ESSAY: The Changing Politics of Woods Work, Part Three
By Hal Herring, High Country News
The lawlessness and the outright abuse of migrant workers eventually attracted the attention of an alphabet soup of regulating agencies. But it would be years before those agencies, and their regulations, began to have an effect on the industry, and those were some of the most eventful years, as far as labor markets and the movement of workers were concerned, in U.S. history.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (the famed “Reagan Amnesty” still decried by anti-immigration activists), which legalized almost 3.2 million migrant workers living in the U.S., most of them from Mexico. The act also led to the creation of the H-2B Visa program, which allowed for a maximum of 66,000 non-agricultural laborers to be imported for seasonal work in the U.S. (The Trump administration has lifted that cap to 81,000, a blow to the nativist voters critical to Trump’s election.) By 1991, the forestry contracting industry was using 21 percent of all H-2B visas.
The H-2B program was supposed to rein in some of the lawlessness of the era when crews were made up almost entirely of undocumented migrant workers. And in some ways the situation did improve, for a while. By 2005, said Pennick, “The Border Patrol had cracked down, and the Forest Service had a better line on all of it, everybody had pretty much cleaned it up.” Still, the economics were the same as before. The H-2B workers were willing to work for less money, and so the bigger contractors could outbid the smaller, more local ones.
The H-2B program replicates the power relationships of indentured servitude. Break your contract, and don’t leave the country, you become a criminal. … You can’t have a program where workers are held like that.
And with forest fires devouring over half of the Forest Service’s annual budget, the agency has little choice but to go with the cheapest option. “We’re robbing Paul to pay Peter every year with these budgets,” said Pennick. “With the H-2B crews, it is true that gas, food, lodging, is the only money that is coming into the community — it is like Walmart in that way, there are people working there, but the profits are going elsewhere. But for the resource, for getting the work done, after the main troubles were worked out, these big crews have benefitted the forest.
“Let’s be honest, a lot of the H-2B crews come from that culture — don’t complain, work hard in a tough world, get it done. The white crews were always negotiating, always complaining. The only time I’ve ever been threatened in the field was with a white crew that couldn’t pass inspection — one guy came at me with a tire iron and smashed out the windows in my truck. That would never happen with a Hispanic crew.”
But as anyone who has ever been involved in a struggle for higher wages or better working conditions can attest, the inability to complain, whether because of fear or language barriers, does not make for a secure work situation. Employers have exploited H-2B workers since the program began. In 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States outlines a multitude of abuses. The SPLC filed a 2005 lawsuit on behalf of 4,000 H-2B tree-planters from Guatemala and Mexico, that, in 2012, produced a record-breaking judgment of $11.8 million against forestry contractors Eller and Sons Trees Inc. of Franklin, Georgia, with the judge ruling that the workers had been systematically cheated out of their wages for years.
A 2015 Government Accountability Office report on the H-2A (agricultural) and H-2B (non-agricultural) visa programs documented a number of abuses, such as third-party recruiters charging prohibited fees to prospective visa holders, and employers providing inadequate or false information about jobs, working conditions and wages. From 2011 through 2013, according to the report, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received over 1,400 complaints from H-2A or H-2B workers alleging labor violations.
Such abuses are prevalent in the West’s forests, where H-2B workers are cowed into not reporting bad conditions or even injuries, Carl Wilmsen, executive director of the California- and Oregon-based Northwest Forest Workers’ Center and co-author of the 2015 study Working in the Shadows: Safety and Health in Forestry Services in Southern Oregon, told me. About one-third of the workers sampled by the center were afraid to report workplace injuries, Wilmsen said, and seven out of 51 workers who were injured were later fired. “It is about threat, retaliation, fear, and the bosses really use that.”
“These (low-bid) contracts would be barely profitable if they were done right,” he says. “They have to cut so many corners to make any money — no protective equipment, no training, all kinds of violations going on all the time. The H-2B program replicates the power relationships of indentured servitude. Break your contract, and don’t leave the country, you become a criminal. … You can’t have a program where workers are held like that. They have to be able to compete in a free labor market if you want higher wages.”
In 2012, fresh outrage erupted when the Department of Labor’s Inspector General revealed that at least $7 million of federal stimulus money had gone to pay the wages of 254 H-2B forestry workers in parts of rural Oregon where the unemployment rate was around 20 percent. According to Charles Pope in The Oregonian, the companies using the H-2B workers technically complied with the law by advertising job openings, but did so by placing ads only in small-town California newspapers.
Deb Hawkinson of the Forest Resources Association Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that represents loggers and other forestry-related industries, refused to go on the record for this story. But her organization’s stance is summed up on its website, where one of its top priorities for 2017 is: “Overregulated: H-2B Guest Workers in Reforestation.” During a short interview, she told me that the kind of labor for which H-2B workers are recruited does not appeal to American workers, and that there is no way that businesses who need this kind of labor can rely on American workers.
Hawkinson’s assertion that manual labor such as tree-planting, thinning timber and fuel-reduction logging is the kind of work that no modern Americans want to do comes up over and over again. There is, of course, a built-in conundrum in the question: As long as we have thousands of poor migrants, willing to plant our trees for $13.85 per hour or less, and as long as local Americans are actively discouraged from taking such jobs, we’ll never know the answer. But I do know that at one time, when wages were comparatively high, I preferred woods-work over any other employment, and I knew plenty of people across the West, and in the South, who felt the same way.
I drove to Plains, Montana, to visit Jim and Doreen Stokes, whom I’d last seen a quarter-century ago, in the pouring rain on a tree-planting contract in the Bitterroot Mountains. I worked as a sawyer for their company in 1993, cutting yew trees for the cancer drug Taxol on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest near Pierce, Idaho. For about $15 per hour, our team would go in to the cutting units and fall and buck enough yew trees to keep a band of 20 or so bark peelers, also making $100 or more per day, busy.
The Stokeses live on their Eagle Creek Farm about 20 miles from Plains, with a comfortable home they built themselves, fruit orchards, barns, hayfields and gardens, close to the Clark Fork River. They’ve been there 33 years, and they’ve been a team, contracting tree-planting and thinning, and working at whatever would pay the bills, for a lot longer than that. Jim is a farrier and a contract horse logger, and the couple still contracts reforestation and restoration work on state and private lands. When I worked for them, they were always headed to somewhere exotic at the end of every forestry season — Zanzibar, Costa Rica. Doreen has been travelling to Tanzania for tree-planting and rural water supply projects in recent years, taking students from the U.S. and showing them how to plant trees and introducing them to the Maasai people. Their SUV sports bumper stickers declaring a preference for organic farms and an unequivocal distrust of our current president.
Jim has missed only one year of planting trees since 1980. He and Doreen, at the height of their contracting work, planted about 1 million trees per year, running crews of 16-18 people, all U.S. citizens or documented foreign workers. They both planted on the big Oregon-based tree-planting crews of the late 1970s and early ’80s, and Doreen started contracting for herself and her crews very early on. Like the rest of the contractors I interviewed for this story, the Stokeses left most federal public-land contracting around 1994. (I doggedly stayed on as a freelance woods-worker, working for less and less money each year, even as the cost of housing in the Bitterroot Valley, where I lived, was soaring. I gave up, too, in the late 1990s.)
“We were so successful for so long,” Doreen told me. Then, in 1991, the competition from foreign labor kicked in and it all went away. Doreen said their company did everything by the book, but it didn’t matter. The Forest Service never checked, so other contractors could cut corners and sometimes even report their own crews to immigration officials — deported workers don’t need to be paid. “They broke every rule there was. How could anybody compete with that?”
Since there’s no way contractors like the Stokeses could ever bid low enough to get a Forest Service contract, it’s impossible to test Hawkinson’s assertion that Americans refuse to do these jobs. “As long as we have these visa programs, bringing in these workers, we’ll never find out,” Doreen said. “The bids on tree-planting now are ridiculous. There is no way to make any money on them.”
“I don’t personally know anybody who wants this kind of work for the wages that it pays now,” Jim told me. He worries about how using cheap imported labor affects communities like Plains, where there is already a serious lack of jobs. A couple of years ago, Jim asked a Forest Service official if the agency would use local labor for a nearby project. The official wouldn’t answer. Jim added: “And then a woman stood up and said, ‘Well, we’ll have to take the lowest bidder, but there will be more work here for waitresses at the cafes, and for the gas station.’ I mean, how do you respond to that?”
Perhaps the best hope for a response is in Missoula at the University of Montana’s Forest Industry Research Program at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Chelsea McIver, a research specialist there, is Jeff Pennick’s daughter and a veteran of 13 seasons’ working for the Forest Service on trails and other labor jobs. She grew up around Hope, Idaho, as a self-described “Forest Service brat” who planned a career in the same agency. But it didn’t work out, in large part because the Forest Service is not the robust, forward-looking agency that it once was.
McIver has spent years now outside the agency, “getting deep into the weeds” of public-lands contracting and the kind of rural economics that she knew from her own experience, but that she found lacking in contemporary discussions and conflicts over public-land management.
“I think part of my interest in all of this came from my disappointment over not finding the career I’d planned on in the Forest Service,” she said, “and I think part of what has driven me since is that I grew up in a timber community, in a Forest Service family, with a father who was both a former logger and a member of Greenpeace.” Her former husband was, and remains, a forestry contractor. “I’ve seen firsthand how many sacrifices people will make to do what they love, working in the woods, living in these rural communities.”