'Jobs in the woods' bill gaining momentum

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

It's a "modest" proposal, says Western Council of Industrial Workers assistant director Denny Scott, but it's a step toward realizing a long-time dream: skilled, decent-paying, year-round work for millworkers who lost their livelihoods in the mill closures of the last decade.

The proposal Scott is pushing, part of labor's "Jobs in the Woods" campaign, failed in the Oregon Legislature in 1999 and 2001. This year, it has a good chance of passage, thanks to careful coalition-building before the legislative session began.

House Bill 2683, and identical Senate Bill 441, have the support of labor, environmental groups and the state's largest business lobby, Associated Oregon Industries. A majority of both the House and Senate have signed on as co-sponsors to the bills.

If the proposal passes, state agencies that contract with private companies to do natural resource protection will experiment with a new way of doing business: bundling different kinds of work together to transform what is now low-paid seasonal work into skilled year-round employment.

The governor would appoint a nine-person Oregon Quality Jobs Board to meet with agencies and develop five such "demonstration projects" over the next two years. The state agencies include the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the State Forestry Department, the Division of State Lands, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Water Resources Department, the Natural Resources Division of the State Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation.

Each of these agencies contracts with private companies to do environmental stewardship work like tree planting, brush removal, tree thinning, firefighting and stream restoration. The board would include a representative from each of these state agencies, plus a rural representative, a labor representative, an environmental representative and someone to represent seasonal workers.

An amendment to the House bill added two representatives from business.

"Our hope is that they will show that the work done this way is higher quality and more cost-effective," Scott said. "Then the next step would be to do more contracts that way." The House version, introduced by Representative Steve March of Portland, was approved by the Business, Labor and Consumer Affairs Committee March 31, and referred to the Ways and Means Committee, where it will be measured for fiscal impact.

Scott said the bill should have negligible impact on the state budget since it changes the way agencies do their work, not the amount of work they do.

Senator Ted Ferrioli of John Day introduced the Senate version Feb. 14. It was referred to the Transportation and Economic Development Committee, which has held one hearing.

Charles Spencer, director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program at the University of Oregon's Institute for a Sustainable Environment, estimates there are between 3,400 to 16,000 jobs in the "ecosystem management industry." Currently, most are low-wage seasonal jobs filled by immigrant workers.

"If there are going to be new kinds of jobs in rural areas, let's make sure they're good jobs," Spencer said.

Scott said he would eventually like to see a year-round skilled workforce that could unionize, but his most pressing motivation is just to get some relief to skilled workers in his union who are suffering from mill closures.

Approximately 19,500 jobs have been lost in the last 12 years in Oregon's logging, wood products and paper industries.

April 18, 2003 issue

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