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Workers, Corporations, and Redwood Summer: Whose Side Are We On?

Judi Bari, et. al, Redwood Summer Coalition – from the Redwood Summer Handbook, second edition, ca June 1990

When you’re sitting in front of a bulldozer or walking a picket line and an angry logger is screaming at you to “Get a Job!” and “Go Home!,” it’s easy to forget that timber workers are not our enemies. And when they see thousands of college students and other environmental activists from out of the area coming to the Northcoast threatening their livelihoods (as they see it), it’s easy for them to see us as the enemy too.

This is a tragic mistake, for workers and environmentalists are natural allies. Loggers and mill-workers are victimized by the giant timber companies. Since their whole way of life—their jobs, homes, families—depends on unsustainable forest practices, we must make the timber companies pay for the education, retraining and job placement needed to cushion the blow of conversion to ecologically health timber practices. It’s easy for us—since our future and our kids’ future does not depend on continued over-logging—to demand others to sacrifice for the good of the planet, but without concrete support to make change possible; they will not listen seriously.

Over the years, timber workers have been subject to some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country, as well as speedups, low pay, low/no benefits, and near-total company control over their lives. Fighting to better their conditions, Pacific Coast loggers and millworkers have a long history of militant unionism. The logging camps of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia were strongholds of the Industrial Workers of the World. Early timber unions, including the IWA (International Woodworkers of America) were radical unions, and often led bitter strikes which the corporations violently put down. From early on, the woodsworkers witnessed and protested the destruction of streams, hillsides and forests caused by company practices of maximizing profit at the expense of both the land and the workers. Indeed, the workers knew better than anyone what was going on in the woods, but lacked the power to stop it. In our capitalist “free market” economy, it is companies, not workers who control production.

Through direct action, strikes, electoral campaigns and community pressure, woodsworkers built strong unions and won a measure of job security, safety and decent wages and benefits.

The big timber companies, with the help of local, state and national governments, fought back, and gradually won. Along with most US unions, the IWA swept out its militant members as part of anti-Communism, gave up class struggle for conservative “business” unionism, forgot how to fight and stopped trying to organize the unorganized. In return, the post-World War II boom years brought relative prosperity to woodsworkers, and certainly to well-paid union leaders. The end result was a union unprepared for the renewed corporate onslaught of the 1970s and 1980s.

  • The big three Northcoast companies (Louisiana-Pacific, Georgia-Pacific and Maxxam) have contracted out logging operations. Now, instead of company crews earning $10 an hour or so, a lot of logging is done by Mexican crews at $5 an hour without any safety instructions translated into Spanish!
  • Louisiana-Pacific forced a strike and busted its union at the Samoa mill and shut down its mill in Ukiah while opening one in Baja California, where workers make in a day what Mendocino workers make in an hour.
  • Georgia Pacific is steadily reducing its work force in its Fort Bragg mill, anticipating the not-far-off day when it will close the mill entirely and throw the town into a depression. When a toxic PCB spill occurred in the plant, pro-company union leader Don Nelson took G-P’s side against his own members.
  • Old line paternalistic company Pacific Lumber was taken over by corporate raider Charles Hurwitz of Texas, president of Maxxam The pension plan was gutted, and while timber harvest (and thus work) is currently way up to pay off the junk bonds, everyone knows the good times won’t last and they’ll be laid off when the big trees are gone …in the not-very-distant future.

Most workers fear firings and retaliation if they don’t support the company line that it is the environmentalists and government bureaucrats who are responsible for the mill closings, layoffs, and coming depression in the timber industry, and not the timber companies themselves.

However, more and more workers are corning forward to support Redwood Summer and sustained yield forestry practices. Some are trying to organize an employee buyout of Pacific Lumber so they can run the company for the good of the workers, the community and the forest. Others are trying to unseat pro-company labor leaders and restore democracy in their unions. Still others are organizing new union locals. We need to connect with and support these efforts, and to try to convince all timber workers that their interests lie with us, not the timber corporations. And as part of our non-violent practice, we must always remember that they are, or should be, our allies against the monopolies, not our opponents, even when it’s hardest: when they’re confronting us in the woods or on the job. As long as the old “divide and conquer” tactic keeps us fighting the workers, the monopolies win: but when we overcome our divisions and unite, watch out.

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