April 14, 2021

Blocking the border

The pick-up trucks are of a later vintage and the tree butts on the stalled logging trucks aren’t what they used to be, but not much else at the blockades along the Maine-Canada border is different from the protests of the 1970s. Then, as now, the issue was whether Maine loggers have a fair chance to compete for jobs with their Canadian counterparts. And then, as now, there was good reason to question whether they do.

Bill Butler of Aurora, a founder of the Maine Woodsmen’s Association and a longtime observer of the logging industry, concludes the reason for the presence of so many woodsmen from across the border is that government programs work. Unfortunately, they are Canadian government programs, which help build and further subsidize sawmills, provide loggers with training, equipment and health care, and generally make doing business with Canadians financially preferable.

These are serious issues, but look at the numbers. Of the 680 logging jobs offered by 40 timber companies in Aroostook County in the past year, 18 have gone to Mainers and 662 have gone to Canadians. The state can draw two conclusions from them: that Mainers don’t want to work for $10 an hour, or that there are significant, but not obvious reasons for Canadians to dominate this job market. Too many Maine people work too hard for less than the $10 rate to settle on the first conclusion.

To consider the second reason, however, is to be frustrated by a lack of information and to understand exactly why the protesters are blocking the roads. Unless they take action this strong, no one gives a damn. Their small communities are nearly invisible from Augusta and their deep-woods jobs make their problems that much more difficult to see, never mind solve. Politicians visiting the sites of protest have merely been able to express concern without suggesting remedies because public officials are not fully aware of the causes behind the hiring disparities that have lasted generations.

Some of the problem cannot be solved easily. Canadian loggers often live closer to work sites here than the Maine loggers do. Universal health care for Maine is several years off. But there is still much the state can do, and the Department of Labor seems sincere in its commitment this week to investigate the issue. The fact that the state does not know much about the situation, however, suggests how low a priority the hiring practices have been despite their persistence.

Meanwhile, Canadian workers keep coming in and Maine logs keep going out. It’s not clear how long the loggers will continue their blockade, but they must suspect that their issues will drop from public view as soon as they reopen the roads. History says they are right.

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