Walter: closure takes employees by surprise

Trent Ernst, Editor


When D crew arrived at the Wolverine Mine they were expecting to go to work as normal.

Instead, the crew met with Dan Cartwright, president of Canadian operations for Walter Energy. According to one of the members there, Cartwright explained the situation. “He told us that coal prices were down,” says the employee. “He said we had done a great job with safety, and that our operating costs were down. It was a good feat, he told us, but it just wasn’t good enough with the prices where they were.”

Cartwright explained how steel prices were going to be down for probably the next year, say the employee. “Then he said it’s not going to be a permanent shutdown; they are just going to idle things; rather than mining out phase four, they would stop now, so that when coal prices come up they’d be able to hit it right away.”

According to the employee, everyone was shocked. “There were a couple questions about seniority, as they’ll have a small crew on, and they said they would update us.”

Vice-President, Communications for Walter Energy Tom Hoffman says that they waited until the employees were on-site because “You’d like the employees to hear about from you, not read about it in the Tumbler Ridge News.”

He says the company wanted to do it in a group and face to face so that people could get their questions answered. “As people arrive for their shifts, the mine manager talks to them about what’s happening, explain the reasons behind the decision the company made, then talk about what job transition assistance there is. Basically to try and answer the questions that the people would have,” says Hoffman.

But why was Wolverine shut down immediately while the Brule mine is remaining open for 12 months? According to Hoffman, it has to do with provisions in the collective agreement, which aren’t in the agreement with the Wolverine workers.

Besides, says Hoffman, idling the mine is the last thing that Walter wanted to do. “The decision to idle a mine is not one that you want to make too quickly. You want to see if you can hold on. But at some point in time, [particularly if your mine hasn’t been making money or losing money, you need to say ‘it’s time to cut our losses.’ We were trying to see if there was any way to continue to operate, to operate the facilities as long as we can. But once you make that decision, the best thing to do is stop that loss.”

Still, the decision to idle the mine wasn’t made earlier that day: wouldn’t some foreknowledge be better than none? Hoffman doesn’t think so. “I understand the hypothetical. But how many months in advance do you suggest? Coal prices used to be set annually. Now they’re set quarterly. Do you think honestly they [the employees] would have liked it better if we told them two months ago?”

Brian O’Rourke does. He’s a spokesperson for the United Steelworkers out of Prince George, and came to Tumbler Ridge the day the announcement was made. He says that knowing what’s happening is always better than not knowing. “Nobody has a crystal ball, it depends on coal prices,” he says. “People can speculate and look around, but until the final word comes from the employer, nothing is official. But I was very disappointed about how it came about. This decision wasn’t made yesterday. If people had a little leeway they would have time to plan. I’ve talked to employees who recently bought houses. I talked to one employee who bought a pickup the day before. This is a very traumatic experience for them.”

Hoffman says Walter kept the mines running as long as we could.” You can point to an anecdote or two of people who were ill-served by the timing, but you’d have the same stories no matter when we did it. We did the very best we could be trying to keep the mines running as long as we could, and them meeting with people face to face in a group. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that all employees weren’t aware of the market conditions. I don’t know that anything that we would have done would have resulted in all the employees being happy about it.”

O’Rourke says that in his experience, this kind of immediate shutdown is an anomaly. “In the 18 years I’ve been in the union, we’ve never experienced this type of immediate closure. If there had been any notice, then things could have been set up in a more orderly fashion. There are still questions. A lot of the employees live out of town, so they’ll have to find help in their home community. Will there be or could there be a job fair set up?”

Hoffman says that, unless there’s a rule book that says you have to give employees three months notice, then there are no rules that say you have to give them that notice. Besides, he says, “We couldn’t have told them three months ago, because we didn’t know three months ago. You’re always dealing with incomplete information when looking at market forces. There’s an ongoing analysis vis a vie the deteriorating coal markets, but these are human decisions. At some point someone has to say enough is enough.”

O’Rourke says that the closure has been very traumatic. “There’s huge ramifications to this. I’m a firm believer in that there should have been a little more advance notice than this.

“One thing going for the Peace is there is a fair amount of employment. That’s not saying that it will benefit everyone, but it’s something.”