Keeping the home fires burning on the picket line at the Chemainus sawmill, from left, are: Dave Karras, Steve Samson, Terry Hill and Kai Muller. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Striking WFP workers in Chemainus expect the end isn’t near

Concessions, morale more concerning for employees than wages

Chemainus sawmill workers aren’t holding out much hope of a resolution any time soon with the duration of the strike by United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 at Western Forest Products Coastal operations approaching five months.

“I didn’t think we’d be this long,” conceded Dave Karras, 57, of Coombs, a 27-year employee at the mill.

The recent round of failed mediation has left the next step in the negotiations in limbo.

A letter from Don Demens, WFP’s president and chief executive officer, to all Western employees currently on strike indicated the company made a proposal that had “removed any item that could be viewed as concessionary”, a claim the union disputes.

“Their proposal still has over 40 separate concessions as it cancels practices across many operations, most of which would be significant losses to the membership in those operations,” the union countered in a press release.

And that’s just the beginning of the issues that leave the two sides far apart from reaching a settlement.

“I think the company underestimated the resolve we all have,” said Karras. “From talking to the guys, we’re dug in.

“It’s getting down to the principle of fair negotiations.”

And as much as wages are always a factor, concessions remain a major concern for employees.

“I think one of the big ones is the shift schedule, them being able to give you the most garbage shifts you can imagine,” Karras indicated.

Times have changed drastically at the mill from his perspective.

“When you got a job here at Chemainus sawmill when I first started, it’s like you won the lottery,” said Karras.

The positive environment most of the long-term employees witnessed – especially in the pre-Western days under the guidance of manager Phil Dobson when there was a mutual appreciation – is long gone.

“The new Western has not even fostered that kind of atmosphere,” pointed out Karras, who is thinking of retiring at age 60. “I’d like to finish off my career on a positive note.”

Steve Samson of Cedar, 62, who plans to work till age 65, is coming up to nine years at the mill and 43 years in the industry, including employment at Harmac and Island Phoenix.

“I think it’s terrible,” he said. “I don’t understand how we could end up here. If you told me the 20th of November we were still here, I would have thought ‘no way.’

“We’re adamant about not giving up concessions.”

Samson doesn’t want a lengthy strike to be for naught in the end.

“The company probably feels the same way – they want to get something out of us. I’m worried the government is going to step in and put an arbitrator in and this is the way it’s going to be.

“Where this ends, I really don’t know. I’m hoping they’ll get back and talk and inch their way toward something.”

“We’re in a battle and that’s it,” added Kai Muller, 57, of Nanaimo.

“I have trouble acquiescing with someone who said they had record profits and they do what they want to do.

“Generally everybody wants to do the best job they can. There needs to be some give and take.”

Muller expects the strike is a long way from ending.

“I would guess the end of the second quarter next year – around the end of July.”

Terry Hill, 61, of Duncan worked at the previous Chemainus mill and goes back to 1977 at the site, with this being his third major strike.

“They say this is the longest one now,” he noted.

“We’ve set a new record, nothing finer than being a record-setter,” quipped Muller. “As long as it’s set for the right reasons.”

“I thought the company learned their lessons last time,” said Hill. “Every time you go on strike you lose a lot of customers. That affects them, it affects us.”

Employee morale stands out as a problem to him that isn’t going to get better through these negotiations.

“For me, the overall thing is how the company treats people. I always thought I could overlook that. When they treat you like crap, it gets to you.”

Hill also recalled the Dobson era as being so remarkable compared to today’s standards.

“We were working together, we had a lot of pride,” he said.

“I kind of thought the company had learned their lesson about long strikes. It doesn’t help anybody.

“Unfortunately, I think morale’s going to be even worse.”

Hill and the others expressed their appreciation for the support from businesses and everyday people who’ve stopped by the picket line continually during the strike.

“Especially as it gets longer, it’s increasing, not decreasing,” noted Hill.

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