PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. – The recent strike by independent log truckers in north central B.C. was at least partially successful, getting truckers rate increases and recognition for a newly formed group, the Prince George Truckers Association (PGTA).
The strike action started in Prince George, a community of about 80,000, the largest city in northern B.C., Feb. 18, at the height of the winter logging season. It was a rare move, which has only occurred twice in the past three decades – in the summer of 1978, and in the winter of 1988-89.
But it quickly spread to other smaller communities in the area.
Log truckers striking in the smaller communities went back to work after a few days, returning for pay increases in the 10-12 per cent range. But in Prince George, where the PGTA was not only pushing for better pay, but a new bargaining structure, strikers held out for two weeks.
The PGTA wanted to bargain directly with forest companies, including Western Canadian-heavyweight Canfor Corp., with the United Steelworkers as their bargaining agent. The Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada union, which represents about 4,000 sawmill workers in north central B.C., recently merged with the Steelworkers.
Forest companies, including Canfor, were willing to increase pay rates, but refused to change their practice of negotiating with logging contractors, responsible for providing trucking services.
But in early March, on Day 13 of the strike, the PGTA and its union partner believed they had made a breakthrough, saying Canfor had agreed for the first time to recognize the trucking association, and its right to hire a bargaining agent. Canfor officials, however, said there was no deal because the truckers had not returned immediately to work, instead choosing to keep pickets up to support truckers striking other forest companies in Prince George.
“The PGTA are in breach of the conditions agreed upon by their representatives,” said Jim Shepherd, president and CEO of Canfor. “Given the actions by the PGTA and their agent, the United Steelworkers-IWA, we at Canfor now question the integrity of the process; we can’t trust them.”
Canfor officials said the company would honour the financial elements of the deal, which included a 12.42 per cent trucking rate increase, and a six cent per tonne hour signing bonus. The signing bonus was retroactive to Jan. 1, 2005 and was to last through to spring break-up.
The rate increase and signing bonus increased rates by nearly 16 per cent in total. In a counter to Canfor’s position, the PGTA and its union partner maintain the deal still stands, and its truckers started hauling timber to Canfor’s five Prince George sawmills March 4.
The PGTA described the delay in getting logs moving again to Canfor mills as a “glitch.”
PGTA president Dan Henry said it just took longer to get the pickets down, and the trucks running, than they expected.
“We feel we’ve fulfilled everything that we were called to do, and it’s still a deal,” said Henry.
It has added a confusing twist to the end of the two-week strike action. At the same time, the PGTA hammered out similar deals with several independent sawmills in the Prince George area, including Winton Global, Lakeland Mills and Dunkley Lumber.
Winton Global had already worked out a trucking rate increase with its logging contractors, but finally decided to recognize the PGTA. The company said it’s willing to work with the PGTA on a myriad of issues, including rates and safety.
“We had to make a business decision which was in the best interest of our employees, contractors, the company, and really look at maintaining continuity with our customers,” said Winton Global president Mike Low.
The strike, coupled with an unseasonably warm winter, had been causing concerns that mills would run out of timber well before the summer logging season began. The PGTA was created 18 months ago specifically to push for better rates and working conditions, and almost immediately began working with the Steelworkers-IWA.
The PGTA – which does not represent all of the estimated 500 truckers in the Prince George area – launched its demands for increased rates and other benefits in early February. The PGTA demanded about a 40 per cent increase in trucking rates, as well as $92 per hour if they had to wait longer than one hour to be loaded in the woods or unloaded at mill yards. They were also seeking a $200-per-month fee to provide a benefits package. The truckers said Canfor could afford rate increases as it had made a record $420.9 million profit in 2004.
The trucking association contended that stagnant rates and escalating costs had combined to prevent truckers from making enough money to survive. In the past 15 years, fuel costs have more than doubled, maintenance costs have increased 10 per cent and equipment replacement costs have skyrocketed, say the truckers.
But association officials say there’s been no real increase in rates during the same period, and blamed the lower rates for increasing highway safety concerns. Truckers were being forced to work at a faster pace and for longer hours, they said, pointing to the highway fatalities of 12 logging truck drivers in north-central B.C. over the past three years, two of which occurred in February.