After being on strike for 7 months, 2600 members of United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 are still picketing outside Western Forest Products (WFP) sawmills on Vancouver Island. This is one of this union’s longest strikes in Canada, and they are struggling to get the company back to the bargaining table to negotiate a fair contract. The union and its members are fighting to maintain their benefits, vacation pay and Long Term Disability, as well as a living wage.
The two main issues of contention between the union and company are alternate shifts and contracting out. The workers want to get rid of the alternate shift scheduling, which has them working ten hour shifts that switch between mornings and afternoons within the same week. This means many employees miss sleep and arrive to work fatigued, resulting in several workplace accidents. USW is also fighting hard against the company’s plans to contract out work.
On January 9 the USW Bargaining Committee met with mediators proposed a compromise on their previous demands regarding alternate shifts. The union hoped this would get the company back to the bargaining table so they could negotiate a collective agreement. Despite this compromise, WFP refuses to bargain unless the union agrees to outsourcing. For the union and its members this is unacceptable, as it would result in many, if not all, employees being laid off and replaced by contractors. WFP wants to create a race to the bottom, one in which they get the most work for the cheapest price.
This is not the first time that WFP has pushed for outsourcing. During a four and a half month strike in 1986, the union won protections against contracting out. The company proposed outsourcing during negotiations in 2014, but later withdrew this proposal.
The concessions that WFP now has on the table relate to contracting out and local agreements and practices. Many logging contractors have sided with WFP, which is hiring scabs to work.
WFP has also resorted to dirty tactics such as spreading misinformation among workers on strike and their allies. The company did this on Facebook, using a page called “USW Local 1-1937 on strike” and a group called “USW Local 1-1937 Members,” which are run by non-union members, including many contractor owners, who are anti-union. Local 1-1937 has publicly stated that they are not affiliated with these two Facebook sites, which promoted anti-union events to union members, and warned members not to be misled by them.
One of these events was a rally in Campbell River on December 16, hosted by a group called Taking A Stand. An organizer for Taking A Stand told local news that the purpose of the rally was to collect donations and fundraise for families affected by the strike. She denied that the group was in any way connected with contractors and claimed to be in support of the workers. However, Facebook posts from her and the organization stated they were “taking a stand against the forestry strike.” USW noted that Taking a Stand was encouraging workers to give into WFP’s demands for concessions. The union also stated that the speakers at the event were “BC Liberal MLAs who were part of the government that lost over 30,000 jobs and oversaw the closure of over 100 manufacturing facilities while log exports soared in coastal BC.”
Another anti-union rally was held outside the provincial legislature buildings in Victoria on December 11. It was hosted by the Truck Loggers’ Association, a group made up of contract workers who want an imposed agreement. Among the organizers was at least one contractor known for hiring scabs in the past.
The union has held several rallies of its own during the strike, including in Campbell River on September 26 and in Nanaimo on November 6. These were well-attended, showing a high level of support among these communities for the sawmill workers and the union.
On the north end of the island, Rona Doucette and Ramara Meggitt created a campaign called Loonies for Loggers to raise money and donations for the families affected by the strike. Since September, they have hosted several beer and burgers fundraisers and food drives in communities such as Sooke, Port Hardy, Gold River, Port Alice, Campbell River and Powell River, where the strike is underway. Doucette and Meggitt have their own Loonies for Loggers trailer for transporting groceries to affected families, and they work with local businesses, schools and municipalities to gather food donations and buy groceries in bulk. The City of Campbell River donated $20,000 to Loonies for Loggers in December and, while a second motion to donate an additional $10,000 was defeated, many community residents support Loonies for Loggers through its website.
An ongoing concern is that provincial and municipal governments will interfere in the strike on the side of WFP. Contractor associations have asked the province to intervene, but the NDP government has indicated it will remain neutral in the strike. The union has welcomed this position; however, in January Premier John Horgan stated that he was going to offer $5 million in loans to help logging contractors who may have lost money due to the strike.
In November, several municipalities signed a letter blaming both WFP and USW for the strike and the hardships in their communities caused by it. Not all municipalities agreed, however. While the letter was signed by the governments of Port McNeill, Port Hardy, Powell River, Ladysmith, North Cowichan and Sayward, the Mayor and Council of Port Alberni took a stance in support of the union and refused to sign.
The attack on forestry workers by WFP is just another part of a larger corporate attack on workers. Workers throughout Vancouver Island are resisting – in addition to the forestry workers, strikes have been organized by education workers and by unionized auto technicians working for the GAIN Group.
After 7 months, workers on the WFP picket lines have had to find ways to supplement their income, either by working part time or leaving the province entirely. Some have said that the hardest part is dealing with the mental grind on the picket lines. But they are willing to keep fighting.
News and updates on the strike can be found here.