Western Forest Products workers may lose their health and dental benefits after three months on strike, and striking forestry workers in Campbell River say the news is creating animosity on the picket lines.
The company says it’s under no legal obligation to fund benefit premiums during a strike, unless the union pays for the coverage.
But the United Steelworkers (USW) says the company is bound by a longstanding agreement stating that benefits will be maintained during labour disputes, with members reimbursing the company gradually when work resumes.
In Campbell River, news about the possible loss of benefits is heightening tension on the picket lines.
“That definitely soured the atmosphere significantly,” said a longtime forestry worker who declined to provide his name because of concerns about retaliation from the company. “It’s going to create animosity that’s going to last for years.”
The benefits package includes coverage for eye care, dental and extended health for families, according to workers on the picket line. One striking union member said that losing the benefits will be hard especially on younger families with only one source of income.
“If they get their benefits cut off, their kids get sick… they have to pay for all their own prescription drugs, everything,” said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous. “Kids with diabetes, those parents are going to have to buy their own insulin and everything.”
He was among striking workers from various trades who spoke to the Mirror at the Western Forestry Products facility at Menzies Bay, just north of Campbell River. Some of the workers said they’d been in the industry for several decades.
They said they receive a small amount of strike pay through the union for showing up on the picket lines, but many are struggling to make ends meet without their regular paycheque.
They said many workers have chosen to seek other employment in fields such as construction to earn an income during the strike.
In an Aug. 20 email addressed to striking employees, the company said it has advised Pacific Blue Cross that USW “has not tendered payment and therefore premiums will not be continued unless the union fulfills its option to pay.”
The email advised workers that they can pay Medical Service Plan (MSP) health insurance premiums directly to the provincial government.
It said “Western is no longer in a position to fund the cost of benefits for the USW,” as the strike heads towards its third month.
Susan Dolinksi, Western’s vice-president of corporate affairs, said in a statement the company “delayed this action as long as possible.”
According to the union, a motion passed in 1993 by industry and union trustees committed the company to covering premiums during work stoppages, with workers later paying back the company.
In an update posted online, USW said that union trustees didn’t authorize the change, which it called “extraordinary and vindictive.” The company hasn’t produced evidence that the agreement had been cancelled, according to the union.
Chris Brown, a logging truck driver and picket line captain, said paying MSP premiums will add to the burden of families who are already struggling.
“With the minimum strike pay, they’re going to have a tough time of it,” he said.
He declined to say how much workers receive in strike pay, but said it’s small compared to what they normally receive on a pay day.
Dolinkski said the company is “mindful of the impact of the strike on our employees and are hopeful that the union exercises its option to continue benefits for its members.”
But the union said it lacks the resources to cover benefits for all members.
Western and the USW entered negotiations in April to replace a five-year collective agreement that expired in mid-June.
The union says the company is demanding concessions from workers on a number of issues, including pensions, seniority rights and long-term disability, amid high corporate profits and soaring executive compensation.
More than 2,600 USW members on Vancouver Island and Powell River have been on strike since the beginning of July.
-With files from Karl Yu, Nanaimo News Bulletin