Spring 2019 : The petition at Coast Range

Here is my own personal recollection of the events that happened this season at Coast Range.

Origin of the petition

In the spring of 2019, tree planters at Coast Range decided to hand in a petition to management highlighting serious issues regarding the company’s compliance with employment standards and blind spots in our contracts. Due to the company’s logistical mismanagement, there was an accumulation of costly events for the tree planters. The initial event that ignited the petition was after the workers endured a shift in extenuating conditions, with a difficult walk-in through a flooded bush road – for 1 to 1.5 hours – with no compensation whatsoever. We were to simply plant for the minimum price and shut up. One worker brought up the idea that we should be getting 0.5 cents for every kilometer of walk-in as compensation for time lost. This quickly evolved to workers holding meetings away from management to discuss our working conditions. Once they were away from management, workers felt comfortable raising many issues that Coast Range workers and the tree planting industry were facing. After a few meetings, we eventually settled on bringing a petition forward to higher management to discuss what we wanted to see out of Coast Range. By the end of the series of meetings, about 75% of the camp had participated to one or more meetings.

Issues discussed in the petition

As you’ll see in the petition attached to this article, issues were divided between compliance to employment standards and contract modification. While not being illegal, some unfair practices are rendered possible because of grey areas in our contracts. The first section on employment standards is because Coast Range was avoiding to pay the proper minimum wage top-up through non-compliance with portal to portal law and the overtime that would result of recording those hours. Portal to portal means that as tree planters, we are considered working as soon as we leave camp and until we arrive back in camp. Everything in-between should be recorded on your paycheque and counted towards your employment insurance (EI) hours. Instead, they were giving us a flat 9 hours of work every day even though we were working on average 11 hours a day. They also did not record our training hours the very first day of the season which amounted to 6 hours of work and the applicable minimum wage top-up for those concerned.

After rookies, drivers were the other main group concerned by this non-compliance. Coast Range’s system to pay drivers, was to pay them the camp cost. They were receiving 7.50$ each way (less than minimum wage in most cases) and a 10$ bonus every day mostly tied to giving back the vehicle in good shape and other factors. This totals 25$ a day (camp cost) but the 10$ bonus is actually wage withheld until the end of the season. They would also receive a flat amount every day off for washing the truck and driving people into town and back, which did not amount to minimum wage.

I know that that the days off were corrected to amount to minimum wage. Regarding the working days however, I am unsure of any changes as I was not a driver.

The issues surrounding compliance to employment standards amounted to Coast Range paying $30 000 in pay adjustments, in the owner’s words.

After rereading our contracts through a critical lens, we found that many holes were left for the company to push back risk of doing business on their planters. We tried to bring up the unfairness of these practices to the company. Maybe the biggest issue in there was that we didn’t sign any minimum tree price in our contract, although we were hired on the promise of a 14 cents minimum. This was not an attempt at negotiating a raise, but simply have them commit to their own minimum tree price by writing it on paper. Vets knew this was an issue, as the season prior we got paid 13 cents for a few days. It was also an attempt at formalising and clearing up the way tree planters get compensated. It is hard to know when you are driving 2 hours to a shit show if you are being bumped for the long drive or the hard land or both and in which proportion. This lack of a clear compensation policy allows companies to tell us whatever makes them look better when tree planters come to ask what a bump is for. It also makes the discussion around the fairness of a tree price bump harder as we have no information on what is being priced.

Signing the petition

With all these issues discussed, it really came down to action. Some workers were tasked with drafting the petition with our list of demands which was done using the library’s computer on a day off. Once back on the camp, we had several copies of the petition and papers for tree planters to sign their name on. To gather signatures, we mainly used 2 strategies. The first strategy was approaching tree planters during one-on-one set ups at their tents (or whenever we could as it is hard to get privacy on camp). The other way we made everyone aware of the petition was by passing it around in the drivers’ trucks. Through this method, we quickly gathered 95% of the signatures on our camp. Additionally, we were able to get a few signatures from another Coast Range camp that was located about 300m away, but there was less effort put into that camp. Nevertheless, we still tried to get them involved to prevent the company from being able to isolate our camp.

Presenting the petition

Once we gathered all the signatures we could, we moved forward with presenting the petition directly to the highest authority on camp. This wasn’t our supervisor but the owner’s “right hand man” who had no clear title but was working as a liaison between both camps and the owner. Two workers were chosen to represent us. They asked to talk to him just outside the office but away from everyone and handed in the petition explaining the various issues. He took the petition saying he didn’t understand the need to make this a collective process and that they should have simply brought up these issues individually. It is important for tree planters to understand that this is a clear attempt to individualize our relationship to management and undermine the collective dimension these issues have. Nothing in the petition is new for the tree planting industry and tree planters have individually voiced these concerns in many ways throughout the years to Coast Range and the industry as a whole. Despite all this, everything has very much stayed the same.

Disillusion

You’ll see at the very end of the petition written in bold letters “within the next four calendar days”. We included this for the very reason that it is common practice in the industry to use delay tactics. They’ll tell us that they will “look into” any issue we bring up, but never follow up on it. Instead, they capitalize on the nature of piece work and wait for us to simply move on to something else, to the next promise land, make some money and forget about it. This way, they avoid ever seriously tackling issues. Once the petition was handed in, it was agreed with management we would have a meeting. But they never committed to doing it within 4 calendar days (a shift + day off). The owner’s right hand, left immediately to view our next contract and we were told he’d meet with the owner before coming back. He came back 7 days later and our camp was summoned for a meeting around the fire. We were expecting it to be about the petition, but instead we were told that we were closing our blocks and moving onto the next contract ­– leaving the other camp behind to finish the job. There was no mention of the petition and there was this weird feeling in the air as the obvious issue was being avoided. Then one worker asked out loud if we would discuss the petition and the supervisor angrily answered we would not. So two workers took it upon themselves to force management to commit to it. They went to the office bus immediately and asked to talk to the owner’s right hand. It was then agreed upon to meet the next day. They also agreed that they would commit to informing the other camp about this meeting as we knew that the other camp hadn’t been informed by management about receiving the petition.

The meeting itself turned into a big discussion with management where tree planters voiced their many concerns and how the unfairness made them feel. The company wasn’t hearing any of it. They had the same old arguments that we heard every season. “The budget is made!” they said. That was supposed to be there best explanation of why we wouldn’t get any kind of compensation. They avoided any discussion regarding the deeper meaning of the issues that were brought forward. They informed us that they had met with a lawyer and would comply with employment standards. That was it. Public bids went up 38% last season and Coast Range had 6 million trees out of them, but they had no money to pay us. This amounts to several thousand more dollars in the company’s pocket compared to the previous season.

We still had to wait two more paychecks for them to properly comply with employment standards because they claimed it was too hard for them to figure out how to pay us since they hadn’t properly recorded our hours. One worker had to go and demonstrate mathematically to the owner’s right hand how that would work.

Finally, the owner showed up on camp at the very end of spring and gave us a corporate speech on their new-found desire to follow employment standards. All while explaining to us that we would work on July 1st and that he wouldn’t have to compensate us for the statutory holiday because he pays us our 4% vacation pay. Employment standards and the Silviculture Worker Factsheet clearly states that vacation pay and holiday pay are two separate things. We would not be paid for that holiday which directly contradicted everything he said in his speech. We really understood the bad faith of the company at this point.

Why it’s important to carry out action

The company didn’t want to change anything because when you hold all the power, it’s to your advantage to have grey areas you can abuse. While seeking out a fairer work relationship through our petition, we challenged the foundation of that very power. For us, it was a big realization that even though we tend to see everyone as equal on camp, there are very real power dynamics hidden behind the curtains. Meeting away from management really gave all the tree planters the confidence to say their real opinions because everyone felt equal and that they wouldn’t be policed for what they say. Once we challenged management to uphold all the good discourses they have about themselves and about how open they are, what we found was the good old savage capitalism maintaining us in our misery.

It is not true that there is no money in this industry, there is just one person keeping all the wealth. At the very least, forcing companies to uphold equal employment standards has the power to change the whole industry. Right now, they are competing below the legal limit because tree planters have remained silent for too long. Workers staying silent is in no one else’s favour but to your boss. This type of petition – and further actions if need be – must happen all over the industry if we are to protect our jobs and afford ourselves a life in this world. Tree planters can claim more than what we currently have. But for this to happen, solidarity must be at the center of our efforts.

Sirius

Coast Range Workers’ Petition

We, the undersigned, recognize that tree planting is a constantly changing industry. We appreciate that the ways that the industry has changed since tree planting became a profession, has encouraged innovation and competition which has pushed the profession forward. We also recognize that wages have not kept up with the rate of inflation or the cost of living, and that while labour standards have improved, they don’t meet standards set by similar industries. Since Coast Range is a company that prioritizes worker safety and a fair work environment, we urge management to consider institutionalizing the following standards in the form of written amendments to our workers contracts.

In addition to a commitment to transparency and clear communication between management and planters, we also request at least one legal information session about how the remote work allowance system works.

Respect of employment standards :

  • Accurate daily reporting of length of work day, portal to portal
  • Respect of employment standard regarding minimum wage top up for rookies
  • Minimum wage for drivers

Contract modifications :

  • .5 cent per kilometer of walk-in
  • 1 cent after an hour drive
  • Mention of a minimum tree price of :
    • 14 cents for prepared land, i.e. trenches etc.
    • 15 cents for raw land
    • 17 cents for fill plan
  • Centage top-ups as needed for difficulty and extenuating circumstances
  • Minimum wage for training hours
  • Contract recognizes seniority of vet planters (not hiring us as functionally “new” planters every season –some semblance of job security, hiring preference, etc.).
  • Raw sections in prepped land should be paid a raw price regardless of the complexity of bookkeeping.

We appreciate your taking the time to consider this matter. We understand the time commitments that come with management positions, but would deeply appreciate a degree of expediency with regards to the considerations and discussions of the matters listed above. We would appreciate a check-in regarding the progress of these discussions within the next four calendar days.

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