Labor

A town paying its union dues

Peter Carlyle-Gordge April 16 1979
Labor

A town paying its union dues

Peter Carlyle-Gordge April 16 1979

A town paying its union dues

Labor

In its sylvan, lakeside setting the pretty northwest Ontario town of Kenora (population, 11,000) has the deceptive appearance of an idyllic community. But those who have visited the town know its harder edge and now a very harsh human reality threatens the vestiges of natural harmony.

A divisive strike began six months ago against Boise Cascade Canada Ltd., the town’s major employer, whose yellow-brick, smoke-belching paper mill sits atop a well-guarded hill high above the town. The strike has cost a fortune. The bill for using the Ontario Provincial Police alone—there were 96 in Ke-

nora and neighboring Fort Frances at one point—had reached $2.1 million by February. Anger and violence bubble uncomfortably close to the surface calm imposed on the community and the real cost of the strike, the human and social cost, defies computation.

The story of Kenora today is a tale of two towns, with families, unions, workmates, friends and social organizations split down the middle over a strike that has gone disastrously wrong. Nerves and tempers have worn paper-thin, with some family members and former friends vowing never to speak to each other again.

Says Garry Norris, director of the district of Kenora’s Family and Children’s Services: “The social damage is very real. We’re seeing far more cases of child abuse, as well as family and personal breakdown.”

Personal relationships have become highly confused. There are men working at the mill who don’t want tomen like Bob Baker, 50, who fully supports the 200 members of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union who struck the mill last October. Baker’s union, the United Paperworkers International, voted to cross the sawmill workers’ picket lines and he was told, along with 40 other dissenters, that if he stayed out he would be fired. Today he walks through the picket line, rather than taking what he regards as a craven entrance by car under police protection.

The real issue behind the strike is the owner-operators—men who cut and haul wood with their own equipment and sell it to Boise at a fixed price. Boise has always had owner-operators in the Kenora area but last May it decided to introduce them in its operations at nearby Fort Frances, a move the union opposed. Sawmill workers are still on strike at Fort Frances, though other unions are working.

The sawmill workers see owner-operators as the thin edge of a timber wedge

which will ultimately castrate their union and threaten the jobs of hourly paid woodcutters and haulers. Members foresee a few large, owner-operators being brought in to cut a year’s wood supplies in a few months. Surviving on $122-a-week strike pay, picket captain Wilf McIntyre, 32, says: “Twelve years ago I had the chance to become an owner-operator or an hourly paid worker. I opted for hourly work because I wanted marriage and a family life. The owner-operator has the worry of making massive payments on his equipment and spends two or three hours every night cleaning and fixing the equipment. He has no family life.” McIntyre,who has a cousin and nephew in unions crossing his picket line (“I don’t exactly think highly of them”) adds, “Once you’re an owner-operator with the big worries and big payments, the company has you, because you can’t afford to stop work for an argument on price. If you get behind with payments, your house and everything you’ve worked for is threatened.”

For its part, Boise Cascade insists the fears are groundless. Boise Director of Corporate Communications Jack Boitson: “They’re clouding the issue. We’d insist that owner-operators be union members and if they don’t like it they can sell their equipment back to us after a year. We know owner-operators are more efficient and they don’t need supervision as hourly workers do. We’re not union-breaking.”

Boitson admits the strike has been

very costly, but says the company will keep operating, drawing on stockpiles and buying wood where it can. In Winnipeg it has been using Canada Manpower to advertise for truck drivers to bring wood in police-guarded convoys. Pay is $100 a day, living expenses and time off every two weeks. The company has also been hiring a small army of private security guards to help it operate, and management has been dragooned into non-management jobs.

To further complicate the tangled relationships of Kenora, two other unions weren’t working. The 135-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers voted March 28 to return to work but the 132 members of the Canadian Paperworkers Union are still out solely because they refuse to cross the sawmill workers’ picket lines.

Terry Codling, 32, recording secretary for the machinists’ strike, says bluntly that he doesn’t think the sawmill workers should be able to dictate to the company how many owner-operators it can employ and that the sawmill workers may be overreacting, exaggerating the threat to their jobs, but adds: “Mind you, I wouldn’t trust anything the company said unless it was in writing. Our own union learned that a long time ago. The company doesn’t give a damn about people.”

He and a few others would like some compromise arrangement which would allow machinists and papermakers to go back to work, with the sawmill workers drawing back their picket line: “If we were back at work I think the company’s stockpiles of wood would be used up quickly and they’d have to negotiate with the sawmill workers.”

That plan seems unlikely to be implemented and the repeated call by striking unions for withdrawal of the 24 Ontario Provincial Police still billeted in the town will likely go unheeded. Kenora Mayor Udo Römstedt, delicately trying to sit on the barbed fence dividing the town, claims he didn’t call the police in and can’t order them out. But he’s certain there would be violence the minute the police left. Spikes have already been found on roads used by wood trucks.

Roy Tacknyk, 36, a shop steward with the striking papermakers’ union is typical. His father, a member of the United Paperworkers International Union, is at work in the mill. So too is his cousin, an electrician. Meanwhile he’s supporting his wife and child on $40 a week strike pay: “It’s a bitter point, but we’ve just agreed not to talk about it anymore,” says Tacknyk. “Tempers do get hot, especially when you consider that

strikers’ wives have been arrested for supporting their husbands.”

The community’s wound is open and festering, though Boise’s Jack Boitson insists the troubles have been exaggerated. “When the CBC cameras come to town it’s like a bloody madhouse. I think most people in Kenora are sick and tired of the strikers and of the police. It has been sensationalized.”

That view is shared by members of the town’s business community, who in general haven’t suffered too heavily from the strike. Ironically, some businesses—such as the town’s Holiday Inn where policemen and outside company personnel are being billeted—are enjoying a business boom unusual for the winter.

A stone’s throw from the Holiday Inn, at sawmill workers’ strike headquarters, union Vice-President Fred Miron angrily brandishes a copy of the Boise Cascade Quarterly, the February report of Boise’s American parent company. Its glossy cover is dominated by an unfortunate symbol: a cash register stuffed to overflowing with money. The back page is emblazoned with huge dollar symbols. “Greed. That’s what this strike is about,” he says matter-offactly. “And it’s a son-of-a-bitch,” adds striker Wilf McIntyre, “when Ontario taxpayers have to fork out over $2 million to keep a private company operating.”

Whenever the strike ends, Kenora’s social cracks will not lightly be papered over. Peter Carlyle-Gordge