The Politics of Logging
Why are there Canadian loggers in the Maine woods?
By Edgar Allen Beem
Canadian loggers have been working in Maine’s North Woods since the nineteenth century, and Maine woodsmen have been complaining that Canadians are taking American jobs and depressing wages just about as long. In 1955, Maine loggers marched on the statehouse in Augusta to protest the use of Canadian labor. In 1974 and 1998, they blockaded border roads. In more recent years, the battles have taken place in the Maine State Legislature.
The issue has a long, complicated history, but the politics are fairly simple: it’s a long-running labor-management dispute. Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) tend to represent the interests of loggers. Republicans like Governor Paul LePage tend to represent the interests of the forest products industry. The two have frequently clashed over logging issues, the tensions between them coming to a head last June when Jackson called LePage’s comments about state budget discussions “delusional.” The governor responded with a vulgar — and widely publicized — remark, adding, “People like Troy Jackson, they ought to go back to the woods and cut trees and let someone else with a brain come down here and do some good work.” The next day he apologized to loggers, calling them “the backbone of the state.”
LePage, who is seeking re-election, once ran his first wife’s family’s lumber mill in New Brunswick, Canada, and later worked for Scott Paper Company in Maine. He is a former member of the Maine Forest Products Council, the trade organization that represents some three hundred pulp and paper companies, saw mills, trucking companies, and logging contractors.
Jackson is a logger. His father and grandfather were loggers. He got into politics because of issues surrounding Canadian loggers working in the Maine woods. Since first being elected to the state legislature in 2003, Jackson, now a candidate for Congress from the Second District, has submitted a flurry of bills that have become law, including one denying unemployment compensation to Canadians. Until 2009, the state was paying as much as six hundred thousand dollars a year in unemployment compensation to Canadian loggers during mud season. Jackson also authored “proof of ownership” laws that require companies that hire Canadian workers to show that they own or lease their own forestry equipment and pay taxes on it in Maine.
Jackson has also suffered some defeats in his war on Canadian loggers, most notably a bill that would have denied landowners who use Canadian loggers the reduced tax benefits of Maine’s tree growth program. In opposing LD 1103, the forest products industry argued that landowners should not be penalized if contractors use legally hired Canadian labor to harvest timber. LePage vetoed the bill in June of this year, calling it “part of a coordinated attack on Maine’s forest products industry.” LePage did not say who he thought was coordinating this attack, but Jackson says, “It’s me.”
Jackson lives in the Aroostook County town of Allagash, where seventy-two thousand of seventy-seven thousand acres are in tree growth for tax purposes. When property owners are taxed at the reduced tree growth rate, other property owners pay proportionately more. “I can’t cut it. I can’t haul it,” Jackson says. “When they do haul it, it is trucked to Canada. So why should I have to pay the taxes on it?”
Responding by email to Down East’s questions about the need for Canadian loggers, LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said, “Our mills are already importing about 20 percent of the wood. Maine loggers cannot meet the demands of our own mills, so it is imperative that we have a sustainable logging workforce as well as sustainable forests long into the future.”
In 2011, three million of the fourteen million green tons of wood processed in Maine were imported, but at the same time Maine exported two million tons. Troy Jackson says that was the wood cut by Canadian loggers and sent to Canadian mills.
Geography is destiny when it comes to Maine’s forest economy. The whole northern half of the state protrudes into Quebec and New Brunswick and the Maine North Woods run along the western border.
“There’s a long history of folks who come across,” says Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council. “In the early days, there were no roads, so it was all river drives. Those were the guys closest to the wood. In many cases, that’s what’s still happening. In this business, it’s all about distance to the market.”
The forest products industry says Canadian loggers are necessary to fill a labor shortage in northern Maine, much the way foreign workers harvest Maine apples, blueberries, broccoli, eggs, and potatoes. LePage shares this view. “You go to certain areas of the state, and there is no shortage, and there is no need for Canadian loggers,” the governor told a town meeting in Presque Isle in 2011. “Other parts of the state you have to have them, because there is nobody who wants to cut the logs, there is nobody there to cut the trees.”
Many Maine loggers, Troy Jackson chief among them, disagree. They say that they can’t get the jobs because of unfair competition from Canadian loggers. At one point, the currency exchange rate was fifty-five cents on the dollar, so Canadian workers could afford to work for much less, says Jackson. Then, too, they have government health care and equipment subsidies that U.S. loggers do not.
Jackson blames the problem of Canadian competition on the U.S. Department of Labor and Maine Department of Labor. “You can pass all the laws you want,” Jackson says, “but unless they are enforced they’re not worth a thing.”
The target of much of Jackson’s enmity is the bonded labor program through which temporary Canadian workers gain access to work in the Maine woods. The U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program permits U.S. employers who anticipate a labor shortage to hire non-immigrant foreign workers to perform seasonal work as long as there are no qualified American workers to do so and the hiring of foreign laborers does not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of American workers.
The process is a laborious one that requires logging contractors to file a job order with the Maine Department of Labor, which certifies the equipment ownership and then posts the job opening in the Maine Job Bank and at Maine Career Centers in Presque Isle and Skowhegan. The logging contactor must also post a surety bond with the U.S. Department of Labor, which has led to Canadian loggers being commonly referred to as “bonds” or “bonded laborers.”
William Parenteau, a professor at the University of New Brunswick who did his master’s thesis on bonded labor in Maine, found that the program “tended to reduce opportunities, wages, and working conditions for Maine workers and subjected Canadian workers to substandard working conditions.”
In a July 1993 article in Forestry and Conservation History, Parenteau quotes a Great Northern Paper Company auditor’s report of 1947 as distilling the essence of the rationale for using Canadian labor. Reporting on “shackers,” Canadian woodsmen who pitched camps with their families in the Maine woods to cut pulp, the auditor wrote, “If a contract can be drawn that will make these shackers independent contractors, we will be able to relieve ourselves of a great deal of responsibility and be able to produce wood much cheaper than we are producing it now.” In other words, cheaper Canadian labor means cheaper wood means more profits for pulp and paper companies.
Jorge Acero, who helps administer the H-2A program at the Maine Department of Labor, believes there is a real labor shortage along the border, but he also acknowledges that Maine loggers who have their own expensive equipment to maintain cannot afford to take jobs operating someone else’s equipment. “Many loggers are small, self-employed contractors,” he says. “It is difficult for them to apply for jobs, because they have their own machines and can’t take fifteen to sixteen dollars an hour.”
But Troy Jackson says Maine loggers often can’t get the jobs posted on the Maine Job Bank even if they want them. Contractors have often already arranged to hire Canadians when they file an H-2A job order.
Only applicants who have applied for the jobs can trigger an investigation into whether there is a legitimate foreign labor need. Back in 2008, Jackson says he applied for thirteen jobs on the Maine Job Bank. He says four logging contractors replied and nine did not. He didn’t get any job offers and filed complaints against all thirteen companies. Five years later he still has not heard from the U.S. Department of Labor. “So much for their complaint-based system,” he says.
Jackson contends that weak enforcement by labor officials is exacerbated by a LePage administration that is unfriendly to Maine loggers. Last year, the Maine Department of Labor waived fines against two logging contractors that had failed to report the hiring of Canadian workers within three days, a requirement that has since been changed to thirty days.
In 2011, LePage vetoed a bill sponsored by Jackson that would have prohibited H-2A workers from logging on public land, saying such a law would violate preemption and equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
In 2012, Republicans introduced a bill backed by the Maine Forest Products Council that would have undone many regulations imposed on the hiring of Canadian labor in recent years, including restoration of unemployment compensation for Canadians. The unemployment compensation provision was a non-starter and was edited out of a compromise bill.
According to the Maine Department of Labor, requests for bonded Canadian loggers ran about six hundred a year until 2009 when, owing to a combination of the economic recession, the new requirement to show proof of equipment ownership, and the repeal of unemployment benefits, they declined to around one hundred. So far in 2013, there are only thirty-six bonded workers from Canada.
“Let’s stop fighting about bonds. They’re not really an issue at this point,” argues forest products industry spokesman Patrick Strauch. “How can you get more Maine young people into the industry?”
In an email, LePage’s spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett, said the administration, including the departments of Labor, Education, and Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, has been “collaborating with the community college system and industry experts to develop new initiatives that will expose young people to the careers available in the woods. However, this work can be dangerous, and companies do not want to hire inexperienced workers and put them on five-hundred-thousand-dollar machines miles from emergency assistance. If we had a steady number of workers interested in these jobs and trained to take them, the issue of needing loggers from Canada would disappear.”
“If they pay enough money,” suggests William Parenteau, who advocates for workers in the Canadian forest products industry, “people will come from Georgia to work in the Maine woods.”
Michael Beardsley, executive director of Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, whose one hundred members cut close to 75 percent of Maine’s annual harvest, believes recent legislation has gone a long way toward correcting the abuses of the past. What’s needed now, he says, is reciprocity. Canadian loggers can work in Maine, but Maine loggers cannot work in Canada. “It’s a one-way street,” says Beardsley. “Reciprocity would go a long way toward alleviating the problem, if the guys in northern Maine could find work across the border as well.”
“If there were reciprocity,” warns William Parenteau, “Maine loggers wouldn’t like what they’d find here. Irving [J.D. Irving, Limited, a Canadian conglomerate with holdings in Maine] has put most small contractors out of business. Now they say they can’t get wood.”
Rather than seek a two-way street, Jackson argues that what is needed to settle Maine’s border dispute is a dead end. He wants to boot Canadian loggers out of the Maine woods altogether. “It’s going to take the federal government taking logging out of the H-2A program,” says Jackson. “H-2A is for harvesting crops that might otherwise spoil. Trees don’t spoil.”
Down East Senior Writer Virginia M. Wright contributed reporting to this article.
Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer from Yarmouth who has been contributing to Down East since 1983.