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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Upcoming labor talks with pulp and paper producers in Eastern and Central Canada could be the most difficult in the industry's history, with mills idled and companies fighting to survive the downturn, a senior union official said on Friday.
The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada has selected contract talks with AbitibiBowater Inc to set the industry-wide pattern for contracts that will replace current agreements that expire at the end of April.
The union, which did not say when talks would start, is seeking three-year deals with the employers in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
CEP president Dave Coles said that with so many mills shuttered and so many companies struggling with debt, the union knows the talks could be the toughest "we've ever had in the industry", but it still aims to protect jobs, wages and pensions.
Employers also need to approach the upcoming talks by breaking away from the corporate strategies they have traditionally used to deal with economic slowdowns, Coles said.
"Many of the companies can't get out of the old mindsets," Coles said in an interview, adding that the union has been upset by what it sees as the industry's lack of organization in dealing with the economic downturn.
"I don't want to be overly critical of management, but they really haven't done a good job managing the industry," Coles said.
"The renewal of the labor agreements at this crucial time will not be traditional bargaining, but an opportunity to provide labor relations' stability and enhanced productivity," CEP officials said in a statement on Friday following strategy meetings in Montreal.
Coles said that despite the economic turmoil surrounding the pulp and paper industry, he would rather be "in the middle of it at the bargaining table than on the sidelines watching the events."
A three-year timeframe for the new contracts was chosen, in part because the union's economists expect pulp and paper markets to have improved by then, Coles said.
AbitibiBowater was chosen as the "pattern company" for talks because it is the dominant player in the industry, he added. A company spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
The CEP represents about 15,000 pulp and paperworkers in Eastern and Central Canada. Sawmill workers in the region are represented under different contracts.
Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson