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Silviculture Contractors Respond to IWA Ad

Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Dear Sirs: In the May issue of Logging and Sawmilling Journal, the IWA ran an ad condemning the silviculture industry and announcing their intentions to organize reforestation workers. The ad repeated statements the union has been making in their own publications and in the provincial media that silviculture contractors exploit, underpay and force their employees to work in unsafe conditions. These allegations are untrue and unfair to all silviculture contractors in BC. A reasonable assessment of the facts clearly demonstrates the inaccuracy of the IWAs statements. Here are some of the important facts about the BC silviculture industry.

Of the estimated 25,000 silviculture workers active each year in BC (this includes 15,000 core workers engaged in treeplanting, site preparation and stand management, plus 10,000 nursery workers and forest consultant technical crews), 132 employees filed claims last year to the employment standards branch of the provincial ministry of labour. With only one half of one percent of the work force filing complaints, there is no evidence to support the union's accusation of widespread worker abuse and exploitation in the industry.

The IWA also asserts workers are under-paid. This statement is contradicted by information collected this year by Price Waterhouse that shows silviculture workers across BC on average earn production-based wages above IWA hourly rates for the same work. Furthermore, in the collective agreement signed this spring between the IWA and the West Coast forest worker agency, New Forest Opportunities Ltd., the union agreed to a wages and benefits package that amounts to less than the average rates workers had been earning in the industry prior to the agreement.

The union's statement that silviculture employees often work in unsafe conditions is inconsistent with the facts. Injury rates and lost time claims for silviculture work are within the norms for the forest industry. Few silviculture injuries are the results of severe accidents; they are more often complaints resulting from hard manual labour on difficult terrain. Over the past years, contractors have worked with their own crews and forest company clients to implement effective safety programs. The result has been a steady decline in claims. There is no evidence in WCB records or court files to support the IWA's unfounded accusation that contractors neglect worker safety and endanger their crews.

The IWAs fatuous complaint that contractors only provide seasonal and transient work for their employees is intentionally misleading. Silviculture activities are by their very nature seasonal and transient. The contractors' ability to knit silviculture work (scattered across the seasons and the province) into a coherent tract of employment is one of the key benefits the silviculture industry brings to the practice of forestry in BC. The 1998 Coopers & Lybrand silviculture industry study shows silviculture workers average four months of work annually. Considering these figures are skewed by the thousands of treeplanters who work in the Interior for its brief two-month planting season, the regular journeyman silviculture worker averages more like six to eight months of work annually. This is roughly the average length of the silviculture field season in much of the province.

After assaulting the silviculture contractors for allegedly mistreating their work force, the IWA should take a hard look at how it has treated treeplanting and stand-tending workers in the past, particularly on the West Coast. At least twice in the last 10 years the IWA has tried to organize silviculture workers with only negligible results. The failure of this initiative led to the IWA practice of compelling contractors in some areas to sign special agreements that include their crews submitting membership dues for the privilege of working on union turf. As a result, over the years hundreds of silviculture workers have paid thousands into union coffers with only a few having access to any union benefits or collective representation. The IWA has no apparent qualms about enriching themselves off the backs of silviculture workers and this obvious hypocrisy may have made some workers cynical about the union.

The union has further distanced itself from the silviculture work force in the last few years by preventing seasonal treeplanting workers from planting and earning their living on sites on Vancouver Island. Even though these crews have worked on planting projects in these areas for years, the union pressured forest companies to give laid-off logging crews the work. The results were predictable, with regular treeplanters losing significant parts of their work season and seedlings winding up poorly planted by silviculturally inexperienced loggers. In one case, thousands of seedlings were discarded because they couldn't be planted in time. The willingness of the IWA to hold our precious forest resource to ransom to suit their own ends has left many workers disgusted with union tactics.

Besides disrupting contractor silviculture work directly in parts of the province, it was primarily the IWA's idea to establish a forest worker agency on the Coast and in the Interior to place workers on Forest Renewal BC-funded work. On the Coast, the agency has led to the displacement of many experienced BC silviculture workers and their replacement with the unemployed from the ranks of displaced loggers and community groups. All this under the banner of Forest Renewal BC job creation and job training. As well, New Forest Opportunities Ltd., the Coast agency, has so far succeeded largely in just adding another layer of bureaucracy to enhanced forestry in BC, causing delays and discouraging workers to the point of leaving the silviculture industry. So few work-starved labourers have been placed on New Forest Opportunity Ltd. projects that even Dave Haggard, IWA National President, is complaining, which is ironic considering the agency was his idea.

Furthermore, blind to the notion that government-run labour brokerages like the forest worker agencies are bad ideas (typical of thriving Third World economies like Cuba) Mr. Haggard is now pressuring government to repeat the same mistake by intervening in negotiations to set up a similar agency in the Interior. This plan has no support from Interior silviculture workers, their communities, or the forest companies that must in the end propose enhanced forestry projects.

All totaled, it's difficult to see what benefit the IWA brings to the practice of silviculture in BC in light of their actions. While the silviculture contractors are engaged in constructive talks with the forest companies to establish standards of practice, working conditions and strategies to deal with the severe downturn in the industry, the IWA only offers decibels, threats and slander, of which the ad is typical. They've made many announcements about their intent to organize silviculture workers for most of this year, yet not one single union organizer has set foot in a silviculture camp to date anywhere in the province. It's obvious the IWA has no grass-roots support for their agenda so they are relying on the NDP government to further their cause through legislating the unionization of silviculture workers. Not only are these tactics an affront to the principles of collective bargaining, they are an abuse of the union's power and influence over the current government.

Silviculture contractors are not opposed to trade unions, particularly the IWA. They are welcome to come to our camps. In fact, we challenge them to get off their butts and talk their talk with our workers in the field. We also challenge the IWA to stop hiding behind sweeping unfounded allegations of the entire industry. If they are aware of any contractors who are exploiting or abusing workers, they should have the integrity to publicly name the silviculture contractors. Contractors are prepared to talk constructively with the union anytime they have anything to contribute to the situation in BC's forests that is part of the solution rather than the problem. John Betts, Executive Director Western Silvicultural Contractors' Assoc. Nelson, BC

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