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MB Throws A Wrench Into Master Bargaining In BC

By John Clarke
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

When MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. announced some months ago that it was pulling out of Forest Industrial Relations Ltd. (FIR), the forest industry’s main collective bargaining agency, it set a rather frisky cat among the pigeons in the woods.

Actually it was not planning to withdraw from FIR completely. It just wanted to find a better way to negotiate solutions to local, that is, plant by plant, problems with its workers rather than see them tucked away and forgotten in master contract bargaining with the IWA-Canada union.

John Clarke That’s where the friskiness started. To change its status the company had to apply to the British Columbia Labour Relations Board (LRB) to de-accredit from FIR. It had to declare itself either in or out of the agency at the master contract level. It could not apply at the last minute and that clearly was not its intention. It’s required to make the move and go through the process well ahead of master or main table bargaining, as it’s called. The coast contract runs out next June, so the pressure was on.

The wood products companies in BC have for some years been contemplating changes in their collective bargaining relationships with their unions. To them the industry is becoming too complex for centralized negotiations. Too many problems slip through the cracks and the companies are casting long glances at “enterprise” bargaining in which each plant would have its own labour agreement. The agreement would probably reflect a master pattern on wages, hours and benefits, but would be more capable than the current centralized system of resolving local issue disputes.

FIR’s counterpart on the pulp side, the Pulp and Paper Industrial Relations Bureau, was transformed some years ago into a forum for research and the dissemination of information the companies need in their individual negotiations with the papermaker unions — The Communications, Energy and Paper workers Union of Canada; and the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada. The forum doesn’t directly involve itself in bargaining, even though it still has some influence on the outcome because, of course, information is power.

But from the pulp unions’ point of view the contracts in the plants have to be broad enough to constitute what, to them, is a defact master agreement. As with the IWA-Canada, they would prefer centralized bargaining. So they’ve joined with the IWA-Canada to co-ordinate strategies in next year’s negotiations.

That’s an interesting development because the pulp and wood products unions have not been particularly brotherly. There’s been competition over the years over which group should lead by setting wage and other patterns. Efforts to form one union-in- wood have generally never gotten beyond the idea stage. But it’s a measure of how seriously they take MB’s tactic this time that they’re prepared to sup together now.

The IWA-Canada asked MB not to go ahead with de-accreditation. But MB insisted the FIR structure no longer served its needs. Indeed, it can point to the union itself for reasons to be dissatisfied with the way local issues have been handled. The union has had its own problems in this regard.

Technically, a provincial committee comprising central union officers and representatives from the local unions negotiate a memoranda of agreement on new contracts. The locals sign with individual company operations and they all sign a common agreement, which is the coast master contract. The local unions used to assign authority to bargain for them to the provincial committee.

But particularly in the 1986 and 1988 master contracts, the locals became dissatisfied with the way their plant issues were dealt with. So to protect themselves they told their central office they would no longer sign the master contract until after their plant issues were settled.

The IWA-Canada locals had essentially separated themselves from their central and MB felt it should be able to do the same. Hence its desire to separate itself on local issues, a move that has exposed a fundamental weakness in the collective bargain-ing structure. Over the summer months FIR and the union worked out a protocol to give local issues a more secure place.

It maps out how they’ll be sorted out in the run up to the main table negotiations. But because it has de-accredited, MB will not be part of the protocol. As well, the IWA-Canada wants the MB operations declared a single certification for the purposes of bargaining.

The LRB will take some time to decide if they should be. There will be some heavy-duty legal arguments about which approach best serves the public interest — the flexibility MB wants or the centralized system which has been considered for years a key stabilizing factor in the employer-employee relationship.

The union will hold its wage and contract conference next February when it will formulate its bargaining objectives. So the LRB will likely make its ruling before then.

Meantime, the industry as a whole will be watching how this drama plays out. No other company so far has made any overt move to pull out of FIR or even to support MB. That’s not to say there isn’t intense interest in the outcome. Other boardrooms are like boys standing on the sideline waiting to see how a fight between a couple of their buddies goes before deciding whom to cheer for. They’re waiting to see how successful MB is in this strategy. If it is successful, they undoubtedly will want to go the same route.

Collective bargaining would then go in a different direction. The union would have to be worried because it’s not really set up to channel the local interests so completely through its central committee. So far there are no signs of the pulp sector returning to master bargaining. The unions there have had to adapt and it hasn’t been easy. There’s a lot more work involved. That’s the prospect the IWA-Canada faces if MB succeeds.

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