Focus on long-time member
A principled unionist with a long history
By Marco Procaccini
Frank Slyman knows the meaning of integrity and sticking to one’s principles in the face of adversity, from his experiences with cold temperatures, traveling long distances and having to work with bad bosses and staunch conservatives.
The 52-year member of the IUOE Local 115 was born 81 years ago, grew up in Prince George and spent most of his working life in northern B.C. and Yukon as a heavy equipment operator, union organizer and elected member representative. Now living in Burnaby with his wife Yvonne (they were married the same year he became a Local 115 member), he spends time visiting home-bound and hospitalized members and presenting awards to long-time members in Metro Vancouver. Sadly, his duties also include attending funerals of members.
Slyman’s son, Brad, is a Local 115 member who helped build the Millennium SkyTrain line and is currently working on an earthquake-resistant floating foundation on a high- rise project on the former Fantasy Gardens site.
“I worked mostly on road building and dams,” said Frank, “including the two big dams in the Hudson Hope area. I ran almost every kind of heavy equipment except the big cranes.”
In 1971, after working 11 years on construction sites all across the North, he was hired as a dispatcher for the Local Union’s northern district office. Soon after, he became involved in organizing non-union workers. “I would regularly fly up to Whitehorse, then get in a car and drive all over [servicing the Yukon], then fly back to Prince George and then fly to Watson Lake and then back to Whitehorse and finally back to Prince George,” he said. “I took care of guys mostly on road jobs and some mining [sites] around the Faro area (Yukon), Watson Lake and Cassiar. I also used to drive from Prince George to Fort Nelson in one day—14 hours.
“I organized everyone I could: miners, drivers, labourers. It didn’t matter. Every worker’s good enough to join the union,” he said proudly. “Once I helped organize a bunch of guys working on the Alaska Highway. I sent in the certification application to Victoria. The B.C. labour board said it didn’t have jurisdiction [the Alaska Highway is considered a federal highway] and that I should send it to Ottawa. Ottawa wrote back and said it was B.C. provincial jurisdiction. So I sent copies to both and said I would go to the King of England to get the certification if I had to. So we got it from both. Every time I applied for certification for anybody after that, I sent [applications] to both governments. You’ve got to use your imagination, because if you give up right away you never get anything done.”
Slyman has never been shy about expressing his working class values in the electoral realm as well. “I’m big on the NDP,” he said, adding that he and his family and friends would proudly express their views and ideas even in front of intolerant Conservatives in the North. “During elections, we used to have to keep our NDP signs on the roof to keep them from being destroyed.”
Nonetheless, Slyman said he felt most comfortable living in the North. “When dam building was going on in the Kootenays, they sent me down there to service the crews,” he said. “But I didn’t like it much, and I asked to move back to Prince George as soon as I could.
“I’m used to the North. In the Kootenays I couldn’t get a breakfast at 6 a.m. I couldn’t find gas at 6 a.m. Places closed almost as soon as it got dark. In the North, places open earlier and stay open later, and even if they’re closed, like a gas station, you can just knock on the window and the guy will open up the place for you.”
So why does a guy who has been a life-long resident, activist, family man and construction professional in the North end up settling in highly urbanized Burnaby for his retirement?
“If I was still working, I would still be in Prince George since there are so many places to work and go to,” he said. But Burnaby’s central location allows him and Yvonne to be more active in retirement. Yvonne now does the driving since he turned in his license two years ago. “I sure wouldn’t want to retire and just sit in the mall with a bunch of guys and bitch and bellyache about everything.”
Slyman is enjoying his retirement activities, especially delivering the local union’s prized 50-year watches to veteran members. “If a guy pays his dues for 50 years through tough and bad times, he sure deserves some kind of souvenir,” he said.
Slyman also regularly visits the main office on Ledger Street, usually on Wednesdays around noon. You’ll see him there – that is, for a few minutes before he takes some of the union support staff to lunch.