Businesses, communities feeling pinch as Western Forest Products strike drags on

Western Forest Products workers have been on the picket lines for five months, sending economic ripples across Vancouver Island.

The strike affects about 3,000 coastal forest workers employed in the company's sawmills and timberland operations. Employees walked off the job July 1, demanding fair wages and working conditions.

"It's been devastating to our town," said Port Hardy Mayor Dennis Dugas.

"Our businesses and community feel like they're part of the collateral damage."

He says the long-lasting strike is impacting local businesses, because workers aren't buying consumer goods or spending money.

Revenues from local businesses are down significantly — in some cases, by more than 50 per cent — and some employers have had to shorten their work weeks and are facing layoffs, according to Dugas.

"Nobody is spending money," said Macrina Richards, owner of Tia's Cafe in Port McNeill.

"We don't have any customers."

The future is uncertain for her businesses if a deal isn't reached soon between the United Steel Workers' Union and the lumber company.

"If things don't change, I may have to shut down for a couple of days [a week]. I don't know how long my employees will stay with me — I still owe them from last paycheck."

USW 1-1937/Facebook
USW 1-1937/Facebook

'We need this resolved'

Shelley Downey, a councillor in Port McNeill and owner of Harbourside Pharmachoice, described the situation as increasingly dire.

"Everybody has been impacted by this," she said. "Children are coming to school and they're hungry."

Local elementary schools are bolstering their food programs in response, with some offering breakfast and lunch to students.

"This is new for us to be operating and providing [these programs] at the level we are currently," she said. "It's what we just have to do."

Adam van der Zwan/CBC
Adam van der Zwan/CBC

Downey wants to see more help from the provincial government and more pressure for the union and company to come to an agreement.

"We just want them to know that our area is important. It matters," she said. "We need this resolved. It's gone on far too long."

So far, negotiations have fallen flat with no resolutions.

"What we're seeing with the strike is symptomatic of a lot of uncertainty in the industry," said Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone.

"The impacts reach far beyond just those companies and those workers and really strike at the foundation of our local economies."

And with no talks scheduled, there doesn't seem to be any end in sight for the dispute.

"This is isn't to judge the company or the union. We know that there's a lot of challenges with the forest industry right now," he said. "All we can do is encourage them to talk."