Ending the Short Stick In Mississippi’s Woods
By Tom Israel and Randall Williams
Vol. 4, No. 3, 1982, pp. 16-18
Pine trees are commonplace, but timber is an industry, especially in the South where forests stretch from Houston to the Carolinas. In Mississippi today, timber is the largest provider of manufacturing jobs and the state’s largest crop.
The timber industry will play a key role in the next several decades in the South. The trees are here, the giant wood products companies are here, and a paper shortage is projected for the next twenty-five or thirty years. The crop is constantly expanding, as witnessed by oldtimers who drive through rural areas and point out the cotton fields of their youth, now grown into the piney woods.
For the harvesters of the crop, however, even those who enjoy the work, woodcutting is one of the dirtiest, most dangerous and poorest paying of occupations.
There are two types of wood harvesters–pulpwooders, who cut and haul wood to be made primarily into paper products, and loggers, whose labor ultimately leads to the making of lumber. They can be distinguished on the road by the way the wood is stacked on their trucks: pulpwood is short and stacked across the truck, while logs are long and stacked lengthwise. In Mississippi, an estimated ten thousand people work in the woods, and about eighty percent of them are black. However, log haulers are more likely to be white than black, largely because cutting logs is more profitable than cutting pulpwood and because the timber companies have allowed whites to take that economic step up.
About four-fifths of the wood harvesters are pulpwooders, and they are the chief beneficiaries of the Mississippi Fair Pulpwood Scaling and Practices Act, which was to go into effect July 1. The story of the passage of that act and the reasons why it was necessary is worth hearing.
Woodcutters are paid a piece rate for each cord of wood they sell. A cord is a volume measure of four feet by four feet by eight feet. The pulpwooder and his crew cut the trees down, saw off the limbs, cut them into five-foot
lengths, load them on the truck and haul them to a wood yard. The work is hard and dangerous: a get-together of woodcutters where everyone has all his fingers or toes is rare.
An average truck load has three or four cords with a gross value to the woodcutter of about $120. When the hauler brings the wood to the yard, it’s measured with a long yardstick. The common practice is for the wood hauler to hold the stick against the stack of wood on his truck, and the dealer stands back and reads the scale off the top of the stick.
The woodcutter can’t see the scale and he isn’t even told how much wood was on his truck until it has already been unloaded, by which time it’s too late to argue. The United Woodcutters Association estimates that woodhaulers earn about six to seven thousand dollars a year if they work full-time, and that an average cutter loses about fifteen hundred dollars per year to the short stick. So it has been a real problem.
The Woodcutters Association decided to organize a campaign around this issue and tried for three years to get a bill passed that would set standards for measuring-scaling–the wood at the yard. But woodcutters are very isolated from one another. They work in remote locations and they usually know only the other woodcutters who may be in their family or in their church.
They may recognize some other woodcutters by sight or may recognize their trucks which they’ve seen on the road or at the woodyard, but they don’t know them. They also haul their wood to about 250 scattered woodyards throughout the hills of Mississippi (The United Woodcutters Association is organized in forty-two counties in Mississippi.)
A second barrier to effective organizing is fear on the part of the workers. The Association is not, like most unions, an organized shop. The people who join and who speak out in favor of such things as the fair scaling act are completely unprotected at the woodyard against firing and harassment. Even woodcutters who simply attend Association meetings are subject to intimidation from dealers.
To overcome some of these barriers to organizing, the Association started a cooperative. The woodcutters have to own and operate chainsaws and trucks and they burn up large amounts of supplies, which they usually get from the wood dealers for whom they work, often at exorbitant prices.
The system is very similar to sharecropping. The woodcutters are considered independent contractors and are thus not usually covered by insurance or other benefits from either the wood dealer or the big paper companies, yet they end up in economic dependence to the wood dealers, who function much like labor contractors.
When a woodcutter needs a tire for his truck or a chain for his saw or even a loan for a piece of equipment, he will go to the wood dealer who will advance him the money and then deduct it a little at the time from the woodcutter’s pay for each cord of wood. The net effect is that the woodcutter never gets out of debt and his already meager take-home pay is whittled away even more. From the payment he receives from the wood dealer, of course, the woodcutter also has to pay his helpers, own and operate his truck and saws, pay social security and buy insurance, if he has it.
The cooperative was thus a very effective organizing tool. The Association now has co-ops at forty-three different locations around the state where the woodcutters can get their saw files and their chain oil and a dozen other products they need to stay in business. The woodcutters not only get lower prices but they get to meet and get to know each other, which helps break down the problem of isolation. And because the members of the Association are the administrators of the co-ops, they gain confidence in working together as a unit.
All of this work helped in the three-year campaign to get the fair scaling practices act, but it wasn’t enough. The campaign succeeded when the word finally got out to the landowners that they were losing as much as the woodcutters due to the short stick, or inaccurate measuring of the loads on the pulpwood trucks. The landowners off whose land the wood is cut are also paid on the basis of the measurement taken by the wood dealer at the yard. By doing a lot of organizing among small farmers, the Association eventually got an endorsement from the Farm Bureau, and on March 8 the Mississippi Fair Pulpwood Scaling and Practices Act passed.
The act requires licensing of wood dealers and establishes uniform measurement procedures, procedures where the woodcutter can file complaints, and third-party arbitration to settle disputes. These procedures are important to give protection to the woodcutter who actually files a complaint, so he won’t be told the next day not
to come back to that woodyard again.
The next step for the Association is to organize strikes at some wood yards. The fundamental poverty of the woodcutters is not going to change until they are paid more. Getting an accurate measure will mean a lot more money but the woodcutters are still paid very little for their labor. By the time he pays all the costs of production, the woodcutter who clears eight or nine dollars on a cord of wood is doing very well.
The Association put together its first strike last summer in Fayette, Miss., where three yards were shut down for about one month. One yard settled with a two dollars per cord raise and an agreement to post standards on how the loads would be measured. The second yard came through with just a raise. The third yard, which was run by International Paper Co., shut down and moved out of town.
In addition to more strikes and other job actions, the Association is now campaigning for workers’ compensation coverage for woodcutters; as independent workers with the middlemen wood dealers between them and the paper companies, they have been denied this protection for on-the-job injuries or deaths.
Finally, there are thousands of woodcutters in other Southern states whose working conditions are equally as dangerous, whose pay is equally as low, and whose isolation is equally as limiting.
For these woodcutters, it seems, imitation of the Mississippi example may be the first step on the road out of poverty.
Tom Israel is the lead organizer for the United Wood cutters Association. This article is adapted from his remarks at a recent conference hosted in Montgomery by the Southern Poverty Law Center, where Randall Williams is employed.