Island mayors hoping sides will settle prolonged forestry strike

In a bid to emphasize that families all over the coast are suffering as a result of the protracted strike at Western Forest Products, the mayors of six forest-dependent communities have penned a letter asking both sides to find a resolution quickly.

The mayors of Port McNeill, Port Hardy, Ladysmith, Sayward, North Cowichan and the acting mayor of Powell River all signed the two-page letter outlining the impact the 20-week strike has had on their communities.

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“Our intention was to put faces to the reason they are negotiating,” said Gabrielle Wickstrom, mayor of Port McNeill.

“Both sides will probably argue they are thinking of their members and workers, but when you get five months into a strike and you’re at the table unsuccessfully a number of times, we felt, as mayors, it was important to really put a face to the reason they are at the table,” she said. “When sitting across the table it’s not about the union or WFP, but the workers and families that are suffering.”

Nearly 3,000 Western Forest Products employees and contracted workers at six Island manufacturing plants and timberlands around the coast have been on strike since July 1.

The United Steelworkers Union has said the company’s insistence on major concessions from the workforce on items such as pension plans, job security and a two-tiered wage structure has scuttled talks.

Wickstrom said it’s not just workers and the company that have suffered because of the labour dispute. Workers have been subsisting in some cases on savings or credit, while the company has racked up net losses of $17.5 million so far this year.

“[The effect] has trickled into the rest of the community,” she said, noting shops and restaurants have been very quiet. “People haven’t been going out to eat. The only place I consistently see people is the IGA [grocer] because you still have to eat.”

The letter said for-sale signs have appeared on lawns, tow trucks have repossessed cars, utilities have been disconnected from homes, food banks have been pushed to the brink to meet demand and layoff notices have been handed out at businesses that are dependent on the fibre supply from Western’s mills.

“This dispute is deterring the next generation from wanting to work in this industry and we are already witnessing highly skilled workers leaving for northern B.C. or Alberta,” the letter said.

“Some have already left the community and have their houses for sale and we don’t know if they will come back,” said Wickstrom.

Al Siebring, mayor of the District of North Cowichan, said businesses in his area that require fibre for manufacturing are struggling to get supply and in some cases are laying people off. He is also concerned they could eventually see young workers leaving the Island for greener pastures as they did during previous coastal forest industry labour disputes.

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