Timber Wars: Footloose Wobs Urgently Needed

By Judi Bari, Industrial Worker, October 1989; Reprinted in Timber Wars, © 1994 Common Courage Press.

"You fucking commie hippies, I'll kill you all!" A shotgun blast goes off and the Earth First!ers scatter. What started as a peaceful logging road blockade had turned violent when a logger sped his truck through our picket line and swerved it towards the demonstrators. The loggers also grabbed and smashed an Earth First!er's camera and, for no apparent reason, punched a 50-year old protester in the face, breaking her nose.

The environmental battle in the Pacific Northwest has reached such a level of intensity that the press now refers to it as the Timber Wars. At stake is the survival of one of the nation's last great forest ecosystems. Our adversaries are giant corporations--Louisiana Pacific, Georgia Pacific, and MAXXAM in northern California, where I live, joined by Boise Cascade and Weyerhauser in Oregon and Washington.

These companies are dropping trees at a furious pace, clogging our roads no less than 18 hours a day, with a virtual swarm of logging trucks. Even old timers are shocked at the pace and scope of today's strip-logging, ranging from 1000-year old redwoods, one tree trunk filling an entire logging truck, to six-inch diameter baby trees that are chipped up for the pulp-mills and particleboard plants.

One-hundred-forty years ago the county I live in was primeval redwood forest. At the current rate of logging, there will be no marketable trees left here in 22 years. Louisiana Pacific chairman Harry Merlo put it this way in a recent newspaper interview: "It always annoys me to leave anything lying on the ground. We don't log to a 10-inch top, we don't log to an 8-inch top or a 6-inch top. We log to infinity. It's out there, it's ours, and we want it all. Now."

So the battle lines are drawn. On one side are the environmentalists, ranging from the big-money groups like Wilderness Society and Sierra Club to the radical Earth First!ers and local mountain people fighting the front line battles in the woods. Tactics being used include tree-sitting, logging road blockading, and bulldozer dismantling, as well as the more traditional lawsuits and lobbying.

On the other side are the big corporations and the local kulaks who do their bidding. Tactics used by them have included falling trees into demonstrators, suing protesters for punitive damages (and winning), buying politicians, and even attempting to ban the teaching at a local elementary school of a Dr. Suess book, The Lorax, which the timber companies say portrays logging in a bad light.

Position of the Workers

But what about the timber workers? Where do they fit into this scenario? Their true interest lies with the environmentalists, because, of course, when the trees are gone the jobs will be gone too. Logging is listed by the US Labor Department as the most dangerous job in the US, yet the current speed-up has some loggers and millworkers working 10 or more hours a day, six days a week.

Clearcutting is the most environmentally devastating logging method, and also the least labor-intensive. In the long run, the only way to save timber jobs in our area is to change over to sustained yield logging, where logs can only be taken in a manner and at a rate that doesn't destroy the forest. This is exactly what the environmentalists are asking for.

Yet in spite of all this, those timber workers who are organized at all have been organized by the companies Against the environmentalists. There are a few noteworthy exceptions, which I'll discuss later, but by and large timber workers around here are either doing the companies' dirty work or keeping their mouths shut.

A good example of this is the spotted owl campaign. Scientists and environmentalists have been trying to get the owl listed as an endangered species, as 90-95% of its habitat, the old growth forest, has already been annihilated. The timber companies have responded with a vicious campaign promoting the extinction of the owl so that it would no longer stand in the way of them destroying the last of the old growth. Loggers are the pawns of this game, wearing T-shirts that read: "Save A Logger, Eat An Owl," and, "Spotted Owl Tastes Like Chicken." Recently a hearing on the owl's status was held in Redding, CA. The timber companies closed the mills and logging operations for the day and bused 5000 workers to the hearing, carrying anti-owl banners and cheering as speakers denounced environmentalists.

Then there's the Nazi-like Yellow Ribbon Campaign, where workers, their families, and local businesses are asked to fly yellow ribbons to show solidarity with management against the environmentalist "threat." It is dangerous not to fly these ribbons in some timber-dependent small towns. And, of course, there's always a few crazies who harass us face to face, like the logger who came to one of our demos last June, revved a live chainsaw in a peaceful crowd, then sucker-punched and floored an Earth First! organizer.

Why have the companies been so successful at misdirecting the workers' anger? One obvious reason is fear--timber workers can see the end of the forest (and their jobs) in northern California as well as we can. Many of these families have lived and worked in small one-job towns for generations. The environmentalists are often relative newcomers, culturally different and easy to vilify.

But there's another reason not often discussed. That is the utter lack of class analysis by virtually all of the environmental groups. I have even had an international Earth First! spokesman tell me that there is no difference between the loggers and the logging companies!

I have heard various environmentalists say that working in the woods and mills is not an "honorable" profession, as if the workers have any more control over the corporations' policies (or are gaining any more from them) than we do. As long as people on our side hold these views, it will be easy pickins for the bosses to turn their employees against us.

Potential For Organizing

Into this battleground, our local Earth First! group has tried to bring some class consciousness of the variety prescribed by the Industrial Workers of the World. The first step is to stop blaming the loggers and millworkers for the destruction of the planet. The timber companies treat them the same way they treat the forest--as objects to exploit for maximum profit. We can't form an alliance by saying, "Hey, worker, come help save the trees." We have to recognize that their working conditions are not separate from or subordinate to the rape of the forest. They are part and parcel of the same thing.

With this in mind, it has been surprisingly easy to make contact with timber workers who don't buy the companies line. The fact that Earth First! is number one on the companies' hit list doesn't seem to phase anyone, and we have managed to meet good, intelligent, and politically astute people working for all three of the big corporations in our area. They have leaked us inside information which has helped us pull off tree-sits, blockades, etc. Without getting caught. But far more important, we have found that conditions among the workers in the woods and mills could mean the opening of a whole new front in the Timber Wars.

 Georgia Pacific (G-P) is a good example. Three years ago they cut wages by 25%, saying they needed the money to "modernize" the mill, and would restore the pay scale in the next contract. G-P is the only unionized outfit around here, but their union (International Woodworkers of America, AFL-CIO) went right along with the pay cut, just like they go along with everything else the company does. So G-P "modernized", eliminating jobs, and raked in record profits with the new low wages. Comes the new contract this year end and, lo and behold, instead of 25% the company offers only a 3% wage increase. The millworkers were furious and voted by an 88% margin to strike. But the union, assisted by a federal "mediator", squashed the strike vote by telling workers they would all just get fired if they went out. They then eliminated the radicals from the vote counting committee, took a re-vote, and passed the contract.

Earlier this year, a G-P millworker was poisoned when a PCB-filled capacitor broke and spilled on his head. The company refused to give the man adequate medical care or close off the area, saying it was just mineral oil. The union, as usual, stuck up for the company. At least eleven more people were contaminated before the workers themselves managed to get OSHA to shut down the plant for 3 days and fine the company $114,000.

Pacific Lumber is another of the "big three" timber companies in the area. Until recently, it was a locally based, family-run operation paying good wages and amazing benefits. Pacific Lumber also treated the forest better than most and, because of its conservative logging and avoidance of clearcutting, has ended up owning most of the privately-owned old growth redwood that's left in the world.

But in 1986, Pacific Lumber was taken over in a leveraged buyout by MAXXAM Corporation, a high-finance holding company owned by Charles Hurwitz. Hurwitz financed the takeover with junk bonds, and is now liquidating the assets of the company to pay off the debt. But in this case, the assets of the company are the last of the ancient redwoods. Hurwitz has tripled the cut, instituting clearcutting. gutted the pension plan, and started working people overtime.

Employees reacted by attempting to organize an ESOP, or Employee Stock Ownership Plan, so that they could buy the company back and protect their jobs and community. AS many as 300 people came to an ESOP meeting at its height. But Hurwitz., of course, refused to sell, and the ESOP plan dies. MAXXAM expected everyone to just shut up and go back to work at that point. Instead some of the workers started publishing an underground paper called Timberlyin' (as opposed to the company's paper, Timberline), which lampoons management and, while rejecting the misleadership of both the ESOP and the AFL unions, calls on the workers to organize for self-protection.

 The other big company around here is Louisiana "We Log To Infinity" Pacific (L-P). This is absolutely the most crass company in the county. They busted the union in 1983, and the workforce is still scattered and unorganized, but they left a vast pool of resentment. Recently, L-P closed down a sawmill which had employed 436 people. They then opened a chipmill nearby which employs 15. Earth First! songwriter Darryl Cherney wrote a song, about the mill closing, called Potter Valley Mill, which includes two references to sabotage. The song became the most requested song on the local country music station as the millworkers called in for it and sold tapes of it in Potter Valley. Shortly after the mill closed, three men (who were definitely not Earth First!ers) tried--unsuccessfully--to torch the new chip mill with a molotov cocktail.

Role of the IWW

So, while the environmental struggle is raging, and while the public is watching loggers bashing owls, the flames of discontent are slowly igniting among the workers. What's needed is some direction, and it's certainly not coming from the AFL unions. Earth First! can only do so much because it is not a workers' organization.

Historically it was the IWW who broke the stranglehold of the timber barons on the loggers and millworkers in the nineteen teens. The ruling class fought back with brutality, and eventually crushed the IWW (Timber Workers Industrial Union), settling instead for the more cooperative Business Unions. Now the companies are back in total control, only this time they're taking down not only the workers but the earth as well. This, to me, is what the IWW-Earth First! link is all about.

If the IWW would like to be more than a historical society, it seems to me that the time is right to organize in timber. This is not to diminish those active locals and organizers who are already involved in workplace struggles elsewhere, but to point out that organizing in basic industry would strengthen us all. We are in the process of starting an IWW branch in northern California, and some of the millworkers are interested in joining already. But the few of us who share these views can't do it by ourselves, especially since the most prominent of us are known to all timber companies as Earth First!ers and can't get a job on the inside.

Back in the glory days, the IWW used to call on "all footloose Wobblies" to go get jobs in places the IWW was trying to organize. I'd like to make the same appeal now, to come to the Pacific Northwest and work in the mills and woods. Anyone wishing to take on this task should contact me. Please take care to avoid using your identity, home address, or exact plans. Your Red Card number will suffice as identification (which can be verified through the General Office). Remember, this is no game.