Union eyes WFP's idled mill
Proposal is considered to move sawmill from city's downtown to Harmac site

Robert Barron, The Star
Published: Friday, March 12, 2010

Talks are underway that could see Nanaimo's downtown Western Forest Products mill moved to the site of the Harmac pulp mill.

Arnold Bercov, president of the Pulp, Paper and Workers of Canada, Local 8, which represents workers at Harmac, said the idea is to set up an employee-ownership model similar to Harmac's and move the mill, which has been closed for more than a year, to Harmac's 500 hectares of land at Duke Point.

WFP currently leases the land for its downtown mill from the Nanaimo Port Authority.

But Bercov said the discussions are at an early stage and acknowledged there are many obstacles to overcome before the plan could become a reality, including the fact that workers at WFP's mill are represented by the United Steelworkers and it's expected employees at a mill located on Harmac property would be required to be members of the PPWC.

Darrel Wong, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1-1937, which represents WFP's workers in Nanaimo, said there have been "some conversations" between his union and the PPWC on moving the downtown mill, in whole or in parts, to the Harmac site but agreed that there are a number of contentious issues that would have to be dealt with first, including union certification.

He said that with all the issues involved there is only a "remote possibility" that the plan will move forward.

Bercov said there wasn't much confidence that the plan by Harmac's workers to buy their mill would succeed when it was first proposed in 2008 either, but it turned out to be a successful venture.

"We need to do something to save our mills before we lose all of our raw logs to exports," Bercov said.

"We realize that it's a very complicated proposal that involves resolving numerous union issues and having to raise the money to make it a reality, but we have the experience in this type of project and we really want to give it a shot."

Bercov said the plan could see WFP supply the mill and remain a part of the management of the operation.

Nanaimo Forest Products (Harmac's owners) would supply the land for the mill and the workers would buy into the operation and become part owners.

If the project proceeds, the mill could also be a vital source of wood fibre for Harmac.

Bercov said the original plan called for moving WFP's closed Ladysmith mill (whose workers are represented by PPWC) to the Harmac site, but after discussions with Stephen Frasher, WFP's new president and CEO, a decision was made to focus on WFP's downtown mill. Frasher couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

In a letter to union members, Brian Butler, a vice-president of the local Steelworkers, said the union would not agree to mill jobs going to PPWC members, as has been suggested.

He said the union is more focused at this time on the issue of of severence payments for employees at WFP's closed mills.