Timber Licenses - Workers Need to be Players at the Table
by Peter EwartThere are few things more devastating to workers and communities in the rural and northern regions of British Columbia than mill closures. Over the last few years, we have seen more than our share in towns such as Prince George, and even more devastatingly, in smaller forestry communities like Mackenzie and Fort St. James.
Oftentimes, workers are among the last to know of a mill closure, even though it is these same workers who tend the forests, harvest the logs, and process the timber. Once the metal gates of the mill are shut, they are left standing out in the cold with no say whatsoever about the future of the mill or the timber license itself.
Take, for example, the case of workers at Winton Global, a forestry company based in the Prince George region which is partly owned by the Canfor multinational. They were laid off over 2 ½ years ago, yet still haven't even received their severance pay because of loopholes in the provincial legislation.
While Winton Global's forestry manufacturing operations have been shut down during this period, the company has been using its timber licenses, which were granted to it by theprovincial government, to continue harvesting logs and selling them to companies to process in other locations.
Laid-off workers at Winton Global consider this tactic of the company to be "most unfair" and "morally wrong", and are calling upon the provincial government "to remove the forest licenses" held by the company and "return them to the market" if it refuses to re-open the mill.
For his part, Steve Thomson, BC Forests Minister, has responded by stating that "there are no grounds" for cancelling Winton Global's forest licenses, and that he will not comply with the workers' demands.
All of this illustrates the major power imbalance that exists in terms of mill closures and timber licensing rights in this province. It is obvious that companies and government have a huge amount of clout. But workers have practically none.
Why is that the case? Yes, company owners invest capital in mill operations and timber licenses - there is no denying it. But workers invest their labour and stake their livelihoods on this work as well - and there is no denying that either. If labour acting on nature is the source of all wealth, that should count for something. But, under current legislation, it doesn't.
In addition to their labour, workers also commit their families, homes and futures, not just to the company, but to the community and region as well. Indeed, they are the bedrock of our communities. That should count for something also.
In the past, the owners of the mills used to live here too. A few still do, including several of the owners of Winton Global. But, increasingly, it is the international financiers and hedge fund tycoons, who own and control the big companies like Canfor, and who have substantial, often controlling, interest in smaller companies like Winton Global. They, of course, are far removed from the smell of sawdust, living in such "global" cities of high finance as New York, London and Tokyo.
For these financiers, it matters little whether forestry workers have jobs or whether communities like Prince George, Mackenzie or Quesnel live or die. To them, timber licenses are just pieces of polished ivory on a chessboard representing assets in a faraway province somewhere over on the western edge of North America. These assets could just as easily be a field of soybeans in Iowa or a banana plantation in Costa Rica as far as they are concerned.
We live in times when some rebalancing of power is in order. In the rush towards globalization, workers and communities need protection, and they need more say and input into economic decisions.
In British Columbia, it is outrageous that workers, who are already going through the trauma of lay-off, are held hostage to flawed severance pay legislation that allows companies to leave them dangling in a state of limbo, somewhere between "indefinite" and "permanent" layoff. This legislation needs to be tightened up and loopholes closed so that employers cannot abuse the process, whether it is by leaving workers in limbo or using extended layoffs to overturn union certification.
Secondly, it is within the Forests Minister's right to take away Winton Global's timber licenses and put them on the open market, and he should do this immediately - as demanded by the Winton Global workers. Let someone else have a kick at the can.
But there is a third step that should also be considered in future provincial legislation. When a mill closes, workers need to have more power and say in regards to what happens to the mill, especially if it goes bankrupt, and what happens to the timber rights. As "investors" of labour, they need to be a player at the table.
For example, if a company is simply "sitting" on a timber license or is harvesting logs and shipping them out to other companies without processing them in its mill, its timber license should be taken away after a clearly specified period.
However, instead of the timber license just going on the "open market", the workers at that mill should have the option of taking it over. Like the owners of the company, they, too, have much "invested" and should have their own "kick at the can".
If the workers are unionized, they could do this through their union local. If non-union, through an employee association of some kind. Like the company, the workerswould hold the timber license for a specified period, during which time they could negotiate with other companies to takeover the license in ways that could re-employ them.
Alternatively, they could pool their severance pay (which for several hundred workers might amount to millions of dollars) and, either set up a worker-owned cooperative enterprise or partner with other business investors.
Workers at the Harmac pulp mill in Nanaimo did the latter after the company shut down several years ago. The mill was on the verge of being cut up and shipped off as scrap to Asia when the 220 workers made the bold decision to each invest $25,000 and, partnering with local business investors, bought the mill. Today, the mill is running at capacity, the workforce has increased to 300, and the original worker-investors have had their shares double in value.
Still another alternative would be to convert the timber license into a community forest under the provincial Community Forest legislation and have the union local or employee association operate it. To facilitate this, the "eligible applicants" in the legislation could be expanded to explicitly include these designated worker organizations. As operators of a community forest, workers would be able to enter into contractual relations with harvesters and processors that were mutually beneficial.
If foreign investors, and even ones connected to organized crime (as has happened in this region in the past), can get a hold of timber licenses, why aren't there processes in place for the laid-off workers who actually live here, to do the same?
In recent years, the forest industry has taken some huge hits. We need new ways of doing things, and new methods to revitalize the industry. To accomplish this, workers should have more say and more options open to them when mills close and timber licenses are not properly utilized.
Workers need to be players at the table, not beggars at the door. New legislation is needed.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia.