Having worked almost every job there is in a plywood plant, various positions in his union and having served 15 years on city council, Paul French is well prepared for his newest role representing unionized workers in the region.
In June French was elected president of the United Steelworkers, Local 1-425.
French comes out of the West Fraser Plywood plant to assume the four-year position which was vacated by retiring president Bill Derbyshire.
Rick Bamberry came out of the plywood plant to take the first vice-president’s position. Bob Macnair was unchallenged for his second term as financial secretary. The local also employs one full-time secretary and one half-time secretary.
The USW Local 1-425 represents roughly 1,300 people working in the forestry, mining, and health-care service sectors, French explains.
In the forestry sector, he says the union represents workers at six manufacturing sites in Williams Lake and 100 Mile House, as well as some truckers and maintenance contractors. The union also represents employees at Mount Polley Mine, the cogeneration power plant in Williams Lake and health-care service workers at various work sites.
“Traditionally we are an industry-based union, but we have the motto that it is everyone’s right to belong to a union if they wish,” French says.
He says the executive’s goal is to continue to keep the local strong and vibrant, recognizing the union’s long-standing work on behalf of its members and the communities in which they work and live.
“There is a long history in this local of being involved with the community and a need to continue to be involved in not only helping members but the community as well,” French says.
Basically he says his new job as union president is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week position because the work sites the union represents run on rotating 24-hour shifts and he could be called at any time, day or night, to help address a problem.
French says the local executive is currently engaged in three sets of contract negotiations, and will be engaged in two more contract negotiations by the end of the year. Mining industry negotiations open up in 2012 followed by the forest industry contract negotiations opening up in 2013.
“The bottom line is that if your employer isn’t making money, we’re not working,” French says. “The role of the union hasn’t changed. The role of the union is to make sure the employees have a safe, reliable workplace with a fair standard of living.”
When it comes to the forest industry, French says the union has been a long-standing advocate for the industry in the region.
“One of the biggest credits this local has is being involved in developing the Cariboo-Chilcotin Land Use Plan,” French says.
While the plan may be gathering dust on a shelf somewhere most of these days, he says it still gets looked at when it comes to managing environmentally sensitive areas.
He says part of the union dues members pay go to the national body, which assists with bargaining when necessary, but the local’s job is primarily to look after the local membership.
“We are aware of what is happening nationally and internationally in forestry but we, as a local union, focus on local issues, and solving the day-to-day issues of members,” French says.
In the past, he says the former IWA representing mill workers was dealing with six or seven major companies in this area, but today they are basically negotiating with two employers who own four or five different operations.
“Now you are dealing with corporate policies as opposed to individual company policies,” French says.
He says the biggest factors affecting the forest industry and its workers today are finding and maintaining markets, forest practices, availability of wood supply, and technological change.
While the pine beetle has gobbled up a substantial portion of the wood supply, he says many jobs in the industry have also been removed due to advances in technology, which allow mills to run with fewer workers.
“In the past you ran the equipment, now the machines almost run you, because everything is so computerized,” French says.
He says it is an ongoing battle today for mills to get timber which is why he is adamantly opposed to the export of raw logs to other countries.
“Logs shouldn’t leave B.C., manufactured goods should,” French says simply.
French was born in Williams Lake and raised in Alexis Creek, Anahim Lake and Bridge Lake, and Williams Lake — places where his father Bob worked with the Ministry of Highways.
His family settled in Williams Lake when he was 12. During his teen years he worked for a few summers picking rocks on local ranches, then in the last two years of high school worked clean-up at local mills on weekends and summers.
After graduation French attended Selkirk College in Nelson for a year, but when he returned home for the summer to work he decided to stay and start a family with his wife, Tammy, who owns Lo’s Florists. They have been married 31 years and have three children, Allan, Michelle, and Jenny, and five grandchildren.
During his more than 30-year career with West Fraser French says he has done almost every job there is in the plywood mill, his last before becoming union president was that of lathe operator.
On and off through the years he has been a member of the mill shop committee, served as shop steward, and in the mid-90s served a term as recording secretary for then IWA Local 1-425.
In 1993 French was elected as a city councillor and served in that position until 2009 when he was encouraged to run for mayor, but lost the bid to current Mayor Kerry Cook.