If you have never been to the Ottawa Valley, I would encourage you to come and see one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I was born and raised in the Ottawa Valley and the lumber industry has always been a part of my family. My great-grandfather was killed in a lumber camp accident, my father worked in a paper mill for 37 years and I was fortunate to work as a summer student at that same mill for four summers. The mill that put food on my table when I was growing up and paid for my university education is now a memory. It has been torn down, taking close to 500 jobs with it.
The lumber industry, so long a major employer in the Valley, has suffered many setbacks in the last 10 years, with multiple jobs lost or workers being asked to take a cut in pay. One example of the losses can be seen at the Commonwealth Plywood Factory in Pembroke. In 1951, J.D. Irving Ltd. established a veneer and plywood factory in a former World War II hangar that was dismantled and brought from the East Coast. In its heyday, over 500 workers were employed there. Over time, many of the workers were laid off, and the veneer operation was shut down in 2005, leaving only plywood manufacturing. In 1999, the operation was sold to Commonwealth Plywood Ltd., leaving a staff of approximately 50 unionized workers along with the machines that glued, hot-pressed, cut and sanded plywood.
On Monday April 19, 2010 the Commonwealth Plywood employees, all members of the United Steelworkers (USW) 1–1000, voted to go on strike, after a year without a collective agreement and failed attempts at reaching a new agreement. When negotiations began, the company insisted the union agree to a number of concessions. In addition to a nine-year agreement term and a 30 per cent rollback in wages, the concessions included circumventing seniority, a reduction in the number of paid holidays and mandatory overtime, even limits on bathroom breaks! The union membership had been asked if it was willing to negotiate the concessions and the vote came back unanimously against. This April 19 marked the fourth year they have been walking the line in Pembroke, the longest strike in Canadian history.
I first met the men and women of USW 1–1000 three years ago on their picket line in front of the Commonwealth Plywood Factory in Pembroke. It was a very blustery November evening and I was there with members of other local unions to show our support and our solidarity. We walked with them and we talked with them and we gave them cheques. The strikers have been living on strike assistance pay of $225 a week plus $30 per dependant and donations are truly appreciated. There are currently 28 workers who show up for their five-hour picket duty, down from the original 40. Nine are over 65; most do not feel they can start a new career at this stage in their lives.
I remember being amazed at the length of time they had been on the line already, and that was years ago. My longest strike experience was the two-week political protest during the Harris years. I knew what stress over even two weeks feels like, and I could not imagine the stress over months, let alone years. Speaking at the rally, Michael McCarter, USW 1–1000 president, remained defiant, saying the union membership, who endorsed the walkout 100 per cent, knew they were in for a long battle. “We will last one day longer….”
Last year was a difficult one for OSSTF/ FEESO as it struggled with a government that stripped its collective agreements and even the right to bargain or strike. I will always be grateful to the men and women of USW 1–1000 as they brought their entire picket line to support our protest in front of our MPP’s office. It was a bitterly cold evening, but they were there to support their brothers and sisters in their struggle with the provincial government.
I have been to many rallies with the Commonwealth Plywood workers but December 20, 2013 will always stand out in my mind, as I found myself once again carrying my District 28, Renfrew flag on the line. This was going to be their fourth Christmas on strike. I had brought coffee and muffins and some donations. It was cold and the snow was falling heavily. Our District had once again contributed to Operation Christmas Cheer and I, along with other representatives from local unions, was there to show support. I had the privilege to witness an incredible display of generosity when the Christmas food hampers, grocery gift cards, turkeys and hams arrived from Ottawa. The entire line refused to take the gifts and asked that they be delivered to their Service Employees International Union (SEIU) workers on strike at the Pembroke Red Cross. The Steelworkers then proceeded to jump in their cars and head over to SEIU’s picket line to support them. I will admit I had tears in my eyes that day.
I recently sat down to talk with Dave Weisenberg (Unit President) and Heather Mitton (Financial Secretary). Both of these leaders have worked at the factory for 33 years, yet both are the lowest on their seniority list. I asked them about that Operation Christmas Cheer day when they passed on their gifts. Dave felt it was an obvious choice. “They had nothing. Five weeks with nothing! Everybody agreed to it.” Heather added, “What goes around, comes around.”
I asked them about the highs and lows of the last four years. For Heather, the highlight for her is “how we have come together as a family.” Like any family, these workers have tackled cancer, kidney problems, heart attacks and diabetic comas, but they have pulled together to get through. Dave recognized the support of the United Steel Workers and other unions that helped them: “It lifts your spirits when someone comes to walk with you.” Their spirits need lifting from time to time as depression is an ongoing concern. Dave is vigilant, recognizing that it is depressing, “coming here every day and knowing there is nothing you can do about it.”
When asked about words for other union members Dave had a lot to share. “You don’t know who your boss is going to be tomorrow, but the union is going to be there for you. I believe I have the right to make a half-decent wage. If we caved in to the company, I might as well go to China and chain myself to a machine.” Heather was more succinct. “Support your union. When it is gone, it is gone!”
I cannot help connecting the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Together Fairness Works campaign to our brothers and sisters of USW 1–1000. They embody what unions should be about: standing up against a belligerent employer because it is the right thing to do, supporting other unions by giving up their Operation Christmas Cheer and walking beside them on the line. We need to help raise their spirits by walking with them and supporting them so they can hold on for one day longer.