Thursday, September 13, 2012

Trade, Timber, and Termination: Worker Struggles in California's Gold Country

Photos courtesy of Sue Jennings-Johnson

By Michael Israel and David Roddy

On August 23, 2012, sawmill workers in Martell, California, declared a strike against the owners of the SierraPine Ampine particleboard plant. Martell is the commercial and industrial pivot of Amador County, a strip of foothills between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe characterized by Black Oak, Ponderosa Pine, and Republican candidate lawn signs. The region had not seen a significant strike in years.

The workers and their union, Lumber and Sawmill local 2927, had previously been in the process of negotiation with the company since late May. The cooperative connotation from calling this three-month period a “negotiation,” however, is misleading. Management mostly ignored proposals from the union, and were relentless in their demand for cuts in benefits, wages, and increased mandatory overtime.

In their last contract pitch, the company surprised everyone by asking for more concessions than they had in earlier contract proposals, further signifying no interest in compromise. The proposal included a 2% wage cut, no wage increases for the following four years (the entire length of the contract), the loss of two holidays, an increase in hours required for one to qualify for vacation, the loss of a bonus week of vacation pay for one-third of the work force, and changes to the worker’s Healthcare Trust. The company also requested for the ability to call in outside contractors as opposed to calling in qualified laid off employees, the right to hire from any source regardless of whether they are qualified or not, for Supervisors to assume jobs held by the wage worker, and finally, they proposed the ability to request unrestricted mandatory overtime from any worker.

Union president Tony Garcia explained the situation to reporters:
“The contract was open as of May 31st. We started meeting with the company in late April. We had a series of meetings with them; two in April, two in June, two in August. We worked under the current agreement until we could come to a new agreement… We couldn’t make it anywhere with them. As of our last meeting in August, they gave use their last best and final and told us we could go vote it and they would implement it on the 27th either way. It was a take it or leave it. We voted it on Wednesday and it was 52 to 6 NOs. We went back to work Thursday and our representatives contacted their representatives and asked if there were more negotiations to be had. We couldn’t get anywhere, they had nothing for us. And here we are.”

One of the strikers told us that on the morning of August 24, the entire workforce of the plant, in the first instance of all the factory's departments uniting, walked out.

American Jobs, American Lumber
The conflict between workers and management at SierraPine cannot be understood without acknowledging its historical and economic context, both locally and globally. The strike's seemingly anachronistic character corresponds to the devastation wrought by international trade agreements on unionized industry. These treaties, such as the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are the institutional consequences of neoliberalism; the late 20th century ideology of deregulation, union busting, trade liberalization, and the broad empowerment of private capital over organized labor and the public. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan perhaps best defined the moral logic of neoliberalism when, speaking fondly of the 1981 busting of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization by President Ronald Reagan, stated that the “action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.” Therefore, the legal right of the employer to exploit labor subordinated the right of an individual to, in some form, own their work, thus entitling employers to squeeze profits from a workforce with no moral regards to workers or their communities.

 Under this new regime, the rights of capital extended not only over workers, but also over borders. The signing of NAFTA in 1993 by President Bill Clinton gave employers the opportunity to escape labor and environmental protections in one country by simply shifting their investments south. The Economic Policy Institute estimated in 2003 that, during the first decade of NAFTA, manufacturing corporations displaced 879,280 (mostly union) American jobs to Mexico. Moreover, the threat of capital flight gave employers more leverage to cut collective bargaining, fringe benefits, and real wages. In fact, the managers at SierraPine stated before the strike that any such defense of the working conditions at the plant would be met with closure.

In the spring months of 1997, the wave of deindustrialization and corporate dominance washed across Amador County. Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), the largest private landowner in the United States, bought 127,000 acres of timberland from Georgia-Pacific (GP), along with a sawmill and particleboard plant, for $320 million. SPI promptly closed the two plants, which employed around 360 people, though quickly reopened the particleboard plant, rehiring 110 former mill employees. The acquisition left around 220 former employees without work. When local county governments requested compensation from Georgia-Pacific for the economic losses suffered by the employees and their community, the company denied that they had any responsibility to their former workers. While some of the permanently laid off employees had worked at the plant for upwards of twenty years, GP spokespeople pointed to SPI as the source of the closing, citing that it was in fact SPI who had closed the mill, and so their suffering was not the company's problem.

This was symptomatic of a wider series of industrial closures in the late 20th century in the United States. Between 1989 and 2003, in California alone, 5,825 wood product jobs were lost. The 1997 closing followed the layoff of 110 sawmill employees 31 miles north of Martell, in Placerville, and was itself followed by the lay-off of 40 sawmill employees 17 miles east, in Pioneer. The latter closing cited the decrease of timber harvests in the nearby National Forest as the reason for closing, which they blamed entirely on an increase in environmental regulations. They make no mention of the effect agreements like NAFTA—which removed tariffs on imported wood-products from countries with little to no environmental regulations—had on the price of lumber. In California's Klamath County alone, the woodworking division of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers estimated that the loss of 1,094 timber related jobs were the direct result of NAFTA and similar trade deals. The standard accusation that environmental policy and gratuitous union demands are responsible for deindustrialization is indicative of the stranglehold neoliberal ideology has on public opinion: the corporate √©lite have the same interests as their workers and the public, and any counter explanations for their behavior are to be ignored.

It is this cut-throat environment that gave room for the management at SierraPine Ampine to attempt to shred much of the gains made by the unionized workforce over the last half-century.

Lives on the (Picket) Line
On Friday morning, picket lines formed on all three roads leading into the Particleboard plant. The workers
Graveyard Strike Shift. Photo Courtesy of Michael Israel
organized into shifts in order to have a permanent presence. They had been in constant contact with the Sheriff leading up to the strike date, and were committed to the use of legal methods, such as avoiding property destruction or blocking traffic. The picket lines were civil and orderly at all times, aside from the occasional crude joking of the workers.

Community members and strikers at a Labor Day BBQ on the
picket line.

Support from the community was immediate. Every day, people would show up to stand on the picket line in solidarity, or to drop off donations of food, water, and other supplies to the picket. Other community members made copies of the strikers' handbill of information to post on billboards or distribute around town. Small actions like this not only helped spread the word about the labor dispute, but let the strikers know that the community was on their side. Even the supportive honks from cars speeding up the hill to a nearby casino were miniature morale boosters.

The days were long and hot for those on the picket line. Those on the strike’s day shift all developed sunburns that would rival those normally seen on your typical orange skinned tanning bed attendant. Soon, rumors began to circulate that the company was planning on hiring strike breakers. This raised a lot of questions from those on the picket line. “Where would they come from?” “Are they even qualified?” One local supporter commented “Is the company really that shallow, to hand the jobs of breadwinners and family men to strangers?”

SPI was fortunate. They had closed two plants near Martell in the last 3 years: the Camino plant and the mill in Rocklin whose doors shut in December 2011. SPI had a large pool of skilled former employees familiar with particleboard production that they could call upon. The closures of plants now functioned as a source of powerless surplus labor easily summoned by the company to diminish the earnings of the employed.

On Tuesday, the 28th of August, the company began to trickle in strike-breakers. It was only be a few cars on any given day, not enough to run the entire plant, but this was a bold action by the company nonetheless. It demonstrated the company’s imperative to combat the strike, a belief that the laborer is a replaceable commodity, and ultimately a simple willingness to give the livelihoods of local workers away to commuters.

 Losses are Gains for American Unions
The strike continued until September 5th. The two sides scheduled mediated negotiations for the upcoming Wednesday. In a 41 to 14 vote, the company and the union settled on a contract. Both sides made concessions, though the workers were forced to concede more to the company. Much of the company’s original contract proposal remained, aside from maintaining the workers healthcare plan and changing the language of the company’s demand of unrestricted mandatory overtime. These were small victories though, and Local 2927 did not call this agreement a total win for the workers. On an even more sour note, Ampine chose to permanently hire scab laborers as employees.The scab laborers will have to join the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union, but the decision to keep them implies that the company has a degree of faith that, should the need arise again, they can count on these men to cross another picket line. To make things worse, the company fired employees that were on their probationary periods at the start of the strike but refused to cross the picket line seemingly to make room for the newly integrated scab laborers.

The lackluster results of the mediation reflects the relative weak position of organized labor in contemporary America. Following the general neoliberal trend of increased managerial power, union membership and influence has been near fatally weakened over the last thirty years. A 2011 study from Harvard University found that one-third of the 40% spike in income inequality between 1973 and 2007 among men employed in the private sector was attributable to the decline of organized labor. The study notes that this effect was not only directly attributable to a 24% drop in union membership during those years. The indirect effects of non-unionized employers no longer needing to compete with union wages, the removal of unions as an active voice against inequality, and the loss of labor lobbyists influencing government policy also depressed wages for workers, all the while giving executives ground to boost their own salaries.

There is probably no single reason for the downturn of unions in America. While direct assaults on unions by the government—for instance Reagan's attack on PATCO in 1981—certainly gave private employers confidence in their own union breaking, a combination of federal amendments and Supreme Court rulings curtailed the organizing rights set by the Wagner Act of 1935 just years after it was enacted.
PATCO Strikers. Photo from NPR

In 1938, the Court ruled that employers had the right to hire permanent strikebreakers. In 1939, it ruled that sitdown strikes—such as the 1937 autoworkers strike in Flint, Michigan, that forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers—were not protected under the Act. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act formally excised any hope for legally protected working class solidarity in the labor movement by declaring secondary strikes and boycotts unprotected. For good measure, it also outlawed closed shops, a supervisors right to side with a union against an employer without the threat of termination, and gave state governments the ability to pass “right-to-work” laws. In 1959, the Landrum-Griffin Act allowed federal injunctions against neutral employers of unionized workplaces that refused to handle the “hot cargo” of another employer during a labor dispute.

Hence, at SierraPine Ampine, the law required strikers to leave the plant, peacefully hold pickets on the sidelines as the company and sheriff drove in scabs, and to expect no formal acts of solidarity from other unions in their community or from other companies being shipped scab produced products. Labor activist and author Joe Burns, in his 2011 book “Reviving the Strike,” defines the ease with which the above requirements for a legal strike channel employer interests as “a system of labor control,” which shifts the economic burden of strikes from employers to employees, thereby removing their power.

Neophilosophy buttresses this system through think-tank funded scripts for pundits, which limits the frame of political discussion in both popular media and government. Neoliberalism is a strictly bipartisan affair; Democrats and Republicans debate on how much we should curtail union power, but neither side considers how to best strengthen it. They may debate on the details of new free trade agreements, but the renegotiation (or even public recognition) of NAFTA is out of the question. Other than the most vague comments about “the middle class,” class—the idea that workers and companies often have opposed economic interests—is taboo. This is critical, for right of workers to organize around shared interests against their employer is superfluous if you refuse to recognize that they have different interests in the first place.

But there are cracks forming in the rotten frame of this worldview. The Occupy movement, though failing to excite a new labor movement, made class, albeit coded in the 99% versus the 1%, a talking point again. Moreover, the movement has brought the idea of a general strike back into popular conversation, though it lacks the organizational capacity to literally make such a strike possible. The union led occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol in winter 2011 demonstrated the potential for a modern labor movement, and made ground for 50,000 Chicago teachers to walk off the job to defy draconian changes in their contracts introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. We should note that these actions and strikes are ultimately defensive, but their spirit and vitality brings hope that workers will once again go on the offensive for shorter hours, higher wages, and more control over their working life.

Chicago Teachers and Supporters.
Photo from The Washington Post

After-all, class consciousness germinates on the picket-line. We overheard a conversation between one of the SierraPine strikers and a supportive Raley's deli worker about working conditions, management, and the seemingly endless greed of their respective companies. Class is a relationship, and we must not forget that it is individuals that compose it. There is no one working class. The individuals on strike in Martell had families, children, and beliefs that cannot be reduced to a simple relationship with their boss. The same is true for the other side; billionaire timber baron Archie Aldis “Red” Emmerson owns SPI, is on the Fortune 500, and is the third largest private landowner in the United States. His wealth hinges on the work of his employees, while their wealth hinges only on their ability to offer work. One side holds all the cards when organized labor dissolves. South African bishop and activist Desmond Tutu's statement, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality,” applies to those who choose to look at worker/management conflicts as a simple matter of finances or logic but ignore the ethical problem of exploitation. The pervasiveness of neoliberal thought, the legal systems of labor control, and the ever-increasing drive to force profit out of the work of others can only be challenged when we, the American people, choose a side.


  1. Thanks, David. A few comments ... SPI was the second and is now the third-largest private landowner in the US. There was a mill-closure task force in Amador County formed after SPI closed the Martell sawmill, but oddly enough, neither the county nor local economic development folks seemed to care much abut the lost jobs or local impacts. At the same time, Foothill Conservancy, which had a rep on the task force, was receiving detailed info from former GP staff about how much $ the mill contributed to the local economy. The workers knew that GP was to blame for the ill closure since it had never really upgraded the mill.

    When the P&M Cedar mill closed in Pioneer, regional cedar harvests had not decreased. But while GP sold the cedar logs it cut to P&M, SPI sent them to its own small-log mill in Chinese Camp (Tuolumne County). Not long after P&M closed the Pioneer mill, it announced that it was beginning operations in China.

  2. Hey thanks Katherine!

    I will make these corrections.

  3. Excellent article you guys. Thanks for publishing this.

  4. About f*#king time some lefties came out of hiding in the foothills! Thanks for being here! I'm in Placerville and I'm so sorry I didn't hear about this strike! I would have rallied troops from the grocery biz in the area to support the lines. We were just "force fed a concessionary contract" which left workers at Save Mart with $5.00 an hour wage cuts, loss of most paid holidays, loss of Sunday premium, and way higher healthcare cost! We are basically Wal-Mart now! Great article! When we we Luckys back in 1995 we were on strike and it was the Mill workers who gave us the most solidarity and support! I will never forget that!

    1. Hey thanks! Are you a member of the facebook group?

  5. No, how do I get the FB group David?

    1. Link:

  6. remember that there is both a FB page and a FB group for Motherlode Progressives. one is more informational, the other more for the purpose of discusion

  7. I am frustrated that we have gotten so far away from the Golden Rule. We no longer care for our Neighbors nor do we even recognize who our neighbor is. If we can't do that how can there be any social justice in this world? I have discovered a book that gives a new perspective on the New Testament Era. In his book,Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus's True Heirs”, Lawrence Goudge proposes that the Jewish followers of Jesus wanted social justice for the world. I have discovered a new book that shows how this social justice message was covered up by His Gentile followers. The church has blinkered its past. It's no secret that Jesus strove to bring in the kingdom of justice here on earth and his followers implemented it in the communal society we read about in Acts 2:44-47. The church’s dirty secret is that the Jewish followers of Jesus continued to hold his vision dear, later influencing such sects as the Bogomils and even, according to their own oral traditions, the Doukhobors. After exterminating the Jewish followers of Jesus, the church’s historians buried this history of justice-seeking but an author by the name of Lawrence Goudge has exhumed their story and presented it in 'Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus's True Heirs.' This book does the world a great service by illuminating for the first time this vital part of the history of social justice. I found it at

  8. D and M: I took the pictures from yesterday at Raley's to the paper this morning and they were copied and hopefully one will be in Friday's paper. n