Dan Comeczko is a sawmill worker on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and one of the many workers on strike against Western Forest Products. The strike is being organized by United Steel Worker’s Local 1-1937, made up of many former locals from the now dissolved International Woodworkers of America. Comeczko agreed to be interviewed with James Chumsa at the Chemainus mill picket line Monday morning on July 29.
James Chumsa: So Dan, how long have you been working for Western Forest Products?
Dan Comeczko: Over 24 years at this site.
JC: And what have your experiences been like?
DC: It’s been kind of negative in the last few years. It’s unfortunate the place has gone downhill from the previous owners of the mill.
JC: Who were the previous owners of the mill?
DC: Hmm, let’s see. There’s MacMillan-Bloedel when I first started here, good company to work for, then it became Weyerhaeuser I believe, and then Cascadia Forest Products, I’m probably missing one in there, and eventually Western.
JC: Tell me why you personally here are striking.
DC: Why am I personally here? Well I don’t really have a lot of choice on it, we took a vote on it, ninety eight point eight percent vote, to go on strike. The company has brought in a whole long line of concessions they want us to take and they’ve been quite profitable, the company, unlike the interior companies that cut an entirely different product where markets are bad. What we’re cutting here is mostly old growth cedar, very lucrative for the company. They made over thirty million dollars in this particular operation last year.
So yeah, we’re not prepared to take a cut. They’re going after our pension plan, our LTD [long-term disability] plan, get rid of seniority. There’s probably a long list of maybe twenty other concessions they want us to take.
JC: Can you name some of these concessions?
DC: They want to get out of our pension plan for starters, that’s a big one. Claw back our holidays, reduce our holidays, two-tier pay system for new employees.
They want us to cut back on our Long Term Disability. We want to extend it to sixty five years old. So right now our workers, say, that are sixty years old and on long term disability, which could mean one year period, they are forcing them to take their pension right now. We feel that’s just not fair. People are working a lot longer than they used to, people can’t afford to retire at sixty now days.
They’ve also torn up all our local agreements which took thirty years to build. They’ve basically taken them and torn them all up, thrown them in the garbage. Our master agreement is kind of vague right now, that’s why all these local agreements are at different sawmills.
There’s a lot of bullying going on by the management towards the employees. They brought in an archaic drug and alcohol policy, so we’ve had quite a few members fired or suspended. It’s gotten to the point where injured workers are scared to go to first aid because they’re going to drug test them right off the bat and they’ll probably end up losing their job or a lot of people will. Big thing that they are after is anyone who uses marijuana, even though it’s legal they say they have that right to fire people. Our union has a big problem with that.
JC: So could you tell me about your union, United Steel Workers local 1-1937?
DC: Well, what can I tell you? It’s been years since 1937, that’s where the name comes from. What can we tell you about our union, our local? Well, they’re giving us as much support as they can and basically they’ve been spending a lot of time in front of the labour board with the company; they are the one’s that are refusing to bargain right now. Vince Ready, I’m sure you’re aware of that, offered to mediate, the most respected mediator in the province and they don’t want him for some reason. So it just seems like they are just not interested in bargaining at all. That’s what’s been going on for the last month. They’ve been making record profits and they aren’t willing to share it with the rest of us. That’s about all I can tell you anyhow.
JC: Were you ever a member of the International Woodworkers’ Association [the union formed in 1937 and merged into the United Steelworkers]?
DC: Oh, absolutely. IWA before we merged with United Steel Workers. Which was probably ten years ago I’m guessing? Somewhere in that area.
JC: What was your experience with the IWA like?
DC: It was pretty much about the same as it is now. Now we’re a lot bigger union, we got a lot more financial support, so this could end up being a very long strike.
JC: How has the strike been for you so far?
DC: Well the weather’s great. Sometimes you gotta stand up to the bullies.
While Dan Comeczko was willing to provide his name to Rankandfile.ca, many others have refused to have their names published due to fear of backlash from the company. Their anonymous stories can be found at indeed.ca/cmp/Western-Forest-Products/reviews