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Loggers' Blockade at Canada/US Border On Hold -- For Now

Canadian loggers working in Maine face a barrage of protest from US loggers, but the issue goes beyond the attraction of getting paid in American dollars.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.


It was the promise of an investigation by the United States Department of Labor (DOL) into the hiring practices of US border sawmills that finally dismantled the border blockade, which had stopped Canadian loggers from working in Maine this past October. The loggers of the border town of Allagash, Maine have promised, however, to resume their protest if the investigation fails to address their concerns.

Canadian loggers have crossed the border to work in Maine for the past 50 years. Overall, relations have been amicable, but there have been occasional disputes. The main complaint of Allagash loggers is that Canadian loggers are taking American jobs, and have stifled the local average wage because Canadians are prepared to work for less money. A major factor is the exchange rate variance between the Canadian and US dollar. Canadians can afford to work for less by receiving their pay in US funds, then converting to Canadian dollars. For example, $ 10 in US funds translates to $15.25 Canadian.

The second issue is the shift by most mills to mechanized logging and its associated costs, as well as the cost to achieve certified professional logger status in Maine. The state has introduced a program of certification to raise the safety, mechanical and environmental awareness of Maine loggers. At a cost of $500, some Allagash loggers have complained that the program is too expensive. They also feel they should be entitled to receive unemployment insurance.

The Allagash loggers have decided to lash out at those they feel are responsible - the Canadians. Some fear a repeat of the Maine Woodsmen Strike that occurred in the 1970s will follow, which again revolved around the issue of Canadian labour taking Maine jobs. At that time. equipment was vandalized and roadblocks were established. The strike escalated to the point where protesters burned woodpiles in the middle of roads. Authorities on both sides of the border hope the DOL investigation brings about a satisfactory resolution to the issue, to avoid a similar confrontation.

Although his border mill was not directly involved with this dispute, the owner of Maibec Industries, Charles Tardif, remembers the strike 25 years ago.

"The people in Allagash were not satisfied with the negotiations we were having with them for establishing the price of logs," he said from his office in Quebec City.

Cheryl Russell, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, was working at her father's sawmill at the time of the strike in the 1970s. "The strike was against Canadian labour," she says. "They were saying that Canadians were getting the best wood ... it was not nice' "

As with any protest, what may seem the most important issue is often only the tip of the iceberg. First, there is a trans-border conflict surrounding adequate training, coupled with a general decline in the number of Americans entering the logging profession, and loggers faced with making the expensive transition to mechanized logging.

"The people from Allagash were working with one border mill and they have mechanized their logging operation," says Tardif. "Some jobs were lost, and these people could not find jobs with other enterprises. This was probably the origin of their dissatisfaction."

Both Tardif and Russell agree that the DOL's investigation should focus on why the protesters have had difficulty finding jobs, even with Maine mills and contractors.

The program for providing manpower to log Maine forests is coordinated through the DOL, which has established a rate of $10 per hour based on the average rate within Maine and its neighbouring states. When jobs become available, DOL advertises the positions and holds a job fair. DOL figures show that of 680 positions they have posted, only 17 have been filled by Maine residents; the rest have been filled by bonded Canadian labourers. However, more Maine residents may have gotten jobs by applying directly to companies. Russell says the hourly rate is a hindrance, considering that it has stayed at $10 per hour for the past eight years, while stumpage rates have increased from $16 to $69 over the past 13 years.

Complicating the issue is the transition by many mills to mechanization in their harvesting operations.

"It costs $400,000 (US) for a cut-to-length system, and a couple hundred thousand for a delimber," says Russell, "and you tell me I'm only going to make $ 10 per hour? There's no incentive. Why wouldn't I want to work at McDonald's for $6 an hour?"

The Maine professional logging contractors group does not endorse the Allagash protest, although they can understand the frustration of local loggers. Yet they feel the protest is misdirected.

"We would not stand at the border at Saint Pamphile," Russell says. "We should go to Washington, DC because really it is the whole issue of free trade. And that's why we are fully supporting the DOL investigation."

Executive director of the Quebec Lumber Manufacturers' Association, Jacques Robitaille, says there has been no sudden exodus of Quebec loggers to Maine. issue between the border mills and the loggers coming from Quebec to work in Maine." Given the high level of forestry activity in eastern Canada, he says there is no reason to seek work elsewhere.

"Right now in Quebec, considering our level of activity, we are in a shortage situation with the workforce," he says. "We are producing at one of the highest levels we've ever been at' " He adds that it is more and more difficult to find people to work in the bush.

"The workforce is getting older and older, and the young people are less interested in that kind of job," he says.

Cheryl Russell says the blockade has had a positive impact with respect to raising an awareness of a problem being felt throughout the industry.

"I think if there is anything beneficial out of this border blockade, it has really made the rest of the industry stand up and pay attention to the fact that there is a lack of skilled loggers," she says. "There is a lack of training."

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