By EDWARD HILL
The Ladysmith Chronicle
Rumours are running rampant that forestry giant Weyerhaeuser will be selling its coastal B.C. assets, including the Chemainus sawmill, to Brascan Corportion in a $1.1-billion deal.
Last Thursday, the Globe and Mail reported the transaction was in its "final stages", but so far company representatives have been mum on the issue. If the sell-off happens, analysts expect the seven coastal sawmills will go to Western Forest Products (formerly Doman), in which the multinational Brascan has a nine per cent stake.
"There is no deal. Western will not comment on rumours or speculation," said Western's spokesperson Gary Ley.
Jason Kearns, Weyerhaeuser's Chemainus sawmill manager, said he's heard nothing official or otherwise, and is getting his information from the newspapers like everybody else.
The possibility that Weyerhaeuser mills could be absorbed into Western operations sent jitters through the United Steelworkers union. On one hand, consolidation raises the spectre of mill closures, but on the other, Weyerhaeuser is deeply hated by the union.
"We have been hearing some mills could be closed, bringing everybody a level of concern," said Bill Routley, president of the Steelworkers Local 1-80 in Duncan. "There's a lot of uncertainty, but we would be happy to see Weyerhaeuser go. The union would be pleased to help them pack."
The union has been stepping up a campaign as of late to paint Weyerhaeuser as a heartless multinational bent on exporting British Columbia's raw logs instead of supporting workers and opening sawmills.
Much of the problem stems from weak regulations governing public and private forestland. Routley argued large private landowners like Weyerhaeuser need to be banned from bidding on public timber licences. Smaller players tend to get muscled out, and can't get raw logs to produce value-added products such as furniture.
"It's not a level playing field in terms of bidding power for local businesses," Routley said.
The issue of raw log exports prompted a public meeting last week in Duncan. Labour, environmentalists and small business came together to heap criticism on the B.C. Liberals' forestry rules that they say have crippled entrepreneurs and encouraged log exports. It was pointed out the U.S. government bans private-land log exporters from bidding on public tenders, to foster small business growth.
Routley suspects Weyerhaeuser is selling its assets, including the highly lucrative Vancouver Island timberlands, to offset debt incurred after buying Oregon-based forestry company Willamett in 2002. "There is a general consensus Weyerhaeuser has a huge debt to equity problem," he said.
At ground level, company rules and regulations have done nothing but alienate workers, Routley said. While the jury is still out on Brascan, he said it would be difficult to become more despised, or more hurtful to the B.C. economy than Weyerhaeuser.
"I deal with over 50 companies and never have I seen a more rotten group of managers," Routley said. "These guys work hard at making crews angry."