Steelworkers and Western at odds over severance pay

The forestry workers’ union is taking Western Forest Products to arbitration over concerns the company only re-opened the downtown Nanaimo sawmill to avoid forking out millions of dollars in severance pay.

The company re-opened one shift at the mill in mid-November after a complete shut-down that lasted almost two years.

Brian Butler, first vice-president of the United Steelworkers Local 1-1937, said the union believes there was no market to re-open the mill, which is operating with a “skeleton crew” of about 30 people.

“Our view is it is strictly severance avoidance,” he said.

The union’s contract with Western stipulates severance must be paid after a mill has been shut down for two years.

The union has filed a grievance against Western for all employees of the downtown mill, including those employees who are working.

Butler said there are two questions that will go to arbitration: the first whether the 40-50 employees who ran the planer at the downtown mill – which never restarted – are entitled to severance. The union is arguing they are because this portion of the operation has been down for more than two years.

This matter will be dealt with by an arbitrator on Aug. 21-22.

The second question for arbitration is whether the company started the sawmill up just to avoid paying severance to employees. A date for that hearing has not been set.

If the union is successful at arbitration, Butler estimates the company would have to pay between $5 million and $6 million to about 160 workers.

The union may also file grievances for employees of Western’s Duke Point sawmill, where the planer is the only part of the operation still running, he added. Two years will be up for Duke Point workers in October.

Western spokesman Gary Ley would not comment on the matter while the case is before arbitration.

“We did start the mill up because there’s a market for it,” he said.


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