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Strike Latest Blow to Reeling North Island

Hard times are all too familiar to Campbell River and Port McNeill. After the walk-out, the pain is worsening.

Quentin Dodd 8 Dec 2003TheTyee.ca

In north Vancouver Island, where the economy has been reeling under a series of body-punches over several years, there is growing fear of a widening impact from the IWA-Canada strike in the forest industry, on both communities and the area in general.

Port McNeill Mayor Gerry Furney told The Tyee all the major forest companies operate around his community and the industry employs close to 1,000 people in that area alone, providing about 80 per cent of the local economy.

In Campbell River a long-standing member of the municipal council said at an advisory committee meeting that the effect was already "devastating", coming on the heels of economic problems for the region dating back as much as seven or eight years, due to difficulties in various resource industries in addition to forestry and logging.

In Port McNeill, the managers of various stores and retail outlets in the area said the community's economy had already been suffering for some time from the effects of the downturn in the province's forest industry. Particularly mentioned were softwood lumber import tariff imposed by the United States - which for some BC companies reached as high as 37 per cent - and cutbacks in other industrial sectors, such as salmon aquaculture.

'Another nail in the coffin'

"It (the strike) is another nail in the coffin (for the area economy)," summed up Cliff Rosback, manager at the local Shop-Rite Department Stores outlet. "There's been some major uncertainty in (our) consumer's minds, and especially in north Vancouver Island, since the early part of the year. And now our worst fears are being realized."

Rosback estimated business at the store had already fallen about five to six per cent this year because of the tariff. With the looming likelihood of the IWA-strike and then its arrival in November, spending had slowed still further, especially for what he termed "big ticket items" like furniture and major electrical appliances.

"I'd say the ones over about $500 are down 25-30 per cent," he said. "Certainly things are down, and we don't feel it's going to get better in the near future."

Rosback said many people in the industry in the town had clearly been anticipating the strike since early in the year, and the town had been left "battling the economy" for some considerable time but especially over the last year or more - with little help from the provincial government.

"They haven't been working the tariff as hard as they should," he said. "When you just hear that it's not fair and not justified and that's all you hear, then for God's sake do something about it."

He said the store had to laid off four people earlier in the year and may well have to add "a couple more" in January.

A thin Christmas

At the 15-seat Sportsman's Steak and Pizza House, manager Tasos Baroutis said people in the town had been looking ahead to the usual winter shutdown in the forests starting last week but Christmas was still usually a good time for the restaurant. This year it looks like business may well be thin.

"I'd say we're down about 25 per cent already," he said in the first few days of the stoppage. "We've slowed right down."

Baroutis said that unless the signs improved significantly in the next several days, the eatery might well have to lay off two or three of its six personnel within the next week or so.

"The contract was up in June and we've been waiting to see what happens," said Windsor Plywood manager Jeff Noel. "We've already seen a slow-up in anticipation of this."

Noel said he will likely maintain the hardware store's eight staff through Christmas even if the strike continues through then. He guess-timated though that business has been down about 20 per cent in the past two months and said he may well have to lay off some staff in January if the situation has not improved by then.

Farther south, IWA Local 1-363 president Rick Wrangler said his area from Qualicum to just south of Woss Camp contains roughly 650 union members spread over about 30 different forestry operations.

'Slap in the face'

He said with Christmas looming, the union had not intended to go on strike if it could avoid it. He added though that the so-called contract terms and conditions of employment - and especially the travel-time aspects - handed down unilaterally by the Forest Industrial Relations bargaining group of companies on the coast left the IWA no choice.

"It was a slap in the face for our membership," he told The Tyee. "It just showed no respect for safety concerns."

Quentin Dodd is a journalist based in Campbell River.  [Tyee]

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