HALIFAX, N.S. —
Northern Pulp and Unifor, the national union that represents 240 of its Pictou County mill workers, voiced deep disappointment with Premier Stephen McNeil’s decision not to extend the Boat Harbour closure deadline.
“Today is a very tough day for those of us at Northern Pulp,” Brian Baarda, chief executive of Paper Excellence Canada, Northern Pulp’s parent company, said at a late-morning news conference Friday at a downtown Halifax hotel.
He said the company would start implementing plans Friday to close the Abercrombie Point mill.
“This decision ensures the closure of Northern Pulp, the devastation of Nova Scotia’s forest industry, the loss of 2,700 rural jobs and a significant impact to another 8,300 forestry jobs across Nova Scotia,” Baarda said.
The premier made the government’s position clear at an earlier news conference.
“There will be no extension,” MacNeil said.
“The company has had five years to get out of Boat Harbour and it is not even close, now it’s decision time.”
Baarda said the company will meet with government early in the new year to talk about what the plant closure will look like. During that conversation, the concept of idling the mill will likely come up, Baarda said, “but we don’t believe that it is possible without continuing to use Boat Harbour.”
‘Five days before Christmas’
“Our thoughts are with our employees, five days before Christmas, we’re going to focus on that,” Baarda said when asked if the company would pursue a lost-earnings claim against the government.
“At this time, for our workforce, we are offering on-site support and counselling to our employees and their families through our employee assistance program,” Baarda said. “Today, we will start the process of delivering layoff and contract-cancellation notices and start implementing plans to close Northern Pulp.”
Baarda cut questions short at the news conference because he was heading to the mill to meet with employees.
Baarda said Northern Pulp had put together an excellent plan based on sound science that showed no meaningful environmental impact from the proposed effluent treatment plant, a plan that represented operational improvement and insured that thousands of forestry workers could remain a vital part of the Nova Scotia economy.
“It also enabled timely closure and remediation of Boat Harbour,” Baarda said. “The premier chose to disregard those facts.”
Baarda blamed the company’s delay in getting its replacement effluent treatment facility plans together on the government.
“It is apparent that Nova Scotia Environment has been unable to provide a definitive process over the last four-and-half years. We have continued to respond to each and every additional request for further science. Our initial investigatory work changed dramatically from seven reports to 68 current individual areas of study. Had Nova Scotia Environment wanted a full environmental assessment from the outset, we would have been prepared to deliver it.”
Baarda said he has great respect for the professionalism and dignity shown by the mill’s workforce throughout the ordeal.
“The people at Northern Pulp have continued to remain focused on the things that matter, delivering on the best safety performance in Paper Excellence, meeting production targets while continuing to protect the environment.”
‘He just decimated rural Nova Scotia’
Linda MacNeil, director of Unifor Atlantic, said it is a sad day for the mill employees and all forestry sector workers in the province.
MacNeil said the premier’s announced $50-million transition fund is not a consolation.
“Let’s put that in perspective,” an angry MacNeil said. “The mill in an annual salary pays out $40 million for 300 employees, $40 million a year. The transition fund, $50 million. That doesn’t include the rest of the forestry sector that is going to be impacted by this irresponsible decision.
“That transition money is basically going to buy bus tickets for employees at the mill to move to another province because, guess what, obviously the premier doesn’t respect those employees or anything to do with rural Nova Scotia because he just decimated rural Nova Scotia.
“If that is the legacy that he wants, he is certainly going to get it.”
MacNeil also took the premier to task for laying blame on the company for not getting its new wastewater treatment facility approved and built in the five years since the Boat Harbour closure was announced.
“The Nova Scotia environment minister and the department have to take some responsibility because there was no clear path going forward,” MacNeil said. “If there had been, it would have been willingly done, that I can ensure, from the company.”
MacNeil said the government decision will not serve the province well in the long term.
“What company is going to look to invest as they see this unfold. Disappointment does not do this justice. Anger, sad, heart-broken and five days before Christmas …”
Baarda offered no comment on the premier’s claim that the company will be on the hook for the $85 million in outstanding loans it owes the province. The Chronicle Herald reported last month that Northern Pulp and an associated company owe the province $85,478,537 in three outstanding loans.
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Strikes at 2 more U.S. auto factories to start Friday as UAW ratchets up pressure
The United Auto Workers union is expanding its strike against U.S. automakers to two new plants, as 7,000 workers at a Ford plant in Chicago and a General Motors assembly factory near Lansing, Mich., will walk off the job at midday on Friday.
Union president Shawn Fain told workers on a video appearance Friday that negotiations haven’t broken down but Ford and GM have refused to make meaningful progress.
“Despite our willingness to bargain, Ford and GM have refused to make meaningful progress,” Fain said. “That’s why at noon eastern we will expand our strike to these two companies.”
“Not a single wheel will turn without us,” Fain said, adding that the 7,000 soon-to-be picketers are the “next wave of reinforcements.”
Stellantis, the third major automaker targeted by the union, and the maker of brands like Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge, was spared further action, as Fain said the company’s management has made significant concessions on things like a cost-of-living allowance and a freeze on outsourcing.
The Ford plant in Chicago makes the Explorer and Police Interceptor, as well as the Lincoln Aviator SUV.
The GM plant in Michigan’s Delta Township near Lansing manufactures large crossover SUVs such as the Chevrolet Traverse.
The two new plants join 41 other factories and distribution centres already seeing job action.
So far, the impact on Canada’s auto industry has been muted, as none of the idled factories are major users of Canadian-made components.
Edward Moya, a strategist with foreign exchange firm Oanda, says that despite the expanded job action, the strike seems to be nearing an “endgame” as the two sides are clearly making slow but steady progress.
“Yesterday, the UAW said they are targeting a 30 per cent pay raise, which is down from the 46 per cent they were asking for in early September,” he said. “Automakers have raised their offer to 20 per cent but were not offering much on retirement benefits. The longer this drags, the more both sides lose, so a deal should be reached in the next week or two.”
Airlines claim passenger safety at risk under new passenger rights rules
Aviation companies are making the pitch to Ottawa that stricter rules designed to boost customer compensation and improve service could put passenger safety at risk — an argument consumer advocates reject as “ridiculous.”
The push, made in regulatory submissions and meetings on Parliament Hill, comes on the heels of sweeping reforms to the passenger rights charter announced in April and currently being hashed out by Canada’s transport regulator before going into effect next year.
The changes appear to scrap a loophole through which airlines have denied customers compensation for flight delays or cancellations when they were required for safety purposes. The sector wants that exemption restored, and says it doesn’t want pilots to feel pressured to choose between flying defective planes and costing their employer money.
“We want our pilots to be entirely free from any financial consideration when they take a safety-related decision,” WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said in a video chat from Ottawa this week, where he was meeting with federal ministers on the reforms. The Air Line Pilots Association raised similar concerns in a submission to the Canadian Transportation Agency.
“Regulation should never be punitive for safety decisions,” he said.
In the European Union, however, where rules and precedents comparable to the impending passenger rights charter are in place, flight safety remains uncompromised, advocates say.
“Did it make it less safe to fly in Europe? I don’t think so,” said Sylvie De Bellefeuille, a lawyer with the advocacy group Option consommateurs.
The EU code came into force nearly two decades ago, shored up by court rulings that require compensation even for trip disruptions caused by safety concerns, such as mechanical issues. No major accidents involving EU-registered planes have occurred in commercial aviation since 2015.
“It lays pretty ill in the mouth of the industry to say that if you … take away that excuse then we will therefore fly unsafe planes,” said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
“I’m surprised that they would have the chutzpah to say that.”
Air Passenger Rights advocacy group president Gabor Lukacs called the claim “ridiculous,” and NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach also slammed the argument.
“It’s quite alarming that the airlines would suggest that if the government holds them to a higher standard of customer care, there’s going to be a risk to passenger safety,” Bachrach said in a phone interview from northwestern B.C.
Loopholes and exemptions
Organizations from Nav Canada to the International Air Transport Association — as well as Canada’s main pilots union — maintain that safety will be jeopardized unless delays due to malfunctions or mechanical issues are exempted from what the Atlantic Canada Airports Association called “punitive measures.”
Proposed changes under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations would not exempt flight disruptions that are caused by “normal … technical problems” from cash penalties given to customers.
However, “airport operational issues” or “hidden manufacturing defects” would be considered beyond the airline’s responsibility under the would-be reforms, most of which are still months away from being finalized.
The first phase of the overhaul comes into effect on Saturday, kicking off a more streamlined complaints process that currently creaks under the weight of more than 57,000 complaints.
That backlog has continued to mount despite a slowdown in filings, which can take up to two years for the regulator to process. The new system will be managed by “complaint resolution officers” — 40 have been hired, with 60 more expected to be trained over the next year, according to the agency.
Among the provisions slated to kick in next year are fees imposed on airlines by the regulator to recover some or all of the cost of handling those complaints. If a passenger files one due to a flight disruption or denial of boarding, the reformed rules put the onus on the airline to prove the move was for reasons outside its control, such as bad weather.
Airlines make the case that regional routes would be pricier for customers — or simply cancelled outright — as slim profit margins would tip into red ink amid higher costs from complaints and fees.
“That could potentially have an impact on regional connectivity and accessibility for routes that might not be as profitable,” said Jeff Morrison, who heads the National Airlines Council, which represents airlines including Air Canada and WestJet. “There’s always a trade-off.”
The average profit for large carriers amounts to less than $10 per passenger, said WestJet’s CEO.
“If we have to compensate the passengers, it’s thousands,” von Hoensbroech said, noting that WestJet’s average one-way ticket price hovers around $200. “You need many, many flights to recover.”
Advocates Lawford and Gabor Lukacs said the airlines’ warnings around routes to smaller or far-flung communities are tantamount to “blackmail,” while Bachrach framed the notion of pitting sturdier customer rights against regional flights as a “false choice.”
“If you’re cutting regional routes, we’re going to open the whole country for more competition,” Lukacs said, framing the potential scale-back as an opportunity for other airlines.
He suggested subsidies to support regional trips, whose fares have shot up over the past four years, even as ticket prices on busier routes fell.
Von Hoensbroech also said accountability for flight disruptions, including the cost burden, must be shared across the industry, not borne by airlines alone — an argument some advocates are receptive to, given the highly integrated nature global air travel that hinges on players ranging from baggage handlers to security and border agents to air traffic controllers.
The Canadian Transportation Agency is currently working on a draft of the new Air Passenger Protection Regulations, expected to be published this year before the new charter is implemented in 2024.
“The ultimate goal of air passenger protection shouldn’t be to get compensation to passengers; it should be to incentivize airlines to treat passengers better,” Bachrach said.
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