Oregon Politicians Offer False Hope to Timber Workers


Workers in declining industries fed false hopes



By Ernie Niemi

For The Register-Guard

DEC 5, 2017 

Try this thought experiment: Imagine you’re a laid-off Pennsylvania coal miner and have an opportunity to obtain retraining for jobs in another industry. Would you take it? Or would you reject it and wait for coal jobs to reappear?

Before deciding, weigh the pros and cons. Waiting makes sense if you believe industry leaders, President Trump and others who promise to make coal great again.

Retraining makes sense if you believe the promise is a false hope, because coal production will plummet as electricity from solar, wind, and other energy sources become cheaper than coal-fired electricity.

Many coal miners today reject retraining, because they believe those who say coal soon will again be what it once was.

This behavior should come as no surprise. For decades, we’ve seen something similar from timber workers who believed false hope manipulated by industry leaders and politicians.

I have some insights into this history. I was in the room when a strategy to deceive workers was hatched, and I later interviewed many workers that it punished.

In 1975-76, I worked in Roseburg as an economic consultant to the Douglas County commissioners. Loggers were clearcutting like crazy. Amid the frenzy, though, Oregon State University researchers showed that, by the 1990s, federal forestlands in western Oregon would run out of trees to cut.

I presented the report’s findings to a meeting of the commissioners and mill owners. When I finished, the commissioners began talking about how to let workers know, so they could get retraining for jobs in other industries and not be left dangling when the logs ran out.

A mill owner stopped them in their tracks. If the word got out, he warned, the mills’ best workers would leave for new jobs, and the supply of incoming workers from the county’s high schools would dry up. If workers did not remain tethered to the industry, labor costs would rise and profits would fall.

A campaign of misinformation spread across western Oregon. It diverted attention from the real reason for dwindling log supplies and mill layoffs by pointing fingers at owls and environmentalists. It encouraged laid-off workers not to take jobs elsewhere, promising the jobs would come back. Many timber workers believed those promises.

Logging on most federal lands ceased in the 1990s, as predicted. The immediate cause was a judge’s order to protect owls and other species, but if the judge had ruled differently, logging would have slumped anyway.

I interviewed many millworkers after the judge’s ruling. Those from Oakridge were particularly memorable because they described how they had waited for timber jobs to return, believing the promises, until they finally sought retraining at Lane Community College. Some found new jobs, but others, especially older workers, did not. Opportunities for new jobs had passed them by while they waited with false hope.

New false promises have replaced the old ones, as President Trump promises to vanquish Canada with sharp restrictions on imported Canadian lumber. Industry leaders say the restrictions are needed because Canada provides huge subsidies that enable the sale of low-priced lumber into U.S. markets, depressing profits for local mills and forcing them to lay off workers.

Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio have linked arms with Trump. Wyden says the Canadians have “flagrantly” subsidized lumber so they can “steal our markets.” DeFazio says Canada’s “illegal subsidies” are “devastating” the local timber industry and “killing American jobs,” because they “steal customers,” and that restricting imports will “promote good manufacturing jobs for Americans ... and economic growth.”

Any workers expecting such rhetoric to generate jobs will probably be disappointed, like their elders in Oregon and their counterparts in Pennsylvania. Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis predicts that the promised restrictions on Canadian lumber imports likely would have only “smallish” impacts on jobs and economic activity.

There’s a good chance there will be no impacts at all. The current attack on Canada resembles one launched a decade ago, which ran into trouble when the U.S. Department of Commerce and an international tribunal concluded that Canadian subsidies were tiny.

In other words, Trump, Wyden, and DeFazio probably offer only false hope for workers in Oregon waiting to see significant increases in timber jobs.

The take-away from all this is that, when changes in the world threaten their livelihoods, many people look to their trusted leaders for guidance.

This trust endows the leaders with tremendous influence over the future for real workers. They can use it to help workers or harm them. Now as in the past, here as in Pennsylvania, too many leaders are choosing the latter.

Workers deserve better.

Ernie Niemi is president of Natural Resource Economics in Eugene.

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