Woodcutters Organize: Echoes of Change in the South’s Backwoods
By Wayne Greenhaw
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1980, pp. 16-19, 22
The tall huskily-built Black man opened his mouth and let his baritone voice ring out through the small plain rectangular frame church in southwest Alabama.
Proud of his heritage, ready to pass on to his children and his children’s children all that he knows of his past, Ralph Lee Johnson is trying his best to hang on to whatever he can make in the present.
A pulpwood man, whose father was a woodcutter and whose great-grandfather came over to this country from Africa on a slavery ship, Ralph Lee Johnson ekes a living out of the Piney Woods like more than 150,000 others in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
Living in a three-room house he put together out of scrap plywood, two-by-sixes he carved out of soft hardwood with his bare hands and strong shoulder muscles, he and his wife Maggie and their four children burned to frazzles in the hot sun of the summer of 1980. Sweltering in the shade, he said, “We done all the work we could do back in the spring, and now—usually when we’re working the hardest—there’s nothing to do.”
Ralph Lee Johnson blames no one person or institution for his present predicament. “It’s tough times,” he allows, and he knows that south Alabama, northwest Florida and southern Mississippi were all hit hard by Hurricane Frederic in the fall of 1979. Following the storm, hundreds of thousands of feet of timber were down and had to be cut, and the situation resulted in a surplus supply at the paper mills.
“I can’t honestly sit here and blame the paper companies. I know they have to make money. That’s what they are in business for. I blame the woodcutters themselves, like me and my friends in these woods, for not organizing and making sure that we always have enough work—whether there is a hurricane or what, ” Ralph Lee Johnson says.
While he provides for his family out of a scrawny garden, where even the collard greens appear to beg for needed water, he has put his trust in an association of pulpwood workers. Since the mid-1960’s, Ralph Lee Johnson has seen associations appear and reappear, and he has become skeptical of their importance.
“The people from the outside come in and start talking and build up our hopes. We listen, and we think they know our situation and will work for us. We get worked up about making the life in the woods better. We all know it has to be better.”
Seven years ago, when the pulpwood workers’ situation in the South received national attention, Ralph Lee Johnson was satisfied that the Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association, founded by a group of cutters near Hattiesburg, Mississippi in the late 1960s, would be the answer to his and other cutters’ problems. “It has helped a great deal,” Johnson remarks. “The leadership has continued to function, we have won several big lawsuits, but the economic situation for the cutter is still terrible.”
Black minister A.L. Richardson of Mobile County, Alabama, and his associate, James Graham of Wayne County, Mississippi, believe that through continued organization “the woodcutter will see the light within several years. Already the paper companies are beginning to make concessions to us. Even the little givings in help a great deal when you look at the big picture. It is really not different from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It has the same foundation: people have to be given their human rights; they will not stand to be oppressed forever.”
Other White and Black leaders in the woodcutters movement throughout the backwoods southland say the old-time White power structure kept the poor Blacks and Whites apart for a long time. “The George Wallaces and the Ross Barnetts and the Faubuses pushed poor Whites and poor Blacks against each other, living in a turmoil of hatred because of the colors of our skin, and at long last we sat down, took a deep breath, and looked around,” says William J. Gaines of Waycross, Georgia, who admits having ridden with the Ku Klux Klan during the 1950s and 1960s. Since shortly after World War Two, Gaines has been a pulpwood cutter. “By the early 1970s, I think we were beginning to see that we had more in common with our Black neighbors than we did with the three-piece-suited cigar-smoking politician sitting in the statehouse. We could see that we had been blind as bats to the real problems, which was that of feeding and raising our children and making something out of our lives. We had been beaten down, down, down, by our own hatred. Now, all of a sudden, we were stunned. We saw that that Black man down the road was starving just like we were. He was getting screwed by the rich paper company people just like we were. The system he was working in was the same one we were working in, and the only way we could ever get a fair break – either Black or White—would be to stand together, side-by-side, hand-in-hand, and face the giants together.”
Several woodcutter associations cropped up over the South. The newest, and thus far the most successful, has been the Southern Woodcutters Assistance Project (SWAP) backed by
the Board of Homeland Ministries of the United Church of Christ, an ecumenical project also supported by several other Protestant groups and Catholic orders.”
In February of 1979 a group of 39 woodcutters and their families met in Canton, Mississippi, and agreed to set up a purchasing cooperative. “The idea was: you have to start somewhere,” according to Jeff Sweetland, who after working with Cesar Chavez’s efforts in California joined SWAP during the spring of 1980.
“One of the biggest problems faced by the woodcutter and his family is that he owes so much. He becomes so indebted to the wooddealers; and the paper companies he can never really get out of the hole. Everything is marked up so high, and with interest added, the cutter historically has been in debt to the company store,” Sweetland points out.
The coop concentrated on chainsaws, chains, material, supplies that would be used every month, things that wear out and have to be purchased over and over, and the savings to an average woodcutter amounted to about $75 per month. During its first year the coop sold almost $50,000 worth of merchandise that had been marked up very little.
In August of 1979 some 300 members of the coop met in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where they decided to expand to a full-fledged association. With almost unanimous effort, the United Woodcutters Association was formed, and anybody who cut wood, hauled or helped in the process was eligible to join.
“We deliberately started north of Jackson so we wouldn’t have jurisdictional fights with the Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association,” says Sweetland. “By now we have run into less than 10 people in our area involved with the GPA,” he adds.
With United Church of Christ minister Jim Drake, another former assistant to Chavez, working as coordinating officer, the UWA was established, elected a national executive board, and went to the federal government for the charter of a credit union which would further help problems of indebtedness. By early 1980 the first federal credit union for woodcutters was chartered. And today it works like any other credit union with members paying in shares, and soon the cutters will be able to make loans at low interest rates. Previously they had been forced by economic conditions and geographic isolation to go to the dealers, companies and loan-shark-type finance operations.
Also in Philadelphia, the group agreed to form United Woodcutters Services, a non-profit organization to assist the cutters with problems in worker’s compensation, insurance, and other legal areas. “We provide services to any woodcutter, whether he is a member or not,” explains Sweetland.
In August of 1980 the United Woodcutters Association decided to make its presence known politically. Times were rougher than during the past five or six years, although the weather was ideal for woodcutting. Some woodyards were given quotas, some were shut down for two and three weeks in a row, and some turned down hardwood and would take nothing but pine. Other problems that had been in existence since the beginning of woodcutting and the pulpwood industry continued.
As much as ever, many woodcutters were given the short stick, where the cord of wood is measured incorrectly at the woodyard and the cutter is paid less than he should be paid for the wood he delivers. The woodcutters complained
to the UWA, and it was decided in Forest, Mississippi, at a legislative convention attended by more than 650 persons that the UWA should seek legislation.
“The people passed a resolution to go after the legislature in the state capitol,” Sweetland says. “The UWA wants a Fair Pulpwood Scaling Practices Board created. Where there is no equal bargaining now between the woodcutter and the wooddealer, the board would protect the interest of the woodcutter,” Sweetland explains.
“The key feature of the board would be to issue operating licenses to woodyards and revoke such licenses if the yards abused their privileges,” he adds. Sweetland believes UWA can get such legislation passed next year.
A third-generation pulpwood farmer and woodcutter, Ralph Lee Johnson believes “we have made a few strides in the right direction. But we have a long, long way to go. It has been an uphill battle all the way, and I can’t see the top yet.”
Johnson likes to preach at the Nazareth Primitive Baptist Church “where most of us attend, where we pray to the Lord to provide for us if it is His will, and we empty our tortured souls out for Him to see us bare as the day we were born.”
Not unlike the woodcutters throughout the South, Ralph Lee Johnson has been in debt to his local woodyard for all of his adult life.
“I started helping my Daddy cut wood down near Pensacola, Florida, some forty years ago. I was not even in high school. I was about this tall, but my muscles were developed, and I could drive the mules about as good as a grown man.
“We didn’t have mechanical skidders back then. When we cut logs down in the swamps we had to go in with a team of mules, wrap ’em good with chains, and pull ’em out. Sometimes it’d take a day of hard work just to get a log or two out of bad swamp, especially in late fall, after the rains, or in the spring. It wasn’t like it is today, and it ain’t easy today.
“Back in those days we not only had hard times with old-fashioned equipment, we had a hard time with the people in the industry. The first paper companies formed their woodyards out in the Piney Woods to take care of people like my Daddy and other woodcutters. The woodyards were the middlemen. They worked directly for the paper companies as agents. They bought from us. It’s the same system we operate under today. We can never take our wood directly to paper companies. We go to this woodyard or that woodyard. We are assigned to one in our area. If we cut wood way over yonder, closer to another yard, we still have to deal with this one. We have to haul right on by. I’ve passed by three or four during some hauls, using more gas, then going back, cutting more wood, and hauling it to the yard again. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s the way it is. It ain’t changed since I was a little boy. And my Daddy back then told me his Daddy had had to do the same thing with his oxen pulling a cart loaded with wood.
“I remember Daddy getting the short stick from the yard down in Florida. It was a bad time. A short stick is a bad count on your cord. A cord of wood is supposed to be 128 cubic feet. That’s the measure. But one yard Daddy worked out of down there had him pile his wood in an old pig pen. They said that when the wood came up to the top of the fence, that was a cord. If it had had a true measure, it would have actually been about one and a half cords.
In another place, over in Georgia, the yard manager walked out to the truck, looked it over, then wrote in his book. He said he judged cords with his naked eye. Daddy would then haul his wood into the yard, dump it into a pile that had already been unloaded by other trucks, waiting there for the railroad cars to come and get it and take it to various paper mills, and Daddy wouldn’t know what the man determined until he pulled up in his empty truck and walked into the office for his slip. If the manager liked you, you got a good count. If he didn’t, you got short sticked.
Ralph Lee Johnson and his fellow woodcutters throughout the South, from the South Carolina Appalachians to the Texas hill country, have experienced the same humiliations. They continue to be at the mercy of the gigantic paper companies. And more and more of these companies have been moving southward recently because more timber is available, longer cutting seasons are open in the Sun Belt, and the labor force is separated and unorganized. “I believe that now is our chance to break out of the old mold of our fathers and move into the Twentieth Century,” Ralph Lee Johnson preached late on a sweltering August Wednesday afternoon in the church where he and others preach the gospel on Sundays. Johnson was telling woodcutters from a radius of nearly one hundred miles about the necessity of organizing.
“The pulpwood business is where the coal miners were back in the early thirties. They were getting the black lung disease, and they were dying, and their widows and their babies got nothing but misery from the companies. They were working in the poorest of conditions. They saw the light in the labor unions, and they joined hands
and stuck together. Now they have better wages, better working conditions, insurance and workmen’s compensation.
“Look at us! Look at Johnny Jefferson back there! Stand up, Johnny!” A man who had been as tall as Ralph Lee Johnson once stood. He was bent forward, and his face showed the agony of years of suffering, and right arm was nothing but a nub.
“Johnny Jefferson is one of us. Most of y’all know him. He cut wood with the best of ’em until nine years ago. Nine years ago he was working up in Washington County, cutting for Larry McCollum, and the chainsaw slipped and caught his arm and tore it to shreds.
“I know you’ve all seen a wild chainsaw. I know you’ve all seen blood gush out of a man’s arm. And I know you’ve all seen men who were out there cutting until they lost a hand or an arm.”
“Johnny, how much did they pay you for your arm?” Ralph Lee Johnson hollered.
Johnny Jefferson said nothing. He sat and shook his head.
“They didn’t pay you one red cent, did they, Johnny?”
Again, Johnny Jefferson shook his head.
“Mister Larry McCollum came by to see you in the hospital didn’t he? He’s a real good man. He don’t mean no harm. But he did not empty his back pocket and give it to you, did he?”
Johnny Jefferson was silent.
“Larry McCollum or R.J. Simpson over in Mississippi or Raiford Greene over in Louisiana or any of the other dealers, they won’t give you one red cent. And you might as well be talking to a loblolly pine as to talk to International Paper or Gulf States or Union Camp or St. Regis or Georgia-Pacific or Scott or Masonite or any of the others.
They want the wood, but they don’t want to take the responsibility for getting it out of the forest. That’s the pure and the simple of it. When some poor cutter like Johnny Jefferson cuts off his arm, they turn the other way. They don’t want to have anything to do with it. They say we are independent contractors. I say we are workers. We do their work for them.
“For more than a hundred years, since the first Southern paper mill opened in South Carolina in the eighteen-hundreds, the woodcutter has been getting the short stick. We have complained. We have mostly hung our heads and walked away. In our silence, there is sadness. In our silence, there is grief. I grieve over my children and their children’s children. But I will grieve no longer, because I know now that the woodcutters will join together and fight for their rights.
“When my boy went into the business, he had to borrow money from a dealer, he bought his second-hand truck from the dealer, and even his saw and grease and oil were bought on credit from the dealer. After the man charged fourteen and fifteen percent interest, there’s no way he will ever get out of debt. It’s a lost cause from the beginning. And I know all of you are in the same predicament. And many of your children are already planning to be woodcutters. They don’t know anything else.”
From his audience, Ralph Lee Johnson received a chant of “Amen! Amen, brother,” and people nodded in unison.
Ralph Lee Johnson, moved by his own monologue, nodded with them. He knew he was one of dozens of speakers at various churches and meeting places throughout the South during the sum-
mer of 1980, urging woodcutters to unite. He knew he was part of a movement which had started at various crossroad junctions all across the southland during the late sixties but failed to grow to fruition during the seventies. He knew too that he had taken the first step, along with the other leaders, in a direction toward unionizing the pulpwood workers of the southeast.
“Like a man who walked among us not too long ago in another battle for human rights, I have a dream.” His voice rang through the naked rafters. It was strong and heartfelt and not without the fiery tone of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I think that it is time for all pulpwood peoples to hold themselves proud. We do not do a slave’s work. We are craftsmen in a trade.”
And the “Amen” sound came again.
“We need to walk together through the forest of hopeless dreams and climb the hillside of success. We can do it together! ”
As suddenly as he had spoken, he bowed his head and closed his eyes. He said a prayer for all of them: paper company, woodyard dealer, and woodcutter.
Then Ralph Lee Johnson, who had been cutting wood in the forests of the South since he was a boy, asked them to join with him. And the Blacks and Whites held hands and swayed rhythmically as they sang, “Oh, oh, oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day . . . ”
Wayne Greenhaw is a freelance journalist in Montgomery, Alabama and is author of several books about Southern events and people.