The return to work at Western Forest Products Chemainus sawmill after the seven-and-a-half month strike by United Steelworkers Local 1-1937 has been bittersweet for Chemainus’ Chris Hardy.
“I’m basically finished this month,” said Hardy. “I’m moving on.”
But he’s not immediately retiring after 35 years at the Chemainus sawmill as you might think, but rather accepting a new opportunity in his familiar capacity as a saw filer in a different environment at Paulcan Enterprises on Smiley Road in Chemainus to work for Paul Beltgens.
Hardy has been an outspoken critic of WFP leading up to the long strike, but the end of his tenure there is still bringing mixed emotions. “Best of times, worst of times,” he conceded.
Operations resumed at the Chemainus sawmill Feb. 20 following settlement of the strike.
“We are ramping up and resuming operations across our mills based on a number of factors which vary by operation, including log supply and customer orders we need to fulfill,” noted Babita Khunkhun, a senior director of communications for WFP. “We are operating two shifts at Chemainus which is the same as before the strike began.”
Other operations have not been so fortunate, with Cowichan Bay and Ladysmith employees still uncertain when they’ll return to work.
Hardy has seen some positives in the early days since the return to work which were few and far between previously.
“They seem to be a bit more friendly, let’s put it that way,” he said. “It’s been hell down there for the last three years.
“For Chemainus sawmill, we’ve got a new vice president of manufacturing, we’ve got a new manager at Chemainus sawmill, a new maintenance superintendent and a new maintenance supervisor and these people seem to be speaking our language.”
Hardy is a member of the mill’s plant committee and was recently voted back onto the safety committee. The two committees contain the same seven people, led by plant chairman Randy Robertson.
Hardy said the strike was a necessary consequence of the situation as it sat between the company and employees when the last contract expired in June 2019.
“It’s a sacrifice we had to make in order to maintain our position of not allowing concessions. It took us seven and a half months, but we maintained what we had before the strike.
“If you were looking strictly in money terms, yeah, we lost money. The strike was never about money. It was about corporate greed.”
With a monopoly already, “they tried to squeeze the working man for more,” added Hardy.
“I would never have expected the strength and the will of the people. There was nobody whining about what the union was doing or not doing. We weren’t going to go back on those terms.”
He praised the leadership of the Steelworkers union for their communication and professionalism during the strike.
The local agreement cancelled 30 days before the strike was important to Chemainus employees and they’re pleased it got reinstated.
“Chemainus sawmill was built around a local agreement which is a team system,” Hardy said.
The system allows for job rotation and less chances of muscular/skeletal injuries from repetition.
Word even got back to former manager Phil Dobson from the mill’s heyday and he was pleased to hear about its retention.
“That was everything to Phil Dobson and what Chemainus was all about,” noted Hardy. “It’s everyone working toward a common goal.”
With the environment as it is, “we’re all cautiously optimistic,” he added. “They’re saying the right words.”
But Hardy is not sticking around. “I’m happier leaving the mill believing the politics appear to be changing for the better.”
He’s looking forward to the change after so long, praising Paulcan owner Paul Beltgens for what he’s done with his operation.