Hundreds of unionized forest workers on strike since July 1 turned up the heat on Western Forest Products Wednesday by taking the fight to the company’s front door in Nanaimo.
In what was a peaceful, but pointed demonstration of solidarity, workers came by the busload from all over the Island and the Sunshine Coast to march on Western’s corporate offices in Nanaimo’s city centre.
It was a much-needed shot in the arm for a workforce that has been walking picket lines for 19 weeks, said union leader Brian Butler.
“It’s always good to bring the members together to talk about issues,” said Butler, president of Steelworkers Union Local 1937, which represents the 3,000 striking workers. “This was also to send a message to WFP that members are not faltering and begging to get back to work. It’s the exact opposite.
“Their position is clear — we will last one day longer than this company is prepared to take in order to get the agreement we need, which is a fair agreement with no concessions.”
There are no talks scheduled for the two sides and there has been no word from Western since the union flatly rejected an invitation two weeks ago to enter binding arbitration to settle the dispute.
The Steelworkers have said binding arbitration is unacceptable, but it is open to returning to talks with mediators Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers.
Workers from all over the coast turned up with signs with messages for Western chief executive Don Demens to stop stalling and get back to the negotiating table, expletive-laced T-shirts suggesting the company simply doesn’t care about its workers, balloon pigs with “greed” tattooed on them and a resolve to outwait Western.
“The younger generation may not understand why we are doing this, but my grandparents and I fought for this [contract] and we are not about to go backwards,” said Sylvia Catchpole, who has worked for Western for 43 years at Cowichan Bay. “We fight for the generations to come.”
Catchpole said she is not really feeling the financial pinch, given she’s had plenty of time to put money away and her husband is still working, but she feels for younger workers who are struggling to feed their families and pay their bills during the strike. “It’s got to be tough for them.”
She laid the blame for the hardship at Western’s door. “It’s only this year that Western hasn’t been making millions and that sickens me, how can they justify what they are doing to all the people who make the money for them.”
Charlie Aikman, a 45-year veteran from Port Alberni agreed, noting he’s not sure why the company has been so rigid in this round of bargaining.
“We have worked with them when times have been tough because we wanted to keep working, why when they have been making money are they doing this ... it makes no sense,” he said.
Aikman is nearing retirement and hasn’t felt the financial sting of this strike yet, and he said some of the younger workers he’s been talking to do understand what is at stake.
“I think the feeling is if we don’t win this there is no future for them anyway, so I think they understand,” he said.
Many of the younger workers attending Wednesday’s rally did not want to be interviewed, with one suggesting they didn’t want to stand out for fear Western could make life difficult for them when they do go back to work.
The march and rally featured speeches from former IWA president Bill Routley, Steelworkers district vice- president Steve Hunt and B.C. Federation of Labour president Laird Cronk among others.
Each had the crowd roaring with chants of “one day longer, one day stronger” and encouraging them to stay strong in the coming weeks.
Cronk told the crowd that what Western has been doing is not just targeting its own workforce, but families and communities that rely on those forestry jobs. “You’re screwing with human beings,” he shouted at Western’s office building. “And that’s just wrong.”
Butler said the mood of workers remains very positive, “in the sense that anyone out for four months is hurting to some level financially. But the mood is strong and they are united in the fact they really dislike this employer.”