence in decision-making has been diminishing. To the extent that education upgrades the quality of trade union performance, initiatives like the forest industry trust fund may offer a glimpse into the future.

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