The Alberni Valley community is rallying in support of mill workers and loggers who have been affected by a five-month forest sector strike.
Talks between Western Forest Products and United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 broke down again over the weekend, with no future mediation dates scheduled at press time.
Members filed into the United Steelworkers hall Friday morning (Nov. 15), there to pick up strike pay as well as food hampers, the latter a sure sign of the deepening impact of a protracted dispute.
Boxes of bulk food donations were unloaded from Hertel Meats, Double R Meats, No Frills and the Salvation Army, a few of many donors who have stepped up.
Much of the initiative — as with Friday’s show of generosity — has come from the community at large, said Laura Mauke, administrative assistant with Local 1-1937.
“We’ve been doing some different fundraising,” Mauke said. “It’s definitely because of initiatives by people in the community. They’ve been so helpful in working to help people who have been on strike since July.”
The organizer of Friday’s food drive preferred to remain anonymous, Mauke said. About 100 members took advantage of the donations to augment their strike pay, which some said is barely enough to cover essentials.
“The members were very appreciative,” Mauke said. “It was a good turnout.”
There were some leftovers remaining to hand out, she added.
About 240 Port Alberni union members are among 3,000 Western Forest Products employees from six mills have been on strike since July 1. The local strikers include millworkers and some loggers, Mauke said.
Mayors of half a dozen coastal communities, including Port McNeill, Port Hardy, Ladysmith, North Cowichan and Gold River, sent a letter last week appealing to both parties for a resolution to the dispute. Workers and families are suffering to the point where layoff notices are being issued at businesses reliant on Western’s fibre supply, they said.
“As leaders of communities that are severely impacted by the Western Forest Products and United Steelworkers labour dispute, we are compelled to draw your attention to the economic devastation this dispute is causing for the families who live and work in our communities; the people whose support we rely on as the economic backbone of our local economies,” the letter states.
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions did not sign the letter, saying it was a council decision to leave her name off the letter. “While we respect and appreciate the intent of the mayors represented on the letter, our council felt that it wasn’t the right path,” she wrote in a Facebook post after visiting workers on the picket line at Cameron Shops near Port Alberni.
“As a council, we are aware that our community is suffering from the consequences of this labour dispute. That fact, and the community implications, are not by any means lost on us.”
A burger and beer night fundraiser at The Blue Marlin on Friday, Nov. 22, is next in line on the calendar. The night includes a silent auction and music by Short Term. Other communities have been holding similar fundraisers, said organizer Mary Ann Cheetham.
“I couldn’t stand by and not see something done for Christmas for local loggers,” Cheetham said. “Our town thrives on that industry.”
Some families are already having to make tough choices, Cheetham said. Some are having to leave the picket line in search of jobs elsewhere, she said.
Save-On-Foods is also organizing a food-basket initiative for the striking workers leading up to Christmas, said manager Stephanie Benbow.
“It will be a different Christmas, for sure,” said one worker on the picket line. Throughout the strike, lots of people from the community have been supportive, often dropping off food and refreshments at the picket-line shack located near the foot of Bruce Street.
Tickets for Friday’s event at the Blue Marlin are $20 and available in advance from the Blue Marlin, the USW hall or Cheetham at firstname.lastname@example.org. Silent auction donations can be dropped off in advance at the union hall.
Pat Deakin, the city’s economic development manager, said one in nine workers in Port Alberni is employed directly by the forest industry while many others rely on the business generated.
“We’re making progress on diversification, but it’s tough; it’s still our biggest sector,” Deakin said.
While there is no data available to show the strike’s impact on the local economy, Deakin hears it when he walks into local businesses.
“We are hearing from many owners, employers and proprietors that their revenues are down in their respective businesses,” he said.