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“Digging into History: What Happened to Hillcrest Lumber?”, by John Mountain, Vol. 1 No. 8 (August, 2019)

These first few blog posts are backdated issues of John Mountain’s historical newsletter “Digging into History”. As of March 2020, John had been working on sorting the collection for over a year and a half, publishing a newsletter every month detailing his findings.

What Happened to Hillcrest Lumber? – I was a twelve years old kid in 1968 living in MB Kennedy Lake logging camp on the west coast of Vancouver Island. And because I was a kid, I was totally unaware of the timber supply situation around Cowichan Lake and how it affected the Hillcrest Lumber Company. Well, that was until now. 

In this deep dig, I discovered a great piece in a Local 1-80 Bulletin on Hillcrest Lumber. It as from this story that I finally understood why the sawmill and logging operations was forced to close. In all my years of passing through Mesachie Lake, I had wondered many times how such a community-minded company had just ceased to exist. Thanks to the Local 1-80 Bulletin from February 1968, I found out it ran out of timber.

Hillcrest Lumber Co. – Living or Dying?, IWA Local Union 1-80 Bulletin (Feb. 1968)

One of the largest sawmills in the Cowichan Valley is feeling the pinch of monopoly timber holdings. Hillcrest Lumber Company, owned and operated by the Stone family since the early 1900’s is literally at the mercy of big business. The operation as a whole has employed approximately four hundred men for the past twenty five years when the mill was moved from old Hillcrest to its present location at Mesachie Lake, four miles from the village of Lake Cowichan.

In an informal meeting with officials of the company, Hector and Peter Stone, to pinpoint exactly what the problem is, it became apparent that even fairly large companies are subject to quick death.

The sawmill with a production of approximately five million feet per month has almost run out of raw material and can only operate until the fall of 1968. Logging will halt sooner. With approximately thirty million feet left in the hills that is available, shutdown is inevitable.

UNION CONCERNED – Officials of the local union concerned with the impending closure requested a meeting to explore every possible avenue of maintaining the operation. Here, in brief, is the problem: Hillcrest Lumber Company was granted option on approximately twenty five years of production in 1943. The twenty-five years are very nearly gone, so is the log supply.

Why is there no more timber? First of all there is no crown timber available in this area for the company to bid on in a competitive manner. Existing timber, approximately 1½ billion feet, is owned by the large companies in that area as well as the E&N.

LOG PRICES – Current log prices are extremely high making it difficult for a company of this nature to buy logs on the open market and produce lumber at a reasonable profit. This, in spite of the fact that timber suitable for manufacturing is being exported to Japan in its raw form.

Here are some of the questions asked of the company officials, for which we received what we feel to be frank answers:

  1. Is there any possibility of buying any standing timber? – No, not likely. MB, BCFP, and CZ do not seem to be interested in selling standing timber.
  2. How about buying logs? – Logs can be bought but with absolutely no guarantee of supply or price.
  3. Are you aware that there is some export of logs to foreign countries? – Yes, but the quantity is un-known and it seems to be mostly Hemlock and Cedar although the logs appear to be excellent for manufacturing purposes.
  4. What about lumber markets? Is there any problem here? – No, prices are good and there is no problem in getting orders.
  5. Is there any truth to the rumour that the Stone boys have made their pile and are getting out? – Absolutely no truth at all. Logging and sawmill is our business and we would much rather remain in it.
  6. Do you feel that the government has any responsibility in this matter? – No, not as such. Our main concern is the displacement of people employed by the operation as well as the side effects that will occur from the loss of a three to four million dollar payroll which the Cowichan Valley will lose.
  7. Are there any other irons in the fire? Is there any hope of getting timber from other sources? – The case is not hopeless yet. We still have some odds and ends to tie up before any real firm answers can be given and there is still some hope of continuing production.
  8. How about the mill being bought by some other large firm? – Because of log prices being so high on the open market at the present time, this does not seem to be too likely.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT – The whole sad situation does not seem to be too favorable to continue operation for this long established mill. In spite of this, every effort will be made by the local union to discover any means possible to find a supply of raw material to keep the operation going. The union’s first concern is for those who will be directly affected by the mill closure and who have been members of the union for many years.

Acknowledgment given to the Local 1-80 Bulletin Vol. 4 No. 2 February 1968 Edition – Official Publication of the International Woodworkers of America Local 1-80 – Weldon Jubenville, President.   

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The IWA Salutes the Past – Challenges the Future

BC Lumberworker Vol. XXXIV, No.1 – January 1971      Editor: Pat Kerr

1946 – Events in 1946 revealed a turn toward a more militant policy by the Union, and greater efforts on the part of the Communist Party to retain control in face of mounting opposition. “White blocs” started to form in a number of Locals, with the purpose of regaining rank-and-file control of the Union’s affairs.

The 1946 Ninth Annual District Convention adopted three demands: a 25-cent an hour wage increase, a 40-hour minimum work week, and union security.

In April the Union rejected an offer of 12½ cents and a 44-hour minimum week. Strike committees were set up and Chief Justice Gordon McGregor Sloan was appointed by the Federal Government to investigate. The War Regulations were still in effect but the Union refused to call off the strike until all demands were met. During the investigation, the Union rejected Sloan’s proposals of 15 cents an hour with a 44-hour week, and the irrevocable voluntary check-off. His proposal was only 2% cents higher than the employers’ offer. On May 28 the Union was on a strike which lasted for 37 days.

The significance of this strike was that for the first time the Union organized industry-wide strike action; 37,000 strikers returned to work, upon acceptance of Sloan’s proposals which gave the Union 15 cents, the 40-hour week, and the irrevocable check-off as well as the elimination of the “no strike” pledge. In the same year the Interior employers signed for a 24 cent over-all wage increase, and the 44-hour week.

Some interesting figures were reported at the 1947 convention. Membership when the IWA had become a CIO affiliate, was 2,500. In 1939 this had declined substantially. Membership increased after the 1946 strike.

1947 – The 1947 demands were for “$40 for 40 hours,” a 20-cent increase, a firm 40-hour week, and union security.

The main fight in 1947 was for an interpretation of the contract clause negotiated the previous year regarding the hours of work. Finally the Union accepted the verdict of Mr. Justice Bird, that the 48- hour week should prevail in the woods.

The Union attempted to re-open the contract on wages, but was refused by the employers. Board rates were boosted in that year from $1.50 to $2.00.

The District Officers launched a campaign against what they described as “red-baiting,” directed against the “white blocs” which were active in that year.

Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll cover off the 1948 “October Revolution”. Thanks to the BC Lumber worker for these excerpts.

I’m so glad to be playing a part in preserving the history of the IWA. If my story about the end of the Hillcrest Lumber Company sparks any further interest, I urge you to contact the Kaatza Museum staff. Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll take another deep dive into the archives and share some other interesting stories.

Until next time,    John

John Mountain is a retired United Steelworkers Canadian National Office Staff Representative and former IWA Local 1-80 Union Member. He lives in Chemainus and volunteers some of his time at the Kaatza Museum in Lake Cowichan.

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