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April 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

 

GUEST COLUMN

Labour and management need to work together—and put pressure on government—to address the forest industry’s problems.

By Luc Rossignol

I come from a family that has been, and is, dependent on the forest industry for our livelihood. I was born in a forestry town, Temiscaming, Quebec, and my father was a mill employee who, along with many others, was involved in the start-up of what is now forestry giant Tembec.

I started on the ground floor at Tembec, working in the labour pool. I did various operational jobs before joining the maintenance department at the company. I’ve been on the executive of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) since 1993.

To cut to the chase, I’ve seen a few industry cycles in my time in the forest industry. But there are unprecedented problems currently facing the forest industry, and they need attention—right now.

We have a rising Canadian dollar, and for every cent our dollar increases against the US dollar, as an industry we lose millions. It’s simple, really. We sell our forest products in US dollars, and when sales are made and the revenue converted, we get fewer Canadian dollars vis-à-vis the US dollar. Nothing complicated there. But it has left the industry reeling.

The increases in energy prices have also negatively impacted the bottom line of the industry. There have been significant increases in the prices of the natural gas and electrical power so essential to the manufacturing side of the industry, and the diesel that powers the trucks that deliver timber to our mills and product to our customers.

Then we have the softwood lumber dispute. The Americans have literally pilfered billions of dollars from our forest industry. No matter how often rulings are made in favour of the Canadian forest industry, the Americans have refused to give us our money back!

There is also a shortage of timber and cutting rights, notably in Ontario and Quebec. Had provincial governments been more proactive in previous years— when these issues were brought to their attention—we would not be dealing with these timber shortages today.

It’s extremely important that labour and management work together to try to resolve these industry problems, as much as they are within our control, because, at the end of the day, our future is on the line. Not just the union’s future or management’s future—it is our joint future.

We need to put away our agendas and really focus on what each one of us can do to ensure we have jobs tomorrow and that future generations will have jobs. We need to be honest and fair with each other and realize that if we are not part of the solution, then we truly are part of the problem.

We are in this struggle together and must pool our resources and do everything possible to ensure that each day we have jobs to go to in the mills in our communities right across Canada.

I have a somewhat unique perspective in the industry in that I am probably the only union representative on the board of directors of a major forest company in Canada, and possibly in North America. When Tembec was first established, the union requested representation on the board. The law in Quebec even had to be amended to allow this to happen.

Sitting on the board definitely gives me a broad view. I’m able to see firsthand the company’s strategy—it gives me insight on the changes the company, and industry, are facing.

But it’s important to note that union representation on the board is one seat— out of fourteen on the board. The decision making power resides with the entire board. But being able to express the labour point of view at that level sometimes influences the decision making. It’s now time, however, for both industry and labour to do some influencing at the government level.

The union has to use its great power and voice, not just at the local level but also at the national level, to make sure our governments know that our backs are against the wall—we need their help. In short, governments need to get off their asses and do everything possible to help everyone involved in the forest industry. A great deal of damage has already been inflicted—are they going to wait until the game is over for the industry?

The forest companies need to use their political connections and people of influence to put pressure on governments as well. The threat of companies closing
mills is no longer just an idle threat—it’s now become a reality.

Governments need to weigh in with more than just tax incentives. That won’t cut it for the forest industry. They need to address some of the government cost issues, as well as stumpage, red tape and unnecessary regulations. And they need to address the consequential social impacts on the communities affected by issues impacting the industry.

We are going through some very challenging times at the moment and the industry will likely need government assistance over the next year—it’s time for governments to deliver assistance to an industry that has literally delivered many billions of dollars in taxes to government coffers over the years. Governments need to be part of the solution, too.

Luc Rossignol is president of Local 233 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, and is a member of the board of directors of forest company Tembec.


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