HFP workers need training

The Steelworkers Union is working with Houston Forest Products employees to help them make a smooth transition and get answers.

The Steelworkers Union is working with Houston Forest Products (HFP) employees to help them make a smooth transition and get answers.

“[The closure announcement] is so sudden, and there’s so many questions and so few answers,” said Wayde Decooman, Plant Chairman for United Steelworkers (USW).

Boota Johal, USW Business Agent, says they want to alleviate stress and anxiety in the workplace and they are doing a survey to find out what their 225 union members need as far as training and education.

Then they want to get programs set up at the mill, he said.

Johal says one of the main concerns workers have is losing health benefits, especially for those with families, and whether the benefits will extend for a time period beyond the closure date.

Another issue is that workers don’t know the HFP closure date, and thus they cannot figure out pensions, he said, adding that there are also questions about whether West Fraser will bridge pensions to help people retire.

Johal says the biggest concern is work, particularly for the third generation workers with little education and no skill set beyond general labour.

There are close to 100 people who have worked at HFP all their lives, and sawmill labour is all they’ve ever done, Decooman said.

Johal says he was talking to a woman who works at HFP, as does her husband, and he only has grade 9.

“They’re overwhelmed. Where are they going to go?” he said.

Stringfellow says he and Lori Saretsky, HFP Transition Coordinator, are interviewing employees and asking them if they are interested in in moving to another West Fraser mill, but they don’t know how many jobs are available or where they will be.

“Some guys will retire, but there are 30-year-old guys with three kids and a house and no skills,” said Decooman.

Tom Stringfellow, Union Transition Coordinator, said close to 45 workers will retire, but there are at least 160 people who will need work.

Those who still have ten to 15 working years left, and have only labour skills, are in a tough place, Stringfellow said, adding that many workers don’t have grade 12, as they started working at HFP before grade 12 was a requirement.

“People who don’t have grade 12, what do you do? You get your GED and now you’re 50 years old?

“And then what do you do with it when you get it? What’s out there?” Stringfellow said.

“There’s not too many labour-skilled jobs out there anymore, [especially not ones] that pay a decent wage,” he said.

He says that with employees staying at HFP until May, in order to get their severance pay, there will be 160 people putting out resumes at the same time.

Some younger workers with only a few years at HFP are leaving now and getting jobs ahead of others instead of waiting for severance pay, Stringfellow said.

Decooman says some young people are waiting to see if there will be education and training opportunities.

“They’re hoping and waiting to see what kind of money the government is going to provide for education. If that comes forth then you’ll see more of them stick around.

“We need more answers from the government, from West Fraser, from everybody,” Stringfellow said.

“We just don’t have enough answers to even tell the membership.”

Johal says they are meeting with West Fraser again, and they are hoping to have a general meeting with union members before the holidays with some information.

“Hopefully we’ll have some answers to help relax some worries, because at Christmas you shouldn’t be worried about what you’re doing. It’s going to be there for most people anyway, but if we can get some things lined up by then, then at least they can start feeling a little better about what’s next,” Decooman said.