‘It’s getting desperate’: Mayor calls on B.C. government to end island forestry strike

A section of forest is harvested by loggers near Youbou, B.C. Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The mayor of Port McNeill, B.C., says provincial government intervention is the only way to end the months-long strike affecting the Vancouver Island forestry industry.

Mediated talks between Western Forest Products (WFP) and the United Steelworkers (USW) broke down again on Tuesday.

Labour Minister Harry Bains has since met with both sides in the dispute, but is still expressing his hope that a deal can be reached through collective bargaining β€” despite multiple collapses in negotiations.

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“We know that the best collective agreements come through negotiations at the bargaining table,” Bains wrote in a letter to Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom on Thursday.

“We need this agreement settled so that everyone involved can get back to work, supporting the forest sector and forestry jobs in B.C.”

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Wickstrom says the letter proves Bains has no intention to step into the dispute, which she says is a huge mistake.

“This statement doesn’t give much hope,” she said.

“Having a mediator there hasn’t made a difference. Both sides don’t seem to have the power to change this. The government is the only one that has the power to change this situation.”

Bains’ letter was sent in response to a letter Wickstrom sent to the province in November requesting the appointment of an Industrial Inquiry Commission to promote conditions that could lead to a settlement.

Now that the legislature has recessed for the holidays, Wickstrom says the province needs to find another way to intervene quickly, especially if the two sides have reached a deadlock.

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“This has gone on for so long, you cannot tell me that this isn’t personal anymore,” she said. “[The chief negotiators] need to come out of that room and walk around the communities and look in the eyes of the people who are struggling.”

Wickstrom spent Thursday in her town at a meeting between forestry contractors, Forests Minister Doug Donaldson and North Island MLA Claire Trevena, who also held a similar meeting in Port Hardy the same day.

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The Port Hardy meeting was “highly emotional,” Wickstrom said, with several workers and their spouses speaking about the impact the strike has had on them while calling on the province to act.

“One spouse said their husband doesn’t want to come out of bed because they’re too depressed, they can’t provide for their family,” she said.

“Is it going to mean somebody’s life at the end of the day? I don’t know. I really don’t know. It’s getting desperate.”

Roughly 3,000 unionized contractors and employees are nearing six months off the job due to the dispute.

Families have openly wondered how they’ll make ends meet, particularly with Christmas around the corner.

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Volunteers this week have been stuffing hundreds of holiday meal hampers for affected workers, and were handing out free turkeys outside the Port Hardy meeting.

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The strike has also had an impact on local businesses, which have seen a drop in customers who can no longer afford to shop. Wickstrom said one restaurant recently laid off all but one employee.

In a statement following the Thursday meetings, Donaldson said he told contractors the province is working on short-term financial relief packages for those who have had equipment repossessed or are facing bankruptcy.

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

“We understand how urgent this situation is for people and are working to get this up and running as soon as possible in January,” the minister said. “We are also talking to the federal government about what help it can provide for forestry workers and contractors.”

But Wickstrom said contractors made themselves clear to Donaldson and Trevena that they need a long-term solution.

“They don’t want a handout, what they want is to go back to work again,” she said.

Neither the union nor WFP responded to requests for comment Thursday. No new talks have been scheduled.

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Wickstrom said she wants mediator Vince Ready, whom she praised for his work up to this point, to write a report with recommendations that the union can vote on, hopefully bringing an end to the months-long ordeal.

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“This last time, he said he was making a ‘last-ditch effort’ to see if he can help them reach an agreement,” she said. “I would like to find out whether it’s the last ditch before Christmas, or the last ditch period.

“No one is getting everything they want. How can they get as happily unhappy as possible? That’s what both sides need to figure out.”

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