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Notes From Hell - Working at the L-P Mill

By Judi Bari - Anderson Valley Advertiser, April 17, 1991; Reprinted in Timber Wars, © 1994 Common Courage Press.

"I've worked in the sawmill for 13 years, and every year the logs get smaller. Everyone knows L-P is leaving. It's just a matter of time," a Ukiah L-P millworker told me last spring. Since that time L-P has laid off over one-third of its workforce in our area. They have closed or are closing their mills in Potter Valley, Covelo, Cloverdale and Calpella, and they have laid off the graveyard shift in Ukiah. Meanwhile, they have opened up their redwood planing operation in Mexico, using machinery that they took out of the Potter Valley Mill. yet despite all this, we have not heard a peep of complaint from the L-P workers. How does a company as cold and crass as Sleaziana Pacific (sic) keep their workforce so obedient? A look behind the barbed wire fence that surrounds their Ukiah mill might yield some clues.

"It's their little world, and when you step through the gate you do what they say or you don't stay in their little world," says one millworker. The work rules are designed to turn you into an automaton. There's a two-minute warning whistle, then the start-up whistle. You have to be at your work station ready to go when the start-up whistle blows, or you can be written up for lateness (three white slips in a year for the same offense and you're fired). You stay at your work station doing the same repetitive job over and over for two and a half hours (two hours in the planing mill and a half hour in the sawmill) until the break whistle blows. then you get a ten-minute break, except that it takes you two minutes to walk to the break room and two minutes to walk back, so you only get to sit down for six minutes. And don't get too comfortable, because there's a two-minute warning whistle before the end of breaktime, then you have to get back to your station ready to go when the start-up whistle blows again. If you ever wondered what they were training you for with all those bells in public school, here's the answer--life at L-P.

In the Land of the Free, democracy stops at the plant gates. The Bill of rights is supposed to protect against unreasonable or warrantless searches. But not at L-P. Their drug policy reads like the gestapo: "entry onto company property will be deemed as consent to inspection of person, vehicle, lockers or other personal effects at any time at the discretion of management. Employee refusal to cooperate in alcohol and other drug testing, or searches of other personal belongings and lockers are subject to termination [sic]." And, before you even get hired you have to submit to a urine test and sign a consent form to let them test your urine any time "for cause," again at the discretion of management.

Amid constant noise and visible sawdust in the air, millworkers do jobs that would shock people who are familiar with factory work. take the job of offbearer. As whole logs come into the mill they are stripped of their bark, then run through 9-foot-tall band saws to make the first rough cut. The off-bearer stands a few feet from these saws and uses a hook to grab the slices of log and set them up for the edgerman. There are no guards on the sawblades, just exposed, high-speed, spinning teeth. The off-bearer must wear a face shield to protect himself from flying knots or metal debris from the logs, but that's not always enough to prevent injury. "it's even worse," says one experienced off-bearer, "because the knots are few and far between, so you're not on the alert. It can run cool for a week or a month, then wham!--something pulls the saw off."

This is what happened in the famous tree-spike case at the Cloverdale mill, when the band saw hit a metal spike and broke. Saw blade fragments went flying, and a 12-foot piece hit off-bearer George Alexander in the face, cutting right through his face guard and nearly decapitating him. That's why [groups in] Northern California [who are part of] Earth First! renounced tree-spiking, and that's why no one in Earth First! will ever convince me that tree-spiking is safe or okay.

Loss of life or limb is a constant danger at L-P, but it doesn't happen every day. What does happen every day is the mind numbing tedium of the job, and L-P's constant rush for production. Take the job of lumber grader. Rough cut lumber, 2x12 and up to 20 feet long, comes up on the chain, and the grader has to scan it, turn it over, decide the best way to trim it for length and split it for width, and put the grade marks and trim marks on the board. You have two to three seconds to perform all these tasks, while the chain keeps moving and the next board comes up. All night long. Back injuries, tendonitis, and shoulder strains, common among graders and other millworkers, are caused by turning over the heavy lumber. But the company just wants its production quotas. "We broke a production record in our section," said one of my sources. "We used to get pizzas and beer for that, but this time they just got us one of those six-feet submarine sandwiches. We probably made them $200,000 in L-P's pocket that night and they gave us a sandwich."

Of course in such a petty, dictatorial atmosphere, some petty dictators are bound to arise. And there is none better known at L-P than Dean Remstedt, swing shift foreman in the planing mill. Remstedt runs his shift with threats and favoritism and is known as a racist. A few years ago he passed out a flyer making racist jokes about Jesse Jackson. It offended some of the millworkers so much they took it to the Ukiah Daily Journal (anonymously of course). Remstedt denied that there was a problem. "It was something laying in the break room that we was laughing about," Remstedt told the Journal. But Hispanic workers, who make up about one-third of the shift, were not laughing. "To me, when I got that, that was from the company," One of them told the Journal reporter. And of course, L-P's upper management did nothing to change that impression.

Millworkers say Remstedt is "a fanatic about production" and that he "intimidates people into taking chances [with safety] for fear of being disciplined or of losing their job." He sets the example with his own reckless behavior, which has led to him having several on-the-job accidents himself. He once climbed onto an automatic lumber stacking machine that was not properly turned off, and he was knocked to the ground when the auto-cycle started up and the lumber moved forward, sending him to the hospital with minor injuries. Another time he stood on the forks of the forklift raised to a high position so he could reach something overhead. He fell off and knocked himself out cold. They wrote up the forklift driver for that one, but they never write up Remstedt, even though the injuries to others on his shift have been a lot more serious than his own, including a woman who lost her leg walking between roller cases on a machine that bands lumber.

So it's not surprising, considering his racism and his safety record, that it was on Remstedt's shift when Fortunado Reyes was killed. Remstedt was off that night, but he had long ago set the pattern of work practices on the shift. A few days earlier Remstedt has ridiculed Fortunado in front of his co-workers for pushing the emergency stop too much and slowing down production. "He called Forty a sissy, and that's not all," say his friends. no one knows exactly how he died because no one saw or heard it. But apparently Fortunado was straightening lumber on a tray when he was caught unawares by another moving tray of boards, and was crushed between the lumber and the machine's steel beams. Co-workers found him lying on the cat-walk. "We looked up and Forty was lying on the catwalk, like he was listening in. I said 'Hey, what are you doing?' but he didn't answer. We poked him and he didn't move, and we knew something was really wrong. When we turned him over you could see the indentations from the lumber in his chest." Some of the millworkers, and later the ambulance crew, tried to revive Fortunado with CPR, but it was too late. "By the time the ambulance took him away he was already starting to bloat up," eyewitnesses said.

Fortunado's death outraged some of the millworkers, who were tired of Remstedt endangering people's lives for the sake of production. A few of them decided to break the silence and tell the truth to OSHA, even at the risk of their own jobs. As a result, L-P was cited for two safety violations, including the emergency stop policy, and fined the pitiful amount $1,200 for taking a man's life. Remstedt was also ordered to give a safety talk on the proper use of the emergency stop. "But one week later he was doing it again like nothing happened, climbing all over the machinery, " said a disillusioned worker.

Still some people didn't give up, including lawyers for Fortunado's widow, Maria (L-P awarded Maria a total of $2,000 for "burial expensive" for Fortunado's.) And last September, the Mendocino County D.A. surprised us all by filing criminal charges against L-P for Fortunado's death. This resulted in another slap on the wrist and another insultingly low $5,000 fine L-P. then to add to the insult, L-P President Harry Merlo himself wrote a memo to the Ukiah millworkers blaming "inflammatory claims made by a few groups of rabid preservationists" for the "negative atmosphere" leading to the criminal charges.

It takes a real stretch of the imagination to blame environmentalists for anything having to do with Fortunado's death, but Harry Merlo is an imaginative guy. And the timber industry has been wildly successful so far at convincing the workers that it's the environmentalists, not the companies, who are to blame for their woes. "It's the only thing that gets a rise out of them," one man said of his co-workers hatred of environmentalists. "Their heartbeat gets faster and their eyes light up." How can people be so brainwashed to overlook the Mexico operation, the miles of clearcuts, the shrinking logs, and the closing mills, and blame us instead of L-P? I asked several workers that question, and this was their reply: "Let's say you're a big macho logger, and you know you're wrong. You could blame L-P, but then you're powerless. or you can blame Earth First! and then you can punch 'em."

Interestingly the workers who talk to me (obviously a select group) often explain their own awareness in terms of L-P's environmental destruction. "I've always been environmentally conscious," says one. "My dad took us camping when we were in diapers. I've been backpacking since I was nine years old." Another says, "I went hunting at my favorite spot in the Yolla Belly Wilderness and it was gone. It looked like a nuke hit it because L-P's clearcuts." "I like to take my son fishing," says another, but L-P's wrecked the fishing in this county."

So what are the chances that L-P workers will wake up before it's too late? Pretty slim. "The money's too good, and there's nothing else to do," a sawmill worker told me. L-P millworkers start at $7.00 an hour, but the top of the pay scale is $13.51, or over $14 with night premiums. "Most people are just crawling in their holes, hoping the mill will keep running," my sources said. There's a lot of discontent under the surface, and a lot of people don't like the company. The people who talk to me all express the same feelings, and they all assume that no one else shares their views. So I guess there is some theoretical chance that some day something will make people mad enough to stand up to L-P. But the most common attitude at the Ukiah mill is "Gotta go to work" and "Don't make waves."

L-P employees have no other say under company policy, and they work under conditions privileged college kids and yuppie professionals can't even imagine. Environmentalists who blame them for the destruction of the forest are just as stupid as workers who blame environmentalists for the loss of their jobs. Some of the more conscious millworkers will try to find a way to get out, and these are the people most likely to ally with us. But most will try to keep working until the last pecker pole runs through the chipper. Then they'll drive off into the clearcuts, cursing the environmentalists for the loss of their jobs, while Harry Merlo counts his cash and moves on to the next killing field.