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Strikers Go from Gloom to Holiday Cheer

IWA workers were hunkered down for "the long haul" when breakthrough came.

Quentin Dodd 16 Dec 2003TheTyee.ca
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Christmas came early for Jack Kachenko. His gift was the news that he and thousands of others in the BC forest industry would be going back to work after a strike of more than three weeks -- and would do so, for now, under terms they could live with.

Just days before, on a cold and dark, drizzly afternoon on the picket lines near Campbell River, Kachenko had been facing the possibility of a tough Christmas. He and his wife were determined to give their two small granddaughters toys and other gifts, but Kachenko said he and his wife would probably not give each other much if anything.

"Now it looks like maybe I can get her something, or she can maybe get me some toys," he said.

Kachenko, a millwright with 28 years in the industry, also expressed some confidence that the required mediated negotiation between the two sides would yield an agreement well before the imposed deadline of mid-May next year. If not, Victoria will order binding arbitration.

On the line, Kachenko and four other members of  IWA-Canada Local 1-363 had voiced the fear that the government would not only force them back to work but also allow the companies to continue to impose their own terms and conditions of employment. That would have set the union back to Square One, the Labor Relations Board-approved situation immediately before the strike.

Working again under old contract

But the government let it be known on the weekend that the return-to-work order set for today would be under the terms and conditions of the old, expired contract, and Kachenko said that improves the likelihood of movement on both sides, now to be guided by a mediator.

Standing around a makeshift wood fire alongside a logging-road intersection the previous week, Kachenko supported his other four picket-line buddies in saying he would not have been happy to see anything which plays into the companies' hands.

Morale at the picket site was clearly high, despite the approaching holidays. There was determined talk to "stick it out for as long as it takes", perhaps several months.

"In '86 it was four-and-a-half months," reminded Scott Inrig, a crummie operator and log-loader operator with CanFor's Woss Camp operation with 29 years in the industry.

With the two sides still then apparently a long way apart and the union more than three weeks into the shutdown, the possibility of another extended walkout was looming - unless Victoria stepped in to issue the return-to-work order. And the pickets were blunt in directing much of their disgust at the province's Liberal government, giving it the lions' share of the blame for the situation.

They cited ripped-up collective agreements, back-to-work legislation and, most of all, increased powers to companies to expand selling off parts of operations or contracting. They also disparaged the Labor Relations Board decision-makers as government-appointed lackeys dancing to government and industry wishes.

The five withdrew to a trailer standing at the edge of one of the roads to talk, so the reporters' notepad wouldn't get soggy in the heavy-dew atmosphere.

The conversation turned to Christmas.

The fivesome all said they intended to make sure the "kids" - some of them now adults - and the grandchildren would be properly looked after and had a good time, some of them reportedly too young to be able to tell the difference between the gift-wrapped box and the present inside.

Apart from that, they said, they were prepared to hunker down for the "long haul". Stores and other businesses were already seeing cutbacks in spending as a result.

Savings were dwindling

The savings the pickets had been able to put aside, they said, had already begun to erode. Strike pay of $225 a week plus $30 a week per documented dependent was far short of their regular pay packet. The lines had already been up for two weeks without strike pay and the union wasn't paying for the gas needed to reach the assigned picket lines. Because of the whittling down of union membership within the Local, some of the pickets had to travel sizeable distances to operate the lines.

In this Local, the members were required to put in 10 hours a week to qualify for the strike pay. Some of the members of the fivesome said their savings were being eroded and not all of them had been able to put away much savings, even though the strike generally had been anticipated for much of the year. 

One of the five jokingly said that maybe he'd give his wife a piece of coal for Christmas.

"I did that one time," said another. "That's all there was in her stocking. She gave it right back to me - across the shoulders!" The real stocking was quickly handed over.

"I have a baby (16 months) and a 12-year-old," said Kerry Bird, a graveyard maintenance man with Fields. "Because of the baby, my wife's at home and not working. It's tough, and I can't pay my child support - and there's the mortgage too."

Local banks eased off on payments

A spokesperson for the Local said the banks and financial institutions had been approached and had evidently agreed to be kind regarding reduced payments on mortgages for the duration of the strike. Wives' wages help with home expenses.

Inrig, one of the more outspoken of the five, calculated that he would have lost at least $1500 had he worked under the new holiday pay concessions that his employer wanted to impose - one of the issues that touched off the strike.

"I think," said Alan Mate, a 29-year employee with Fields, when asked about financial preparation for the strike, "we were kind of sitting back and just taking it day by day." The union members blamed the government, plus some hasty reaction by a few hundred IWA members elsewhere in the province, for precipitating the strike before Christmas.

"That strike in '86 was over the same thing, " said Inrig. "We were fighting contracting-out then too. People forget that. The government has given the companies the power to contract out and it's not just this union, it's the ferry workers and nurses and others.

"A lot of people lost their homes in '86 and not just in the industry but from the 'falldown' (ripple effect into other forest-industry dependent companies)," said Inrig.

"They've started doing layoffs in other companies around here," Inrig said, "so it's not just us that are going to have a thin Christmas. The shit rolls downhill and gets on everything and it really nails the little guy that just can't handle it."

As the five talked, the rain continued to fall, and darkness set in. The bright lights of Christmas were exactly two weeks away and a good deal dimmer than they became this week.

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

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