Slow but steady, Harmac grows
Mill's workforce expands

Robert Barron, Daily News
Published: Saturday, September 17th, 2009

There are fewer of them but the mood among the 265 workers at Nanaimo's Harmac pulp mill is upbeat as the facility prospers during hard times. Harmac started a second production line on Monday, increasing pulp output at the worker-led mill by 40% (to 30,000 tonnes a month) to keep up with demand for its northern bleach softwood kraft pulp.

In preparation for the increased production schedule, Harmac rehired 45 workers who had been anticipating the call to return to work since the mill reopened last year. It is now one of the few pulp mills still operating on B.C.'s coast.

In the spring of 2008, Harmac was shut down when previous owner Pope & Talbot went bankrupt, leaving 530 workers without a job. Unwilling to walk away from a mill that had been profitable in the past, the employees banded together to take over the mill themselves and began searching for private investors. After a lengthy court process, Nanaimo Forest Products, a four-way partnership that includes Harmac workers (who each invested $25,000) and three private partners, bought the mill last summer for $13.2 million. It reopened with one production line in October, hiring back 220 workers.

Many of the second wave of workers say they have noticed many changes. Kyle Roberts, back to work at the mill for just two weeks, said everyone seems a lot happier under its new worker-led ownership model.

"We're all working together as a team for the best interests of the mill instead of the old attitude among workers that it's us against the company," he said. "The new philosophy seems to be working well."

Despite a major downturn in the forest industry, the worker-owner model at Harmac has allowed it to shave production costs and keep the mill internationally competitive in lean times.

Roberts, who mixes chemicals in the pulp production process, said he was "shocked" last year when the mill that employed his grandfather 40 years ago closed its doors a little more than a year after he started work there. He said he was intrigued with the idea of the workers taking over the mill when it was first proposed but he knew his lack of seniority meant he would not likely be rehired until a second line began. Roberts said he decided to stay in the area and take a job in construction, believing he would eventually be rehired.

"I had a lot of faith in NFP right from the start and I was really excited when I got the call to come back two weeks ago and I certainly have no problems investing $25,000 if it means I will have a share in the company and its future," he said at the mill Wednesday.

"I have two young boys (aged four and two) and I hope they'll work here too when they're older. It's a great place and great work environment." Toshi Yamazaki, in training as a boiler man, said he thought he was lucky to be hired at Harmac in 2007, believing it offered him a secure, long-term position.

But like Roberts, he said he was "stunned" when he was told to clear out his locker last year.

Though he was also near the bottom of the seniority list and knew he wouldn't be hired back when NFP initially took over, he decided to stay in the area to "see what would happen."

"I managed to get a job as a casual labourer with the Vancouver Island Health Authority but I always hoped that I'd be rehired at Harmac," Yamazaki said. "I was confident I'd eventually be called back." Yamazaki said he and the other workers who have just returned to the mill were given an orientation session with management and were told their workplace had changed significantly, operating with fewer employees and more efficiency.

"The first thing I noticed is that it is a much more positive place to work than when I worked here before and everybody tries to help each other," Yamazaki said. "Everyone has been quite nice to me and help me when I ask. It's a great place to work and I hope that I'm here for a long time."

540: Number of people employed by Harmac at peak production with three lines
220: Number of people hired when the mill reopened with a single line last October
265: Number of people working at the mill today now the second line is running