The B.C government has announced $69 million in relief for forestry workers in the Interior affected by job losses or shift reductions, as critics call the situation a “crisis.”
Around B.C., more and more lumber mills are sitting idle, devastating communities and families. Marty Gibbons is with United Steelworkers Local 1-417 based out of Kamloops, which represents just under a thousand forestry workers. He’s spoken to many workers who are now out of a job, wondering what’s ahead.
"They’re mad as hell, generally, there's a lot of fear," Gibbons told CTV News when asked what his members are telling him.
Gibbons said while temporary closures and layoffs are part of the forestry industry, what many people now feel is akin to the grieving process. That’s because, as job losses mount, there seems to be no end in sight. He points to a mill in Merritt that is on the brink.
"Aspen Planers in Merritt has suffered through continued shutdowns for a year and a bit now – it's to the point where our members are running out of E.I.," he said.
Aid announced by province
Although there have been mill closures on the South Coast, the situation is particularly bad in the Interior, prompting the province to announce an aid package. The bulk of the new money, $40 million, will go to an early-retirement bridging program for older forest workers, while $15 million will go to creating short-term forestry jobs, $12 million for skills training and community grants and another $2 million for an office to track progress.
“Our government is committed to support the people impacted by the change and we need the forest industry and the federal government to step up and do their part as well,” said Forests Minister Doug Donaldson at a news conference in Prince George, where the relief was announced.
The minister said the program was created after numerous discussions with communities and companies affected. Asked how many workers may be eligible for relief, Donaldson estimated a total of 3,000 people may be able to get help.
Gibbons welcomes the money, saying it will help workers but he’s wondering where the help is to rejuvenate an industry that is economically and socially vitally important to the province.
Why is this happening?
Donaldson said mill closures – whether indefinite or permanent – were based on several factors, including a drop in supply due to the end of the pine beetle harvest, as well as record-setting wildfire seasons. The softwood lumber disagreement, slower housing starts in the United States and lower lumber prices are also at play here, he added.
The government charges a “stumpage fee” to companies that want to log Crown land. Some critics have suggested the way that is calculated needs to change. Donaldson said that would be difficult given court cases the province is involved in.
"To intervene in that at this time would be very risky because we have our appeals in front of the international courts right now with regards to the softwood lumber dispute," insisted Donaldson
Gibbons – who disagrees on this point with many of the United Steelworker union bosses – said given the length of the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S., maybe it was time to re-think that position.
“We can't let the Americans hold us hostage," he insisted as he pointed out lumber prices right now are actually on the lower end. He added a number of other mills may also need to shut down if they don’t get help, and fast.
USW is one of the largest private sector unions in Canada with 225,000 members. Gibbons speaks for a fraction of the union – about 1,400 workers total based in and around Kamloops.
The BC Liberals are an unlikely ally for Gibbons. Yet the party claims it is in line with his call for a review of stumpage fees. The party wrote a letter to the premier in June asking for stumpage fees to be reduced. The opposition claims Tuesday’s announcement, while helping workers, doesn’t include a long-term plan to help the forestry industry thrive.
The NDP government is disputing that claim. Donaldson said several times at the announcement that the issues facing loggers in B.C. were predicted for years and ignored by the Liberals. He said the plan announced today would help workers transition and also provide short-term employment for when the industry’s fortunes may turn around.
Gibbons agrees some of the problematic policies are from the Liberals time in power.
“Stop your politicking and let’s work for the workers together.”