As the labour dispute between Western Forest Products Inc. and United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 heads into its third month, tensions are running high over health benefits.

Employees who are members of the Steelworkers chapter have been on strike since July 1, 2019. The proposed collective agreement in question includes concessions on a number of issues, including pension plans, long-term disability benefits and seniority rights, according to the strike notice.

As well, the Vancouver-based lumber company said in a recent email to workers it would cease covering health benefits during the strike as of September. Up to this point, Western Forest Products had continued to pay the premiums to keep the benefits intact. The union called the decision “an extraordinary and vindictive move,” in a publicly released bargaining update.

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In its communication to employees, Western Forest Products said the trustees of the USW-Coastal Forest Industry Health & Welfare Plan confirmed in a memorandum that the company has no obligation to provide benefits during the strike.

The union maintains this is untrue, pointing to a 1993 motion that established union members would reimburse their employer for any premiums it paid during strike action once the work stoppage had concluded.

In its bargaining update, the union said it doesn’t have the resources to cover health benefits for Western Forest Products’ employees and the company is well aware of this fact. “WFP’s actions, once again, point to decision-makers with WFP who have no history on the coast and who simply don’t understand that when the strike ends, they will have to work with their employees again and their antagonistic approach is making that an increasingly difficult prospect.”

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In a statement to Benefits Canada, Western Forest Products said it’s eager to return to negotiations. “The strike comes at an extremely challenging time for the B.C. coastal forest industry with weak markets, low prices and increasing costs. The reality is the entire forest industry is in a state of transition. We want to get back to the bargaining table to talk about how we best address the challenges we face — together.”

Copyright © 2019 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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