Big Profits and Little Pay in South’s Backwoods: Woodcutters Organize (Part II)

Big Profits and Little Pay in South’s Backwoods: Woodcutters Organize (Part II)

By Wayne Greenhaw

Vol. 3, No. 2, 1981, pp. 14-17

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Woodcutters have generally been considered the bottom of the barrel when you are talking about agriculture in the South,” stated a forestry professor at Alabama’s Auburn University.

“The industry has been a profitable one for the huge companies, but the workers in the woods, cutting the timber and hauling it to the woodyards have been submissive to the demands of the companies,” explained Dr. Herman Aiken, who has worked with half-dozen top companies as a consultant to their new timber crops.

“Today we can plant a hybrid pine tree in the South and harvest it in less than fifteen years. The Sun Belt may even lend itself to faster harvesting in the near future. When you have an annual rainfall of between forty-five and sixty inches with a preponderance of sunshine during most of the year—even in the winter, you have an ideal situation for the modern fast-producing forest. In the Pacific Northwest, Washington, Oregon, and parts of California and Idaho, it takes nearly sixty-five years for a tree to mature,” Dr. Aiken added.

“The time factor is one reason for the tremendous growth in the pulpwood industry in the South during the past decade,” the professor said. “Another reason is the cheap labor. There is no doubt about that. The company looks at the overall picture in every agricultural area before it decides to move in that direction,” he said.

This movement was emphasized recently by the decision of Georgia-Pacific, a leader in the pulpwood industry, to come South. A company spokesperson explained the move of corporate headquarters from Portland to Atlanta by saying, “We are not going to abandon the Northwest, but we have shifted our interests to the South, where we have more than two-million acres.” In 1979, Southwest Forest Industries, headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, registered what the president, W.A. Franke, termed “a milestone” in its purchase of a Panama City, Florida, pulp and linerboard mill, a railroad line and 425,000 acres of timberland in Florida, Georgia and Alabama from International Paper Company. “We looked at Panama City on an opportunistic basis. It was clear that the longterm economics for owning the timber were good. This was our initial objective. After studying the project, we concluded there were also opportunities for added profitability at the paper mill. So our thinking moved from a timberlands-oriented acquisition to the concept of an integrated profit center that would be a long-term contributor to the company’s earnings,” Franke remarked.

In its move into the South, Southwest Forest Industries purchased 245,000 acres in pine and 157,000 in hardwoods. A company representative said, “We have the wood to supply a large portion of the Panama City mill’s needs. We bought lands that have been managed intensively for high productivity and we have the resource base to diversify into lumber and plywood production. Most important, we are now in the South in a meaningful way, where the fast timber growth cycles point to more rapid expansion in our industry than in other parts of the country. We made a good buy here.”

The Panama City mill uses about eight-hundred-thousand cords of pulpwood and woodchips every year, and company-owned timberlands furnish about twelve and one-half percent of the mill’s needs. “Many, many woodcutters depend on our operation to keep them in work, and we want to continue to work with them,” a mill representative said. However, it was added, by 1985, the company’s pine plantations should be supplying about twenty-five percent of the mill’s needs.

0ne of the people who have been attempting to organize woodcutters throughout the region, Ben Alexander of Atlanta, Georgia, greets these moves, “We want to welcome the new companies. All the woodcutters want to see more and more companies coming into the area. It’s good to see, it revitalizes the business of pulpwooding. But we want to educate them from the beginning. We don’t want them to think they are coming into a backward area where the labor force will lay down, roll over, and play dead.”

Alexander pointed out that the wage structure in Southern states has been a great incentive to companies to move from other sections of the United States into the South. “That sort of green is irresistible,” said Jim Drake, coordinating officer in Mississippi of the Southern Woodcutters Assistance Project (SWAP). “Trade unions in paper mills report that similar jobs in Oregon pay three times the wage in Mississippi. Furthermore, the old standard that ‘Prices are cheaper down there’ does not hold. In Mississippi, March 1980 gasoline prices were the highest of all fifty states,” Drake continued.

“In Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas and Florida there are more than fifty to sixty thousand aging pulpwood trucks hidden in

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deep woods,” Drake stated. “Each truck requires a crew of three persons. Thus, tucked away in hollows and hamlets are over one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand families dependent on pulpwood for a living.”

“No congressional subcommittee has ever delved into the misery of these people,” Drake continued. “They are the invisible workers and their families. They go unseen, unheard. They live in the poorest counties of America, and Black or White, they suffer malnutrition, poor healthcare, inadequate education and substandard housing.

“And yet, on their strong backs and out of their sweat, International Paper, Georgia-Pacific, St. Regis, Masonite, Weyerhauser, and Scott Paper, to mention only the giants, have built their vast empires,” the United Church of Christ minister said.

With the accelerated growth of the paper industry in the South during the past ten years came the emergence of people like Jim Drake who were interested in organizing the pulpwood workers. Drake, for instance, was sent into the backwoods by the Board for Homeland Ministries of the United Church of Christ to work with SWAP in Mississippi. Several years earlier a young Massachusetts attorney named Grant Oldfield had been in Mississippi to register voters during the summers of 1964 and 1965, “and while we were there we found that not only were Black people discriminated against but the White as well as Black pulpwood worker was being pushed to the back of the bus. The woodcutter was the second-class citizen of the agricultural South. After I finished Boston University Law School I came back to Hattiesburg and set up an office to start working with the woodcutters. We got a little money from Catholic Charities and the Southern Voter Education Project, and we worked to put some sting into the political makeup of Mississippi.”

But three years later, having met with dozens of local political defeats and numerous stumbling blocks, Oldfield went back to his native state to fight for other causes. He was more or less replaced by other young lawyers and organizers in Hattiesburg who began working in the late 1960s with the Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association (GPA), which by 1973 had organized some three thousand woodcutters in southwest Alabama, southern Mississippi and northwest Florida.

Oldfield and his associates filed a lawsuit in the early 1970s against two companies. The paper companies countered with their own lawsuit against the cutters. For nearly a year in the mid 1970s, GPA was ordered to discontinue its organizing efforts while the case was before the courts. However, in 1975, after limited victories for the woodcutters in federal courts, Scott and International Paper companies agreed to an across-the-board raise in prices of pulpwood paid to the cutters and haulers. The companies also agreed to pay GPA attorneys $25,000 in fees.

The cutters were given an overall five-dollar-per-cord increase in payment, and owners of standing timber, which is cut to become pulpwood and sold to the woodyards, were given a one-dollar-and-fifty-cent raise per cord. Scott and International also agreed at the time not to take their fight against GPA’s organizing efforts to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It was a significant step forward at the time,” commented a GPA leader. “Unfortunately, however, that was the last we heard from the companies. We got the increase. They could not deny us that. But the negotiations stopped there. That was the last raise we received. Now, it appears, we have to go back into court to seek further relief.

“GPA is continuing its organizing efforts. We have moved in several directions. We are looking now for a more substantial increase with a more permanent basis of cost-of-living raises. It costs the pulpwood cutter more and more to live every year, just like it costs the paper companies more and more to produce pulpwood. They are making more and more profits, but those profits are not shared with the man who is working hard to produce the pulpwood. We feel that it is time that we made something for our sweat and blood.”

Many woodcutters participating in

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organizing their fellow workers believe that the various labor associations need to ban together in a southwide effort. In northern Mississippi and Louisiana, SWAP spokesmen say that they do not wish to compete with GPA, “but we would like to join hands with all woodcutters to make sure our efforts do not go to waste.”

Wayne Greenhaw is a freelance journalist in Montgomery, Alabama and author of several Southern books. His final installment on the woodcutters will appear in the next issue.