British Columbia

As B.C. forestry strike enters 3rd week, concern grows over effect on community

Many residents of Port Alberni rely on the forestry sector for a paycheque and Mayor Sharie Minions says businesses are already seeing a drop-off in local customers, as forestry workers enter a third week of strike action against Western Forest Products.

Port Alberni mayor says city will rally to support families in need if job action continues

Members of United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 are joined by nurses from the Hospital Employees' Union on the picket line outside Western Forest Products' Alberni Pacific Division Sawmill. (Facebook/USW 1-1937)

Residents of Port Alberni, B.C., have seen hard times before.

The forestry industry has been a significant employer in the Vancouver Island community for decades and the city has experienced a lot of booms and busts over the years.

But as forestry workers enter a third week of strike action against Western Forest Products (WFP) and the sawmills sit silent, the town's mayor is growing increasingly concerned about the impact on the local economy. 

"We've been a one-industry town for a long time," Mayor Sharie Minions told On The Island host Gregor Craigie.

"Most families kind of plan to be able to survive maybe a few weeks off work but when it gets into that longer term … we're really going to feel the impacts."

WFP says about 3,000 workers belonging to United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 in coastal British Columbia walked off the job on July 1. Roughly 200 families that rely on a WFP paycheque live in Port Alberni.

Minions said small businesses are already seeing a decline in local customers and they have told her they are no longer seeing regulars in their shops.

"It's very public and very apparent that these people are out of work right now," said Minions. "Everybody knows somebody who works at APD," she said, referring to WFP's Alberni Pacific Division Sawmill.

Sawmills are sitting silent in Port Alberni as forestry workers walk the picket lines. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

The union says an agreement can be reached quickly once talks resume, but the union and WFP cannot agree on who should mediate.

United Steelworkers local president Brian Butler said in a news release the union is ready to negotiate and well known mediator Vince Ready is available for talks, but WFP has rejected working with Ready.

Minions is hopeful work will start up again soon, but says the community will come together to help those in need if work remains stalled.

"The unfortunate thing about Port Alberni is that we do have a lot of people who live in poverty," said Minions. "The positive side of that is we really know how to take care of the people in our community who are struggling."

She said service providers will reach out if the situation worsens.

"We do have such a strong forestry history in our community … and our community has a lot of services to help people," said Minions. "But we hope that it won't get to that point."

Forestry jobs across Vancouver Island have been on the decline for the past two decades. Reasons for the downturn include increasing mechanization and shifts in global markets.

To hear the complete interview with Mayor Sharie Minions, click on the audio link below:

With files from On The Island