Sawmill workers across Vancouver Island have been picketing for a fair contract with Western Forest Products since the Canada Day long weekend. The strike by 3000 members of United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 is in opposition to WFP’s proposed clawback of holidays, pensions, seniority rights and many other contract areas. The workers are also striking for a living wage – the company has proposed a two-tier wage structure – and against a strict drug policy that WFP is using to target employees who have stood up to it.
The strike began after USW members delivered an overwhelming 98.8% strike vote at the end of June and delivered a 72-hour notice to the company.
WFP tried appealing to the Labour Relations Board to extend the strike notice to 144 hours so the company would have time to move log booms in saltwater to freshwater, which the board rejected.
Strikers marked floating log booms with “HOT” tags to let other union workers know not to move them. On July 10 the BC Federation of Labour announced a “hot edict” on WFP, meaning unions affiliated with the BCFED will support the sawmill strike by refusing to touch any of the company’s products.
WFP made another appeal to the LRB to make it illegal for contract companies to sign Me-Too agreements with the union, an arrangement that prevents contractors from siding with the company and crossing picket lines during a strike. These agreements have been used by BC unions for over 50 years.
On July 8, USW agreed to a WFP request for mediation. Vince Ready was appointed and prepared to mediate an agreement between the company and the union, but WFP turned around and rejected mediation on July 11. Ready is a renowned and trusted mediator who has helped resolve major labour disputes in the province. In addition to its about-face, WFP told the media it was the union that turned down the mediation. Local president Brian Butler voiced the union’s frustration in a bargaining update the following day: “Refusal to agree to someone as qualified as Vince Ready, is the complete opposite of Western Forest Products’ publicly stated position that they want mediation.” Butler went on the say, “It is clear by their action yesterday that they [WFP] are not serious about negotiating a collective agreement with our union.”
USW has been picketing outside the gates of 15 different WFP locations on the island including Cowichan Bay, Duke Point, Port McNeill, and Nootka Sound. The strike extends to Forest Industrial Relations accredited companies that contract to WFP, such as Olympic Forest Products and Dyson Logging Company.
The union has received support on picket lines from community members and other unions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, BC Teacher’s Federation, Hospital Employees Union, CUPE, International Association of Fire Fighters, the BC Ferry and Marine Worker’s Union, and the Campbell River and District Labour Council.
Community Savings Credit Union has donated $3,000 to the strike fund and the President and CAO Mike Schilling has personally visited picketers.
Political parties have shown support as well. NDP premier John Horgan visited with the local 1-1937 Women of Steel in Powell River. Local NDP MP Rachel Blaney and NDP MLA for Powell River – Sunshine Coast Nicholas Simons have also shown their support. On July 5 Chief Bob Chamberlin, NDP candidate in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith by-election, and Joe Lychak, Nanaimo Club organizer of the Communist Party, both visited the Duke Point picket line.
“Picket lines can expect support from Communists” said Lychak, who is a retired forestry worker and decades-long a member of the International Woodworkers of America. The IWA-Canada was dissolved in 2004 and merged with the USW, including many IWA locals on the island that became Local 1-1937.
“I am of the opinion that the sawmill workers are in for a very serious battle, evidenced by the fact that there have been attacks on other unions in other countries,” said Lychak. “They’re trying to decimate the trade union movement. Corporations don’t like the idea that British Columbia still has a reasonably strong trade union movement, and we have to keep it strong.”
This article was first published in People’s Voice