Robert Barron: Harmac a true success story

Robert Barron, The Daily News
Published: Friday, August 21, 2009

"It's a made-in-Nanaimo success story," Forest Minister Pat Bell told me Tuesday when I asked him what he thought about the Harmac pulp mill's plan to start up a second production line by mid-September.
Bell has always been a firm supporter of the plan by Harmac's workers to buy the mill after its owner, Pope & Talbot, went bankrupt last year and it is becoming increasingly apparent that his confidence in the new, worker-led model that the mill is now working under has been vindicated.
"I'm not aware of any other pulp mills in B.C. expanding their operations at this time so the proof is in the pudding and I've been encouraging other unions and companies across the province to learn from Harmac," Bell told me.

I have to admit I was more than a bit skeptical about the plan for the workers to buy the mill and run it themselves when Gerry Tellier, past-president of the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada, Local 8, which represents Harmac's workers, explained it to me last year shortly after the mill shut down.
There was an air of negativity at the time around the whole concept of a worker-led mill. Many predicted that even if the Supreme Court of B.C. did decide to sell the mill (for $13.2 million) to the workers during the hearings last year in Vancouver, when the court was tasked to decide the future of Pope & Talbot's assets, Harmac wouldn't survive beyond six months.
A year has passed since then and Harmac is now one of the few coastal pulp mills still in operation as the industry continues to struggle. The mill's success is being attributed to its unique operating model that has allowed it to drastically shave production costs and keep the mill internationally competitive.
That's why I'm keeping my usual skepticism in check this time as workers at Vancouver Island's CHEK-TV try a similar tactic to save their Victoria-based television station from closure at the end of August.
Canwest Global Communications Corp. announced last month it would close CHEK, B.C.'s oldest television station. Most of the CHEK's 45 employees agreed to invest $15,000 each to pool funds for a 25% share in a new company to operate the station. (Harmac workers agreed to invest $25,000 each for a 25% share in the mill.) Like Harmac, the balance of the new television station would be held by outside investors.
Recognizing the value of Harmac's experience last year, CHEK employees have been consulting with Harmac president Levi Sampson as they prepare to try and move their bid to take over CHEK forward. On the face of it, the plan seems like a long shot, but so did the plan for Harmac. I hope we'll get another success story.
Robert Barron's column appears regularly in this space. To comment on his opinion write to: