The new sign for Chilliwack's Gillwood Remanufacturing is tacked on top of the old Uneeda sign so that a logo remains underneath: "Our roots are in this community."
The sign is an insult to the few workers who remain employed at Gillwood and who are currently locked out by the Surrey-based owner of the company.
The approximately two dozen employees remaining since new owner Gary Gill purchased the mill in July 2011 and then laid off workers say they have been offered wages that will essentially create a sweatshop.
"Nobody has seen anything like it before," said Ken Toth, a long-time employee and unit president for the United Steel Workers which represents the workers. "The term 'sweatshop' has come up. It's impossible to work there with any type of security for the future."
The Unsworth Road operation has been around since 1975 and can staff up to 250 people if all three shifts are in operation. For seasonal and economic reasons, there were approximately 80 employees when Gill took over July 15 last year.
That number remained until the beginning of October, when "massive layoffs" dropped staff to the current level, according to Toth.
That's when Gill put forth demands, which include 24 to 34 per cent wage reductions to the $22 per hour average wage, cancellation of the pension plan, shared or employee paid extended health and MSP, no job security and more.
Toth said there is a clause that states anyone being trained can be discharged at any time without the ability to file a union grievance. So for Toth, who has a
specific job, the company could move him to a different part of the mill, start training him and then fire him with no recourse.
"We refer to it as bizarre," he said. For his part, Gill told the Times that while it is unfortunate the workers are locked out, he is trying to negotiate with the union.
"I'm sure it's no surprise to you that we are living in uncertain times and the lumber industry is undergoing some massive challenges," Gill wrote in an email. "Having said this, we hope to come to a speedy resolution so we can keep people employed and at the same time run a healthy operation."
For privacy reasons, Gill said he was not in a position to provide further details of the negotiations.
Toth said Gillwood is the only unionized mill of approximately 12 in Chilliwack. But he insisted the $22 per hour average wage is below union standards and is comparable to non-union operations in town.
He also said what happens at Gillwood will have an effect on the wages of workers at every other mill in town.
"This will affect hundreds of local families. These families will not be purchasing homes or new vehicles. They will likely not be spending at local shops or going out for dinner and a movie. They will be the working poor."
Toth blames BC Liberal government policy, at least in part, and he brought the Gillwood lockout up at an Chilliwack-Hope byelection all-candidates meeting held at the Rotary Club of Chilliwack Fraser last week. His local vice-president, Carly Turner, asked the candidates at the public meeting at Sardis secondary about the topic.
BC Liberal candidate Laurie Throness was specifically asked by Turner about what she called the creation of a sweatshop under the company's new owners.
Throness said he felt that selling at least some raw logs to Asian markets was a good idea, and that the Liberal government has a review ongoing to see what level of raw log exports made sense.
BC Conservative candidate John Martin said "the legacy of this government is one that results in winners and losers," and the loss of local jobs was "devastating."
NDP candidate Gwen O'Mahony said such a situation would not have happened under an NDP government.