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Environmentalism and Labor: Bridging the Gap

Speech given by Gene Lawhorn at the Public Interest and Environmental Law Conference (ELAW) in Eugene Oregon, March 4, 1990

I have been working in the wood products industry here in Oregon for five years. I started out at West-brook Wood Products in Norway. I injured my wrist on the job and had to have surgery. Shortly after I returned to work I was laid off out of seniority when they curtailed a shift. This was my first experience with the caring benevolence of the timber industry towards their workers.

After several months of unemployment I got hired at International Paper’s Gardner sawmill. About a year before I got hired the workers were forced to take wage cuts amounting to $3 an hour. The Reedsport City Council and the Chamber of Commerce got behind I-P because they threatened to close the mill if workers didn’t take wage cuts. But if workers would take cuts, I-P promised to return the wages in the next contract and they promised to be around at least another 20 years. In December of 1987, 1½ years after the pay cuts and false promises, I-P gave its 400 employees a Christmas present of one week’s notice of permanent plant closure due to selling the mill to Bohemia Lumber Co. This was my second experience with the caring benevolence of the timber industry.

After four months of unemployment I got hired by Roseburg Forest Products and relocated to Sutherlin. After eight months on the job I got my third experience of the caring benevolence of the timber industry towards workers when we were forced to go on strike to keep from taking wage cuts amounting $1.50 an hour. In a four month long (and very bitter) strike we ended up taking a $0.60 wage cut (lost) three (paid) holidays, Sunday overtime, and lost vacation time.

It was during the strike that I started to become vocal about environmental issues when I took notice all the cars and trucks that crossed my picket line had one thing in common. They all were displaying the yellow timber industry support ribbon. To many of us who stood on the picket line the yellow ribbon became a symbol of the scabs and the timber industry greed. Even today—a year after the strike—only a small handful of RFP workers will display the yellow ribbon.

The strike became a real eye opener for me, so I began to study the environmental issues. The more I learned the more frightened and concerned I became. The poisoning of the rivers, lakes, and oceans; the pollution of the atmosphere, depletion of the ozone layer, the advancing of the greenhouse effect, and the rape and plunder of the world’s ancient rainforest all alarmed me, and I began to see that all these things are tied to the profit motive mentality which cut our wages. I became fully aware that workers and environmentalists have more in common than workers and employers. For the sake of the great and holy profit motive of laissez faire capitalism workers and the environment are both being exploited beyond their means to cope, especially in third world developing nations.

Unfortunately our labor union leaders have chosen to openly join forces with the timber industry. The ink was barely dry on our ignominious contract when the leadership of the two woods working unions and the two paper working unions along with the longshoreman’s formed a coalition with the timber industry to fight environmentalists’ efforts to get the spotted owl designated as an endangered species, and environmentalists’ rights to appeal timber sales in court. Then the leadership called the organization grassroots. They held a timber-labor rally in Salem on September 8th, which less than 500 showed up. The leadership estimated that 5,000 would show up because the timber industry and the paper industry was giving anyone a day off to attend. Two days before the rally I and a couple of co-workers called a press conference, we denounced the timber-labor coalition as a sellout to workers who just took pay cuts, and asked workers to boycott the rally. The timber-labor coalition caused a lot of bad feeling towards our local leadership within the plant I work at and many other RFP plants.

To be sure, there are bad feelings towards environmentalists by a vast majority of wood workers. Many are third and fourth generation loggers and mill workers who feel a strong tie to the timber industry and many are frightened by the prospect of losing their jobs. Woodworkers perceive environmentalists as “lazy, barefooted, long-haired hippies who smoke pot, live on welfare, who sneak through the woods in the darkness of night spiking trees.” Many environmentalists on the other hand view wood workers as ignorant narrow minded stooges of the timber industry.

Of all the environmental groups active the Earth First!ers are the most hated by wood workers and loggers. But I myself admire the courage and direct action tactics of many Earth First!ers. It takes a lot of courage to climb a 200 foot tree and sit for days to protest clear cutting. It takes a lot of courage to block roads with your bodies, or chain yourself to a tree. But to those who spike trees I say you are performing a cowardly violent act which endangers my fellow workers and me. The gap which separates environmentalists and labor will never be bridged as long as trees are being spiked.

All the ramifications of tree spiking are negative! (1) Spiking endangers wood workers lives; (2) Spiking discredits all environmentalists; (3) Spiking alienates possible support from environmentally concerned wood workers; (4) Lastly spiking provides propaganda ammo for the big guns of the timber industry. Tree spiking must not only be stopped, but henceforth all spiking must be publically denounced by all Earth First!ers if they really and truthfully desire to bridge the gap.
I myself have had a close call because of a spiked tree. While operating a log splitter, a saw not far behind me hit a spike. Saw teeth and metal from the spike flew around me like shrapnel from a bomb. Mill work is dangerous enough without the added dangers of spiked trees.

The timber industry wants to cut all the ancient forest they can get away with cutting. Environmentalists on the other hand want to save all the ancient forest they possibly can. In the middle are the workers who just want to work and partake in the American dream. We face a double edged sword of either working ourselves out of work in the future or losing many jobs now because of environmental concerns. I myself want to save all the ancient forest we can possibly save, but if I have to lose my job I want other options available for me and others who may lose jobs. Retraining and relocation programs must be made available to any worker who may lose his or her job due to environmental concerns whether it be in the timber industry or the chemical and nuclear industries.

There will always be enough trees to provide a certain amount of jobs within the timber industry, but not enough to sustain what we have within the industry now for an indefinite period, and certainly not enough to continue the exporting of raw logs.

The industrialists of the world will continue to poison the rivers, lakes, and oceans; to rape the ancient forest; pollute the air; and play with deadly radioactive substances like an unruly child in a house soaked with gasoline for the sake of the most holy and high God—profits—unless we all—environmentalists and laborers—bridge the gap between us that is wider than the Grand Canyon and deeper than an abyss because of hard headedness, and narrow minded convictions on both sides. Let us all do our part because the world tomorrow is the world we build today!

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