Workers in British Columbia have seen their pulp, paper, and lumber mills closing at an alarming rate, leaving thousands jobless and facing an uncertain future. Whole communities have been devastated as large forestry companies such as Interfor and Canfor pull out operations and ship jobs overseas where labour is cheaper. The closures have hit northern B.C. the hardest, as many communities in this tree-dense region of the province have grown up around mills and their jobs. Now these communities, once prospering on the resources around them, are threatened with becoming ghost towns as the big companies pull out. In Mackenzie, where at least three saw mills and two pulps mills are closing, close to 1000 jobs will be lost, many of which represent the loss of an entire family’s income. In a town of 4500, such a loss is huge. As well, businesses and other secondary employers such as planer mills are closing resulting in even more job losses. Residents fear their town may simply disappear as workers move elsewhere in search of work.
Meanwhile trees are still being cut down in B.C., they’re just being sent out of the country to be processed. In 2004 the B.C. Liberals reversed the decades-long policy of keeping the manufacturing of logs in the communities that they were harvested from. In this way, B.C. trees were turned into B.C. jobs as logging companies were forced to sell their timber to local mills, and mills therefore set up shop in the vicinity of logging operations. Now, raw logs can be exported out of the country to be manufactured. Whether they come from private or Crown land, logs can be sent to countries such as China and Korea for processing. In addition, in the recent softwood lumber deal with the United States, logs are not subject to an export tax unlike the vast majority of manufactured wood products. This means it’s cheaper to export raw logs to the US than it is to export processed logs. So as mills in towns like Mackenzie sit idle, workers watch as truckloads of raw logs are taken out of their communities.
The forestry companies are claiming that the downturn in the U.S. housing market and the recent strength of the Canadian dollar are forcing them to close mills. Yet, logging companies such as TiberWest are still finding markets for the raw logs they’re exporting. And the products of these mills are still needed here in B.C. and in Canada. Workers still need to build homes, schools, and community centres. Closing down mills in northern B.C. isn’t going to affect the income of the companies’ owners, as even going so far as declaring bankruptcy barely puts a dent in their paycheques. Pope & Talbot CEO Harold N. Stanton wasn’t put out by the bankruptcy of his company; he still pulls in $294,200 (US) every year as Special Assistant to the CEO at Louisiana-Pacific Corp. The board members of Canfor and Western Forest Products certainly aren’t out of jobs and you’re not likely to see Jimmy Pattison on a bread line anytime soon. Once again, the bosses continue to make money as workers face unemployment.
The problem isn’t just the bursting of the U.S. housing market or the increased value of the loonie; the problem is the capitalist system. When the economy hits a downturn (the inevitable “slump” in the capitalist economy’s “boom-slump” cycle), the forestry sector is hit hard. Capitalists aren’t going to build homes if people cannot afford to buy them, and they will close their mills if they cannot make a profit off of them. But when the economy’s on an up-swing, the capitalists flood the market in a race to make as much as possible, as fast as possible. For years, B.C.’s sawmills were running at top capacity – 24 hours a day, three shifts per day. But now that the companies who were purchasing all this wood are no longer buying, the mills are being closed. This is not to say that there still isn’t a need for lumber and manufactured wood products, only that there isn’t much profit to be made from them. The problem is not a downturn in one particular sector or industry, the problem is an economic system that creates a cyclical pattern of booms and busts because it is driven by the greed of a few instead of by the need of the majority. It is the capitalist system that is the problem and it is the system that we need to change.
The solution is a democratically planned economy. Currently, mill production is determined by how much the mill owners can sell at a profit and as long as there is profit to be made, the owners will keep the mills producing. This in no way takes into account what people actually need; it is not planned and it is definitely not democratic. Our mills must be nationalized and brought under the mill workers’ control. There is no need for companies to own and profit off of these mills and every reason for the workers to keep them running. The mill workers alone know how to operate the saw and pulp mills; it is because of them that our lumber and paper is made. The Jim Pattisons and Harold Stantons of the world don’t work, yet they make all the profit. If any jobs need to be “shed”, it’s theirs. The owners of these companies do nothing for the mills’ employees or their communities, they solely profit off of their labour while not working at all. In conjunction with other mill towns and indigenous communities, the resources needed and the end products made could be put to use to the benefit of the workers instead of the capitalists. Why saturate the U.S. housing market when we could be building schools on reserves and homes in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside? Under workers’ control the products of their mills would also be under their control and the choices made in selling and distributing these products could benefit whole communities, not just 10 men on a board of directors. In a socialist society we could plan timber production together with the construction industry to provide universal housing. Under capitalism, mill workers are fired while there are thousands of homeless on the streets of Vancouver.
The fight is hard but workers in northern B.C. can take inspiration from the struggles of their brothers and sisters in the auto manufacturing industry in Ontario. The recent slew of factory closures has resulted in workers occupying their factories and demanding their severance pay. Two weeks ago, GM announced it was going back on its promise to workers and would be closing the plant in Oshawa resulting in the loss of over 2600 jobs. The workers in Oshawa responded by blockading GM’s head office and have said that they will fight to keep their factory open. In Oshawa, as it is in Mackenzie, Fort Nelson, Nanaimo, and every other B.C. town facing mill and factory closures, the loss of these manufacturing jobs is not just a line in some corporation’s annual report, it is a matter of putting food on the table. It is time to take back what is ours; it is time to take control of our factories, our mills and our labour.