Wisconsin Politics: Collective Bargaining, Forest Certification, Foresters, and Forest Workers

800px-2011_Wisconsin_Budget_Protests_1_JOWisconsin has become a battleground over public employee unions, collective bargaining, and public finances (local coverage). It is also true that other dimensions are purely political: public employees overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates and the Republicans in control see an opportunity for political advantage in the future.

Extension Colleagues Anna Haines and John Duplissis (both UW-Stevens Point) drew my attention to recent comments in the Wisconsin Assembly related to forest certification of state lands. Public lands in Wisconsin (State Forests and County Forests) are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI; associated with PEFC mentioned below), or both (more here). The governor’s proposal would largely curtain collective bargaining rights of public employees.

As reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,

Assembly Democrats said they also were worried the bill could affect the certification of state forests as being managed sustainably, because the groups that certify them require that foresters adhere to international labor standards. Losing the sustainability certification could hurt an important niche market, they said. (emphasis added)

As John noted in an e-mail,

The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC) requires forest certification systems to adhere to International Labour Organization standards. The American Tree Farm System and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative are both certified by PEFC. The Forest Stewardship Council, which is generally seen as the most environmentally friendly or least industry friendly, does require under Principle 4 (Community Relations and Worker’s Rights) that “The rights of workers to organize and voluntarily negotiate with their employers shall be guaranteed as outlined in Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labour Organization.”

I did some digging, mainly as I don’t often think of foresters in the US private sector as members of unions. The International Labour Organization (ILO) refers to forest workers, not foresters–a non-trivial distinction. The only ILO document that I could find that approximates a definition is its “SafeWork” Bookshelf (2006, Chapter 68: Forestry).

Based on my reading, forest workers largely equate in our US context to “loggers” and “tree planters” (see below for an excerpt and link).

Foresters (i.e., those with professional degrees in forestry would not fit the description below) are not in this category, nor is it clear (to me) that “forest technicians” (i.e., those with an associate degrees who might do e.g. forest inventories) would fit the definition either. Nor are either mentioned in the text I skimmed.

Some thoughts…

  • This is not posted as a political statement or to minimize the impact of the proposed changes to collective bargaining. It is meant to clarify a definition and to allow everyone to more clearly evaluate impacts.
  • I do not know if or how many forest workers the DNR or County Forests employs. However, even if the number is small, the issue of collective bargaining will likely arise in subsequent certification audits/reviews.
  • I don’t know if what I found is the only definition that ILO has or applies. Its web presence is flaky.
  • Loggers in our region either purchase standing timber (i.e., stumpage) or provide services under contracts to mills. Tree planting is also contract work.
  • It isn’t clear what such a requirement might mean for forest certification in the state more broadly, particularly since, as John also noted, the PEFC rule are not finalized.

Updated 2011.03.04 — Added photo by Justin Ormont (from WikiMedia)

Below is the most relevant excerpt from ILO SafeWork Bookshelf, Chapter 68: Forestry: General Profile

Characteristics of the Workforce

Industrial forestry work has largely remained a male domain. The proportion of women in the formal workforce rarely exceeds 10%. There are, however, jobs that tend to be predominantly carried out by women, such as planting or tending of young stands and raising seedlings in tree nurseries. In subsistence employment women are a majority in many developing countries, because they are usually responsible for fuelwood gathering.

The largest share of all industrial and subsistence forestry work is related to the harvesting of wood products. Even in human-made forests and plantations, where substantial silvicultural work is required, harvesting accounts for more than 50% of the workdays per hectare. In harvesting in developing countries the ratios of supervisor/technician to foremen and to workers are 1 to 3 and 1 to 40, respectively. The ratio is smaller in most industrialized countries.

Broadly, there are two groups of forestry jobs: those related to silviculture and those related to harvesting. Typical occupations in silviculture include tree planting, fertilization, weed and pest control, and pruning. Tree planting is very seasonal, and in some countries involves a separate group of workers exclusively dedicated to this activity. In harvesting, the most common occupations are chain-saw operation, in tropical forests often with an assistant; choker setters who attach cables to tractors or skylines pulling logs to roadside; helpers who measure, move, load or debranch logs; and machine operators for tractors, loaders, cable cranes, harvesters and logging trucks.

There are major differences between segments of the forestry workforce with respect to the form of employment, which have a direct bearing on their exposure to safety and health hazards. The share of forest workers directly employed by the forest owner or industry has been declining even in those countries where it used to be the rule. More and more work is done through contractors (i.e., relatively small, geographically mobile service firms employed for a particular job). The contractors may be owner-operators (i.e., single-person firms or family businesses) or they have a number of employees. Both the contractors and their employees often have very unstable employment. Under pressure to cut costs in a very competitive market, contractors sometimes resort to illegal practices such as moonlighting and hiring undeclared immigrants. While the move to contracting has in many cases helped to cut costs, to advance mechanization and specialization as well as to adjust the workforce to changing demands, some traditional ailments of the profession have been aggravated through the increased reliance on contract labour. These include accident rates and health complaints, both of which tend to be more frequent among contract labour.

Contract labour has also contributed to further increasing the high rate of turnover in the forestry workforce. Some countries report rates of almost 50% per year for those changing employers and more than 10% per year leaving the forestry sector altogether. This aggravates the skill problem already looming large among much of the forestry workforce. Most skill acquisition is still by experience, usually meaning trial and error. Lack of structured training, and short periods of experience due to high turnover or seasonal work, are major contributing factors to the significant safety and health problems facing the forestry sector (see the article “Skills and training” in this chapter).

The dominant wage system in forestry by far continues to be piece-rates (i.e., remuneration solely based on output). Piece-rates tend to lead to a rapid pace of work and are widely believed to increase the number of accidents. There is, however, no scientific evidence to back this contention. One undisputed side effect is that earnings fall once workers have reached a certain age because their physical abilities decline. In countries where mechanization plays a major role, time-based wages have been on the increase, because the work rhythm is largely determined by the machine. Various bonus wage systems are also in use.

Forestry wages are generally well below the industrial average in the same country. Workers, the self-employed and contractors often try to compensate by working 50 or even 60 hours per week. Such situations increase strain on the body and the risk of accidents because of fatigue.

Organized labour and trade unions are rather rare in the forestry sector. The traditional problems of organizing geographically dispersed, mobile, sometimes seasonal workers have been compounded by the fragmentation of the workforce into small contractor firms. At the same time, the number of workers in categories that are typically unionized, such as those directly employed in larger forest enterprises, is falling steadily. Labour inspectorates attempting to cover the forestry sector are faced with problems similar in nature to those of trade union organizers. As a result there is very little inspection in most countries. In the absence of institutions whose mission is to protect worker rights, forest workers often have little knowledge of their rights, including those laid down in existing safety and health regulations, and experience great difficulties in exercising such rights.

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