The United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 strike at Western Forest Products mills has passed the five-month mark with no end in sight and workers, especially those with young families, are feeling the pinch with Christmas fast approaching.
Their neighbours have noticed.
Crofton’s Shannon Carlow and Melanie Cinkant of Ladysmith started talking when they crossed paths at the Christmas Chaos craft fair in Duncan during mid-November and are taking the initiative to assist the WFP employees who are taking a huge financial hit from the long duration of the strike.
North Island workers have received tremendous support from their communites and that got Cinkant into action mode for workers in the Chemainus, Saltair, Ladysmith and Nanaimo zones.
The WFP strike almost seemed lost in the shuffle with the news media focused on many other labour disputes that were running simultaneously around the province, including the transit situation in Vancouver, Saanich CUPE workers, CN Rail and more gaining a higher profile.
“I couldn’t sit here and hope for the best,” she said. “I’ve got to do my fair share. “I was reading on the internet for the same kind of fundraising group that was doing something like that for our central area here. There was a lot of little things going on.”
A food drive was held Saturday at the union office at 351 Brae Rd. in Duncan to provide a helping hand.
Through what Cinkant described as “typical female word of mouth,” she sprung into action.
After talking to striking families at Christmas Chaos and educating some people who seemed unaware there was a strike going on, “that’s when I got a confidential email from someone nominating a family,” Cinkant explained.
Carlow and Cinkant have been busy ever since identifying the greatest needs and publicizing donation information.
“She messaged me literally the day after Christmas Chaos,” said Cinkant. “We had a game plan and we’ve literally talked every day since. We just need some kind hearts right now. We’re just hoping to make a change.
“We’re trying to help families. There’s so many families it’s hard to pinpoint one or two. Everyone’s been affected by this. Most of us, this is our second or third strike. The younger generation, this is their first.”
Donations of food, but even things like hockey gear have been coming in.
“There’s people who can’t pay their Hydro,” noted Cinkant. “We’re all suffering on different ways. It’s not necessarily no food in the fridge. Businesses and banks, they’re all willing to work with you. After four months, there’s nothing (they) can do for you.”
The strike isn’t going to end next week, Cinkant conceded, so long-term contingency plans need to be made.
The food drive was most helpful in getting things going in a big way. Right now, the union office in Duncan is the primary location for contributions, but more localized donation spots could be set up.
Gift certificates to grocery stores are most welcomed, but not cheques since the processing time involved won’t be of any benefit before Christmas. Cash donations, of course, are preferable to cheques.
Children’s toys can also be dropped off at the hall.
The families hardest hit have been identified, but no information is being unveiled that will identify them publicly. They will be given top priority from the donations made.
For those who’d like their donations to go to the four families hardest hit, clearly mark it as “Melanie and Shannon”, Carlow added, and it will then be set aside for that purpose. The families reside in Chemainus, and Ladysmith/Saltair.
“I love how the most generous people are those with the least,” noted Carlow.
She indicated she normally uses the money she’d spend on Christmas gifts to buy anonymously for kids and seniors, putting the names of her family or friends on the gift tags as the giver.
This year, Carlow’s taking that money and providing it to a member of WFP in Chemainus who is on strike.
People have been going the extra mile to do everything possible so far, even going so far as to provide cords of wood for the fire at the Chemainus picket line.
Businesses and individuals in the Cowichan Valley are rallying to help local members of the United Steelworkers, who have been on strike since July 1, and their families have a festive Christmas season.
Doug Irving, a realtor with Re/Max of Duncan, said there are 520 Steelworkers in the union’s southern local impacted by the long strike at Western Forest Products’ operations, and many of them probably need some financial help getting through Christmas.
Irving, who grew up in Chemainus, said he was a Steelworker when he was younger and worked at the mills in Chemainus and Duke Point.
“I know a lot of guys on the line in local mills, and I’m hearing that some of the workers are worried about finances during Christmas,” he said.
“I was just going to buy turkeys myself to hand out to some of them, but I realized there was a lot of interest by other people out there to help as well, so I thought I’d get others involved.”
Irving said an account has been set up at the Island Savings and donations can be made at any branch in account #2739340.
He said that the plan is to use the money raised to buy gift certificates at Thrifty Foods to hand out to the workers.
“So far, RE/Max of Duncan, Thrifty Foods, the Cowichan Valley Citizen and Island Savings are helping with the cause, and I’m hoping other businesses and the general public will help out as well,” Irving said.
“We hope this will brighten some Christmases this year.”
Approximately 1,500 of WFP’s hourly employees who are members of the United Steelworkers Local 1-1937, including hundreds at WFP mills in Cowichan Bay and Chemainus, and 1,500 employees working for the company’s timberlands operators and contractors in B.C., commenced a strike on Canada Day.
The latest bargaining talks broke down last month, with no new talks scheduled.
The Steelworkers have stated that its members, who voted 98.8 per cent in favour of striking, started the job action because the company has not seriously addressed union proposals and continues to keep “massive concessions” on the bargaining table as both sides try to negotiate a new collective agreement.
The company has said the strike is taking place at a “very challenging time” for the industry, which is facing a market downturn due to low lumber prices and high costs because of softwood lumber duties.
— with a file from Robert Barron