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‘It’s heartbreaking’: Vancouver Island communities grapple with logging strike fallout

Nearly 3,000 employees and contracted workers with Western Forest Products at six Vancouver Island manufacturing plants and timberland across the coast have been on strike since July 1. Global News

Residents of northern Vancouver Island are urging both sides of a long-running forestry labour dispute to get back to bargaining, warning that their communities risk being hollowed out if it drags on.

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

Mediators Vince Ready and Amanda Rogers have been trying to break the impasse between the company and United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1-1937, but talks broke off last Monday.

Tamara Meggitt has been organizing a campaign called “Loonies for Loggers” which has focused making food, baby formula, diapers and other necessities available to the families of striking workers.

READ MORE: Western Forest Products says contract talks with striking union have stalled

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“We are talking the entire Vancouver Island. We are talking Duncan, Chemainus, Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Courtenay, Campbell River,” she said.

They’re hardworking men and women, and they’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath them. They’re losing homes. They’ve lost vehicles. They can’t pay their bills. Dads, moms that aren’t paying child support.”

She said on top of delivering food, volunteers have found themselves in a role as defacto counsellors.

“We’ve got a couple of special deliveries going out today. One is a young family that have got a young baby and they can’t afford food for that baby,” she said.

“The stress that’s putting on both mom and dad is pretty hard to hear. Another single parent that’s about to lose their home.”

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Meggitt, whose husband works in the forestry industry, described the bargaining impasse as a “pissing match” between the two sides, and said intervention may be necessary to force a deal.

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Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom has written an open letter to the lead negotiators of both sides urging them begin negotiating again.

“They keep walking away from the table and there doesn’t seem to be a resolution. Our community is now at a place where there are food banks,” she said.

“It’s just heartbreaking to watch when you know a family of five with three young children and they’re buying food with gift cards.”

Wickstrom said her community of 2,400 is deeply reliant on the industry, and the five-month-old dispute is having massive knock-on effects for other businesses, from restaurants to mechanics.

She said some residents have begun to put their homes up for sale, while others have sought work on the South Island or in the Northern B.C. resource industries.

“[Some] that I have talked to that said, ‘We don’t know if the forest sector is for us, we may stay with the jobs we have found up north,'” she said.

Global News has requested comment from the USW and Western Forest Products.

Labour Minister Harry Bains said he’s been informed that both sides have been speaking to the mediator, and that new talks are in the works.

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“They are trying to set up some meetings for this weekend, so I am hopeful there will be some sort of moving forward in a positive manner,” said Bains.

“We’ll find out I guess after the weekend, how the talks go.”

READ MORE: Hundreds of jobs on the line amid latest blow to B.C. forestry sector

When talks broke down, Western Forest Products said it had offered the union a five-year deal with a $2,000 signing bonus and wage hikes of two per cent for the first four years and 2.5 per cent in the fifth year.

The company says it has also dropped pension plan alternatives opposed by the union.

But in a bargaining update the same day, the union said the wage provisions were too low, did not address “fatigue-inducing” alternate shifts or address severance during permanent partial closures for members working for contractors.

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