Timber Industry Conflicts

May 9, 1986

Report Outline
In the Pacific Northwest
Regional and Foreign Rivals
Old Conflict of Values
Special Focus

In the Pacific Northwest

New Labor Negotiations After Hard Times

“Every woods-worker who ever barked a shin or broke a finger [believes] it's one dirty, tough, miserable way to live. That it's about as dangerous a way to make your bacon as you can find. That sometimes you'd be better off chuckin' the whole scene and just flopping down on the ground.” In Ken Kesey's novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, Hank Stamper is sympathizing with his younger half-brother, just arrived in Oregon from Yale to lug a heavy choker chain across a mountainside from fallen tree to fallen tree. Hank loves his work—despite its cruelty—but he has little love for the union that wants his family firm of independent loggers to join their strike.

As the Pacific Northwest's timber industry approaches the June 1 expiration of contracts affecting 35,000 workers, the lower wages paid by many small companies are one of the factors undermining the unions' bargaining position. The other big factors: a continuing loss of jobs to the low-wage South; the closing of older, labor-intensive mills and work-force reductions in new or modernized mills; and a flood of cheaper imports from Canada. The resulting unemployment has sapped union strength and left workers in a bitter mood as they face company demands for steep pay cuts. Reflecting on the experience of these workers, Richard Spohn, editor of the union publication International Woodworker, concludes “The throwaway society has been extended to people.”

Labor's problems in the industry began in 1980 when high interest rates killed a boom in housing, which accounts for about half of the U.S. softwood lumber and plywood consumption. Companies had expanded in anticipation of high demand for lumber as the baby-boom generation reached the home-buying age. But record-high mortgage rates put the costs of new homes beyond the means of families whose income normally would have been adequate for home purchase. As demand for new housing collapsed, Northwest mills closed and jobs vanished.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Exports and Imports
Forests and Rangelands
Unions and Labor-Management Relations