Vaughn Palmer: For the NDP, cold, hard cash means party can ignore Steelworkers

November 5, 2021

By: The Working Forest Staff

Vaughn Palmer Opinion: Union leaders say forest workers have been shut out of the decision on old-growth forests, with decision-making ceded to environmental groups

VICTORIA, VANCOUVER SUN —  — The union representing forestry workers in B.C. held off a day before blasting the NDP government move to defer logging in about a third of the unprotected old-growth forests in B.C.

“B.C. forestry decision will cost thousands of jobs and devastate communities,” read the headline on the media release Wednesday from the United Steelworkers Wood Council, representing 12,000 forestry workers in B.C.

“If even half of the 2.6 million hectares identified by the government are removed, jobs will be lost as multiple sawmills, value-added operations, and pulp mills close permanently,” said council chair Jeff Bromley, referring to Tuesday’s announcement by Forests Minister Katrine Conroy.

He went on to predict that if all the old-growth stands identified by the government were permanently protected, the job losses across the industry and forest-dependent communities could exceed the NDP estimate of 4,500 by a factor of four.

Bromley also took a shot at the government for trying to placate his members with the promise of a “workplace adjustment” strategy.

‘With all due respect, I’m getting a little tired of retirement packages and retraining,” he told Jas Johal during an interview on radio station CKNW after the media release came out.

“I don’t believe that this is a sunset industry. This is my industry, I’ve been in this industry for 27 years and my stepfather was in this industry — going back, even my grandfather.

“It’s an industry that is sustainable and then renewable. I think sometimes we get the short end of the stick, for a lack of a better analogy.”

The Steelworkers’ leadership was incensed that the deferrals were identified by an NDP government-appointed technical advisory panel, saying four of the five members had strong ties to the environmental movement.

“Some in the environmental movement have been strategically misleading the public for years with false claims about the forest industry,” complained Bromley. “It appears the government is now willing to cede forest policy to the very same groups.”

The union had flagged the one-sidedness of the panel back when it was appointed in June.

“We cautioned the government that without having a panel of experts that had a balance of perspectives, it would lead to preservation over a sustainable harvest and the corresponding loss of thousands of jobs and serious damage to the industry,” said Bromley.

But on that point and others, the New Democrats simply ignored the union, compounding the anger of the union leaders.

They were also rebuffed in their bid to meet with Premier John Horgan earlier this fall, before the deferrals were finalized.

Brian Butler, president of local 1-1937, representing 6,000 workers on the Coast and Vancouver Island: “The government would not listen to the USW Wood Council and quite frankly they sold out forest workers and the industry in the process.”

Al Bieksa, president of USW Local 2009, based in the Lower Mainland: “All USW Wood Council members across B.C. feel betrayed and abandoned by this government.

“We were promised meaningful input and a voice at the table as government crafted a sustainable and strategic forestry plan. We are quickly losing trust in this government that they truly care about working people, particularly those that depend on the working forest for their livelihood.”

The only hope on the horizon for the union was that the deferrals were temporary and subject to approval by the First Nations on whose traditional territories the old-growth stands are located.

“The government’s approach to reconciliation with First Nations in B.C. is the right approach and sorely needed,” said Bromley. “But First Nations across B.C. are already a very big part of the forest industry. It is Indigenous-owned companies and Indigenous workers who are all going to feel the brunt of these losses.”

He noted that Indigenous leaders had been given a mere 30 days to respond to news of the deferrals.

“Thirty days for them to respond?” said Bromley. “I don’t think that’s fair nor adequate.”

He also wondered aloud whether, if a given First Nation were to reject the deferrals, “will the government listen to them?”

For the union, it must have been especially galling to be sidelined and ignored on a matter of such central importance to the membership.

The USW wood council, and its predecessor, the IWA, have usually been there when the NDP needed help.

In the run-up to the 2017 provincial election, when the NDP was strapped for cash, the union paid the salaries of key NDP organizers in the course of providing the party with a record-setting $753,415.

Ironically, when the NDP took power, one of the first things it did was to ban union and corporate donations to political parties.

The move made political sense: the B.C. Liberals were far more dependent on corporate financing than was the NDP on donations from union headquarters.

The NDP also had more experience in soliciting direct donations from individuals, including union members.

The government also made up some of the loss by providing a direct taxpayer subsidy to political parties, reaffirmed this week with all-party support.

The combination meant that the New Democrats were no longer dependent on big donations from the Steelworkers.

I expect that made it easier for the government to ignore the union leadership in crafting this week’s old growth deferrals.

On that basis, the union accusation that the NDP “sold out forest workers” strikes me as pretty much on the mark.

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