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Enviro-Unionists

A Speech by Jess Grant; transcribed by Brian Wiles-Heap from video – Industrial Worker, November 1990

Web editor's note: the following speech was given at a rally jointly organized by Earth First! and the IWW as part of Redwood Summer, held at the L-P export dock in Samoa, California, on June 20, 1990.

I’ll go ahead and introduce myself. I’m an “outside agitator” named Jess Grant. I’m an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies.

I like to think of myself as an enviro-unionist. That’s a new word I made up for Redwood Summer. An “enviro-unionist” is somebody who is concerned with trees and forests, and the people who live and work in them. And that’s what we all are, I think; that’s sort of the twin goal of this thing.

I’d like to talk about the ecological and the social costs of the current practices of the timber industry: The companies have tried to pit one against the other; they’ve tried to pit the workers against the environmentalists. It’s the classic divide-and-conquer tactic. But it’s not going to work, because I think we’re all starting to realize that the interests of both the workers and the forest ecosystems are best served by sustainable-yield logging and a worker-community buyout of the timber companies.

Now, you’ll be hearing these two phrases a lot. You’re going to hear this “sustained-yield logging” and “worker-community buyout”, so I’d like to briefly explain what they mean to me:

Sustained-yield logging is cutting at a rate lower than the growth rate, so that the trees can grow back and we can have some forests again. Given the past devastation, we now actually need to cut less than is growing, to catch up with what we’ve done.

A worker-community buyout is pretty self-explanatory. The companies are motivated by profit; they’ll always clearcut, because that’s where the profit is. But if the power and the decision-making are put into the hands of those doing the work, logging would convert to sustainable yield, because the folks doing the work recognize that their long-term job security lies in preserving and sustaining the forests.

Now I don’t advocate—I’m not saying that this buyout ought to be at market rate. Don’t get me wrong. The workers in this industry have already paid for these mills and this equipment with their own sweat and blood. This industry is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, right up there with coal mining. These mills and this equipment already belong to the workers by virtue of what they’ve done and what they’ve sacrificed by any standard of fairness. If these workers and these com-munities are to buyout Louisiana-Pacific and the other companies [Georgia-Pacific and Pacific Lumber / Maxxam], it must be at a penny on the dollar, not full-market value.

The companies have pitted their employees against the environmentalists by saying, “Well, the environmentalists want to shut the mills and put you out of work.” This is a boldfaced lie, and we know it. When you realize that Redwood Summer is calling for sustainable-yield forestry, it all becomes very clear. It is the lumber companies themselves, in their search for profits, who are closing down mills and putting people out of work. They do this in at least three ways:

(1) The first is automation. Automation is introduced in the mills and in the forests. This has put hundreds, probably thousands, of workers out of jobs. For example, Louisiana-Pacific helped Okerstrom Logging Company [a small, locally-owned “gyppo” logging outfit that subcontracts for L-P] to finance the purchase of something called a “feller-buncher”. Now, I’m not a logger, but I think I’ve got it down pretty much: a feller-buncher is an automatic logging machine that replaces ten workers. The same kind of automation and job displacement is happening in the mills.

(2) The second way that Louisiana Pacific, has abandoned its workers and the communities that depend on their paychecks is by opening up mills in foreign countries. What they do now is they ship the rough-cut logs to Mexico, where they’re able to save money by paying Mexican workers a small fraction of what they have to pay U.S. millworkers. This is another instance where the company has clearly put its own profits ahead of the interests of its workers.

As a footnote, I just want to address this issue of shipping logs offshore. I’d like to say that I’m a little bit offended—no, I’m actually quite offended—by the slogan on the flyer for today’s rally, which says, “American Logs for American Jobs!”. These logs are not American logs, these logs are Redwood logs! Just like people, these logs have no country. Now, I do not object to Mexican workers milling this wood; after all, nearly half the timber workforce in Mendocino County is Mexican already. What I do object to is the abandonment of communities here by uncaring corporations. I object to the senseless shipping of logs halfway around the world just to save a buck. And I object to the exploitation of Mexican workers by U.S. corporations.

(3) There is a third way that the lumber companies are putting their people out of work, and that’s by liquidation logging. This will take a little longer. Pacific Lumber is the best example—you know, where Maxxam acquired P-L through a leverage buyout, accelerated their liquidation of assets, just to pay off their junk bond debts. We all know that story pretty well.

Well, the question has been asked, and I’ll ask it again: Where do these employees think they’re gonna work when the trees are all gone?

Okay, so the timber companies are clearly no friends of the workers. This lack of concern for their workers is further manifested in a variety of health and safety issues: You may have heard about the PCB spill at the Georgia-Pacific mill in Fort Bragg last year. Several workers were severely poisoned and many more needlessly exposed when an electric capacitor exploded in the mill, dumping this carcinogen on a number of people. The company did nothing, reassuring everyone that the fluid was harmless mineral oil. Only persistent efforts by workers got an investigation, and the case is now before the OSHA review commission.

Another example is right here in Samoa, right at this Louisiana-Pacific pulp mill we’re standing in front of. There’s a thing inside there called a chlorine bleacher that they use to bleach the paper pulp with. Now, if that thing explodes and the wind is blowing the wrong way, everybody in Eureka is going to be killed inside of ten minutes. It’s a potential disaster like Bhopal. Yet an alternative technology exists; they could substitute the chlorine with a far less toxic substance called peroxide, but despite the record profits they make each year, L-P refuses to make this change. This company is not the workers’ friend.

I could go on with more horror stories, but I won’t because I think enough examples have been covered. Instead, I want to wrap it up by asking this question: Where does the IWW fit into all of this?

First of all, you’ve got to realize that the IWW—or the Wobblies, as we’re known—are no strangers to the Pacific Northwest, or to the timber industry. Many of the conditions that workers take for granted today in this industry and region were achieved through the hard work and the sacrifice of Wobblies, sixty, seventy, and eighty years ago.

The loggers, for instance, agitated for sanitary living conditions, lighting and clean bedding in their bunkhouses, Sundays off, and the eight-hour day. When they weren’t able to get the eight-hour day by a traditional strike, and they were forced back to work at gunpoint, they won it through direct action. At the end of the eight hours, they’d simply take out a whistle and blow it, and everyone just quit working. There was nothing the foreman could do.

Alright, I’m going to finish this up with a little old-fashioned anti-capitalist rhetoric: What we advocate is worker ownership of the timber industry. Now this is a lot different than nationalization of industries, in which you substitute one boss, the private employer, with another boss, the State. What we support is real democracy in the workplace, by putting all the decision-making and the profits back into the hands of those people who actually do the work. This is the best assurance against environmental destruction, for it’s the workers who have an overwhelming self-interest in promoting safe and sustainable forms of production. After all, it’s the workers and their families who—under our current for-profit system—suffer the worst effects of pollution and work-related hazards.