Politics

Vaughn Palmer: Unions report on NDP failings in forestry crisis

Opinion: They did not spare the NDP failure to develop a strategy for a sustainable industry for the future

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VICTORIA — The NDP government response to the continuing crisis in the B.C. forest sector has been “inadequate,” “scatter gun” and “delivered with little attention to the need for an overall strategy to sustain the industry.”

So said a trio of forest sector unions in a report released this week that Premier David Eby himself acknowledged as a wake-up call for the NDP in an election year.

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“It stings a little bit to hear that from the perspective of your report and your experience,” Eby said Tuesday, facing representatives from Unifor, the United Steelworkers, and the Public and Private Workers of Canada.

Their report, A Better Future for B.C. Forestry, details a crisis across the B.C. industry including harvesting, pulp and paper, and manufacturing.

The unions blamed myriad job losses and mill closures on everything from the pine-beetle infestation to restrictions on old-growth logging to the policies of the previous B.C. Liberal government.

But they did not spare the NDP failure to develop a strategy for a sustainable industry for the future.

“This report reviews the inadequacy of existing government responses to that crisis — which have consisted largely of a slate of relatively small and ad-hoc assistance programs,” say the unions. “The government cannot limit itself to simply providing transitional assistance to workers displaced by the sector’s continuing crisis.”

The report is especially critical of the workforce and community adjustment programs brought in by the NDP since they assumed office in 2017.

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“We applaud the efforts the B.C. government has made in developing these programs,” it says. “But not enough analysis has been done on the long-term challenges faced by forestry workers and their communities.“

There followed a point-by-point dissection of the shortcomings of eight separate NDP government programs for the forest sector.

Early retirement bridging for forestry workers “does not take into account the existence, terms, or funded ratio of whatever pension plan may be in place for that worker.”

The forest employment program “provides only short-term employment opportunities.”

The employer training grant “is not helpful to workers who lose their jobs when sawmills or paper plants are closing permanently.”

The program for young adults at risk “is targeted at youth that are not employment ready” and “not helpful for skilled forestry sector workers losing their jobs.”

The community workforce grant “does not provide relocation assistance and does not provide for analysis of labour market trends and job opportunities in the region.”

The program to promote rural economic development “will not likely do more than provide extra incremental support to small private initiatives.”

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The B.C. manufacturing jobs fund, one of the most heavily promoted NDP initiatives, “is not devoting enough attention to encouraging reinvestment in existing mills.”

The community transition service “is clearly not adequate in addressing overall community needs for long-run job-creation and diversification.”

Bottom line: “This scatter-gun approach lacks overall strategy and sufficient resources to provide much more than transitional aid to affected workers and communities.”

As a verdict on almost eight years of NDP policy making, that strikes me as more than a little bit stinging, as the premier put it.

Eby did meet with union representatives this week, indicating that he had read the report and digested its implications.

“We have not adequately included you, as people from the front lines, in solutions to this crisis,” he told them. “My commitment to you here today is we’re going to fix that.”

The premier endorsed the report’s call for “a permanent province-wide forestry council with participation from all key stakeholders, including government, businesses, unions, universities and utilities, to work with the province.”

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The union also called for “a strategy to maximize the value-added sector,” which sounded like something B.C. governments have been promising — and falling short of implementing — for decades.

Another item on the list seeks a “forest adjustment bureau that would also include income security, relocation incentives and other measures to adjust to changing forestry employment patterns.”

The premier said the government is already working on the union call for a sustainable fibre supply. It is happening under Andrew Mercier, the new minister of state for sustainable forestry and innovation.

Mercier has been on the fibre-hunt for a couple of months, and I expect he is discovering that there is too much demand chasing too little supply.

Considering the source, it is not surprising that the report blamed the major forest companies for failing to reinvest in production capacity here in B.C.

But there was no consideration of how B.C.’s high production costs and heavy regulation might have persuaded companies to invest elsewhere — as they have been doing.

Some of the proposals in the report could backfire because they were subsidy-like, which in the past has inspired tariffs, quotas and other restrictions on B.C.’s access to the U.S. market.

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The premier promised the group that the New Democrats will “address the issues you’ve identified.” I expect they will for now.

But given the failings documented in the report, Eby’s commitment may not last much longer than this election year or be any more effective than previous measures undertaken by the NDP.

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