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Road To Success

A program allowing forest company employees to own logging equipment is paying off for roadbuilder Guy Payette at Abitibi Consolidated.

By Dave Lammers

The road to success has Guy Payette's name on it-in fact, you could say he's building that road.

The 27year employee of Abitibi Consolidated's woodlands division in northwestern Ontario is the proud owner of Guy Payette Timber. For the past 17 years, Payette has worked for Abitibi and, at the same time, been his own boss in an arrangement that allows him to operate his own road-building business as an employee of the bigger company.

Guy Payette with his Cat 225 loader. Payette works closely with a road building crew that cuts down trees, removes the stumps and skids out the wood for loading, with a backhoe following behind piling dirt for the road.

Payette, who is currently building roads for Abitibi north of Thunder Bay in the swamp and rock-plagued forest of the Canadian Shield, says there's money and freedom in leasing equipment to Abitibi while also working in the bush for the company.

Although all the roads he builds are for Abitibi, Payette says ownership has its privileges. "It's a better feeling-you are your own boss," he says. "You 're on your own most of the time and the money is a little bit better ."

The 50yearold Payette has done just about every timber harvesting job there is since he arrived in northwestern Ontario from Quebec in 1965, first working with Buchanan Forest Products on a cut-and-skid crew using horses near the town of Upsala.

He ran a slasher and a skidder for Great Lakes Timber in Thunder Bay for six years before joining Abitibi.

"I've just about spent my life in the bush," says Payette, who has retained his French accent. "I've worked on just about all the machines ." Payette stays at a bush camp five days a week and is up at 3 am every day.

He drives home to his family in Thunder Bay on weekends, a lifestyle he's accustomed to. "It's outside, the fresh air-that's what I like about it," says Payette.

In 1983, Abitibi approached Payette with an offer to purchase equipment from the company. He didn't hesitate-he bought a Cat 225 loader which he says is one of the toughest built machines he's ever operated.

"When you buy, you look at the way it's built: if it's built strong enough, if the hydraulics are smooth, if you can use more than one function at a time. I've had good luck with the Cat. That's my baby ."

Payette says that he is usually forced to park his Hyundai 320 excavator in the winter when digging is prevented by frost that runs three to four feet deep. But with this past winter's mild weather, he was able to keep all of his equipment running.

In addition to the Cat, Payette also leases a Hyundai 280LC log loader that he purchased in 1992 to Abitibi. That machine has worked well in tough conditions, loading mostly eight to 16foot wood that can cause a lot of wear and tear, and it's good for at least another five years, says Payette. He adds that the 280LC is smooth to operate, reliable and has lots of power in rugged terrain.

One other feature he likes is the cab heater, a welcome feature during frigid northern Ontario winters. Payette also leases a Hyundai 320 excavator that, he says, is a smooth and powerful machine to operate.

Payette is paid on a monthly basis for the use of his equipment by other Abitibi employees. He says the lease agreement covers his maintenance and more, with repairs done either at the company garage, where Payette pays for the labour, or at local dealer Hood Logging Equipment Inc in Thunder Bay. "You've got to keep them in shape," he says. "That's the key right there.

It's got to be done every month. What's no good is the lost time-that's what costs ." Payette works closely with a road building crew that cuts down trees, removes the stumps and skids out the wood for loading in close succession, with the backhoe following behind piling dirt for the road.

Payette has taken a turn at every job involved in the road building process and likes operating the loader. He loads eight and 16foot logs and some tree length, a mix of spruce, jackpine, balsam and poplar.

Road-building in northwestern Ontario is slow going with production rates of about 600 feet a day and between 20 to 40 kilometres a year for the operation. Payette builds mostly new roads which are designed using a global positioning system (GPS) to determine the best place for the road in a region marked by rocks too big to move.

Road crews plot carefully around rocks in order to avoid blasting with explosives. "It's when you get in rough country that it's a big challenge," says Payette. "Then it's hard on everything, the machines, the operator, bouncing, pounding over rocks.

Sometimes there's no dirt, maybe an inch, just moss. In a lot of places they have to haul dirt ." The job is made a bit easier in the winter when snow is used to fill in large holes creating winter roads. During most winters, Payette is forced to park his Hyundai 320 excavator when digging is prevented by frost that runs three to four feet deep. As a result of a mild winter this past year, he was able to keep all three of his machines running.

Wilf McIntyre, national vice-president of the IWA union, says the current owner/operator agreement is the result of a deal reached with Abitibi and other companies that allows up to 20 per cent of woodlands employees to own equipment. Previous to the agreement, workers could own trucks but were prevented from owning equipment in the cut-and-skid phase of logging operations.

"It's opened up into all phases of the operation," says McIntyre. The IWA agreement pertains to members from Thunder Bay east to Sudbury, and includes Domtar, Weyerhaeuser, Bowater and Kimberly Clark.

McIntyre describes the shift to employees owning equipment as a "30year fight" between the union and the companies, with the union opposed to the idea. He adds that when the union resigned itself to employees owning equipment, the goal was to make sure it was done right, including arranging a one-week small business course taught at local colleges for all equipment owners.

"They have to know how to run a business," says McIntyre. "They see these big cheques coming in, they buy the fur coats and the Cadillacs and when the equipment breaks down they have no money to fix it. We did it to make people successful, to have them not going broke, because that's what happens out there ."

McIntyre says the owner/operator agreement has paid off for employees, adding the arrangement differs depending on the company. Payment is built into the cubic metre rate for cutting wood, in addition to the employee's wages and benefits. Some companies supply a mechanic to repair equipment and, in some cases, the company even helps finance the equipment.

McIntyre's original concern with the program was that ownership would become a condition of employment. The union also feared a company might lose touch with its woodlands operations. "When the company doesn't own the equipment, they lose sight of what the real cost is," says McIntyre. "It's capital expenditure. The employees are putting out the capital for them ."

Marvin Pupeza, national representative for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, says a third party agreement was negotiated 10 years ago with Weyerhaeuser-then Avenor Inc- west of Thunder Bay in the Dryden and Ear Falls area.

Pupeza says while direct woodlands employees don't own equipment, employees of major contractors who do own equipment now fall under the company's original agreement with the union, including wages and benefits. "Although they're employed by a contractor, that contractor is bound by the main agreement," says Pupeza. He adds that the third party agreement is based on duration and a specific amount of fibre to be harvested.

Pupeza says the trend in the industry is toward having fewer direct employees and having contractors and subcontractors owning the logging equipment. "There's no doubt in my mind that's where they're going," he says. "It's happening all over ."

But McIntyre says he's not sure companies are getting out of the equipment ownership business. He points to some companies that once contracted all trucking and have recently started buying their own trucks. While he admits the 20 per cent limit on employee ownership was built into the IWA agreement as "a safeguard for the union", most companies in the area don't need that much equipment and operate with less than 20 per cent employee owner/operator.

Companies are continuing to purchase more expensive equipment such as graders and in-bush chippers, he says, with employees buying feller bunchers, skidders, delimbers, slashers and loaders.

Having unionized employees buying logging equipment appears to ultimately have companies looking in the rear view mirror, says McIntyre, with concerns about retaining control of their forestry operations. "If there's ever a dispute, employees would pull equipment off the licence. The companies are not necessarily in the driver's seat anymore ."

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004