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Mill workers lose court battle

Apr 17 2012

Hundreds of laid-off workers at Nanaimo's two Western Forest products' sawmills won't receive severance packages after labour arbitrator David McPhillips recently ruled in favour in the forest company in a longstanding dispute.

Darrel Wong, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 which represents workers at the two mills, said the union sees no point in appealing McPhillips' decision even though it feels many of its arguments in the case are still valid. WFP spokeswoman MacKenzie Leine said she's not surprised by the arbitrator's decision.

The union began court action against WFP over their concerns that the forest company may have reopened its two sawmills in Nanaimo with skeleton crews in 2010 to avoid having to pay severance packages, totalling more than $6 million, that the company would be mandated to pay if the mills remained closed.

"We've said from the beginning that our decision to partially reopen Nanaimo's mills in 2010 was based on the market conditions at the time, and we've always respected all collective agreements when we make these decisions," Leine said.

The union contended that WFP was trying to skirt the rules of a collective agreement and not pay severance packages to its workers who were laid off from the two Nanaimo mills in 2008 and 2009 when international forest markets crumbled.

According to the collective agreement, the workers are entitled to severance packages after a shutdown of two years at their mills, but the union believes WFP partially reopened the mills with smaller crews just weeks before the two-year deadline expired to avoid having to make the payouts.

Union and company officials spent three days in arbitration with McPhillips last fall over the issue.

Wong said there was "some discussions" with company officials before McPhillips made his ruling about a deal that would have dealt with all similar circumstances in all WFP mills, but there was nothing specific for Nanaimo.

"The deal would have also seen significantly reduced benefits for our members, so we didn't accept it," he said.

RBarron@nanaimodailynews.com 250-729-4234