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This Day in Labor History: February 11, 1978

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On February 11, 1978, Gail Slentz and her fellow reforestation workers in the cooperative called Hoedads went to plant Douglas fir seedlings on a mountainside near southwestern Oregon’s Umpqua River. After four hours of work, Slentz experienced dizziness and quit for the day. The next day, she suffered mid-cycle menstrual bleeding that continued for several hours. The following day, her gums were raw and swollen. She spat out two mouthfuls of blood after brushing her teeth, felt feverish and tired, and began passing blood clots through her urine. Slentz went to the emergency room of a Eugene hospital, where she tested positive for Silvex exposure. Silvex, also known as 2,4,5-TP, was a herbicide frequently used by federal and state forestry agencies to clear red alder and brush before replanting Douglas fir. 2,4,5-TP contained dioxin, the major chemical compound in Agent Orange. Tests on her coworkers showed fourteen experienced signs of herbicide poisoning. Slentz wondered while testifying before the Oregon state legislature about her experience, “how long will these chemicals be stored in my fatty tissue and what will the long term effects of their presence be on my health; or if I ever want to have children?”

Slentz’s experience was common for Northwest reforestation workers. Toxic exposure was pronounced among tree planters. The timber industry and federal government embraced the rapid growth of chemical warfare against insects and plant pests after World War II. Widespread chemical spraying exposed thousands of workers to poisons. Reforestation workers were on the front lines, the first to labor on a chemically treated plot of land. The least organized and most exploited workers in the timber industry, most tree planters had little recourse to fight toxic exposure. But Slentz and her fellow Hoedads were a different kind of reforestation worker. Armed with education and access to the political system, they fought back.

In December 1969, two friends, Jerry Rust, a Peace Corps veteran recently returned from India and John Sundquist, a recent graduate of the University of Oregon, worked on a reforestation job. They learned that forestry agencies contracted out reforestation jobs through small contracts of short duration. Sealed bidding on a fixed price contract under lowest bid rules opened the process to anyone who could win and then place a bond on the contract. In 1970, Rust, Sundquist, and a few friends won a Bureau of Land Management contract for a parcel near Coos Bay. They barely survived the cold, rain, hard work, and low wages from that first job, but survived they did. They received additional contracts through 1971 and the group began to grow. Naming themselves Triads and then Hoedads, a rephrasing of the hoedag tool used for tree planting, the group attracted members of the area’s thriving counterculture.

Hoedads embraced feminism, bringing women into a timber industry long dominated by men. Despite the often patriarchal and sexist nature of the counterculture, women’s labor played a central role in hippies’ economic survival, whether through collecting food stamps for their children, cooking, or selling bead work. By the 1970s, a growing feminist consciousness and political women’s movement empowered many countercultural women to demand equality with men in household labor, the bedroom, and in labor. The first female Hoedad was Molly Scott, who originally signed on as the camp cook before realizing she could make more money planting trees. By 1974, 25 percent of Hoedads were women. Women formed an all-female crew called Cheap Thrills in 1977 to force both male reforestation workers and the government officials they dealt with “to relate to us as workers, not mascots.” Other crews remained gender-mixed while women pressured men to embrace feminism. In January 1978, the Potluck crew resolved to “actively look for wimmin planters” in order to keep a gender balance and to promote women to become the crew’s representatives in dealing with the Forest Service. By 1982, Hoedads called opening the reforestation industry to women its “proudest achievement in social change.”

Hoedads defined itself as the future of forest work. The 1970s saw rapidly declining employment in Northwestern timber industry in the wake of automation, log exports to Japan, and disappearing stands of old-growth timber. In 1978, the timber industry employed 136,000 people in Oregon and Washington. Four years later, that number declined to 95,000. Surviving mills made capital investments to increase efficiency. Weyerhaeuser invested $400 million to modernize its mills in Everett and reduced its work force from 900 to 500. Meanwhile, the emergence of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea as economic powerhouses opened new markets for Northwest timber. Rather than process that wood in American mills, companies found it more profitable to ship it unprocessed to Asia. By 1970, over 2.5 billion board feet of timber was exported from west coast ports, a number up 16.6 percent from the previous year. 96.2 percent of that timber went to Japan.

Given the transitioning timber industry, Hoedads believed future forest labor would rehabilitate rather than harvest the resource. Greg Nagle coordinated Hoedad research on forest issues. Citing a 1976 Oregon State University report projecting a 22 percent drop in timber production by 2000, Nagle called logging “as it exists now a dead-end and unless people find ways to diversify the wood products industry…this is area is going to go belly-up economically in a short time.” Noting the industry’s rapid employment decline, Edd Wemple told the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group that Hoedads promoted “a labor-intensive management of public and private lands” which “would do a lot to eliminate the coming timber gap.” Cooperatives would eliminate exploitative contractors and “people doing poor quality work.” Wemple called for state and federal legislation to stabilize communities through labor-heavy forestry projects like selective logging and reforestation, while forcing companies to announce plant closings at least six months before closure.

While Hoedads had gained a significant understanding of the work policies of reforestation, it began paying attention to the industrial aspects of modern forestry when forest policy poisoned its members. Their vision of independent collective work in the forests was shattered by the experience of herbicide poisoning. The timber industry used phenoxy herbicides primarily to control red alder growth. Red alder replaces Douglas fir after clearcutting, creating a cycle of succession that chokes out fir and benefits hemlock, another tree with little commercial value. The USFS used aerial spraying to control the alder. Within months of a spraying, workers would be on the slopes replanting.

The Federal Pest Control Act of 1947 charged the government to protect forests from undesirable insects and diseases. Between 1949 and 1955, USFS planes sprayed DDT over 3.84 million acres of forest with the Bureau of Land Management and state forests spraying millions of additional acres. In 1974, the EPA made an exception to the nation’s 1972 ban on DDT to fight a tussock moth outbreak in eastern Oregon and Washington because it was the only known insecticide to eradicate the moths. DDT was only one of many chemicals used to eliminate competition for Douglas fir and other marketable evergreens, developed and applied with little to no research as to their effects upon forest workers.

In February 1978, the Potluck crew won a contract to replant BLM lands in the Smith Umpqua Resource Area of southwestern Oregon. One unit was sprayed with defoliants in 1975. In March 1977, it received another spraying of Silvex, followed by a spraying of Krenite that August, both dioxin-based chemicals. Hoedads had a pamphlet from DuPont, which manufactured Krenite, recommending users not mix the chemical with other pesticides. This made workers concerned about a forest so recently doused with heavy herbicide doses. Two Hoedads met with a BLM official to inquire about ask whether that unit could be deleted from their contract. They described the meeting as “not productive.” They then called DuPont and asked about risks to their health but the company did not know since it had never tested the effects of Krenite in conjunction with other chemicals.

Hoedads decided to send in extra crews to finish the job quickly. Gail Slentz and many of her coworkers would soon regret this decision, as this was what that made them ill. Slentz went to the emergency room in Eugene where she tested positive for Silvex. A second test confirmed the herbicide still in her body fifty days after exposure. A survey of seventeen workers found that nine reporting tasting chemicals, six had headaches, four nausea, and three had early bleeding in their menstrual cycles. After this incident, Hoedads began articulating a series of demands for reforestation worker safety from pesticides. They wanted more research into the effect of herbicides on workers, re-entry guidelines for exposed workers, and adequate monitoring of exposure. Effectively, they demanded the government take responsibility for the health of reforestation workers.

From almost their first contract, Hoedads had suffered from chemical exposure. In January 1973, Hoedads started replanting on their first big federal job, near the North Umpqua River. Jerry Rust remembered, “There was this junk called Thiram on the trees. Bruce vomited one night just from a bottle of beer. We think it had to do with the Thiram. It was a bad trip.” Tetramethylthiuram disulfide, or thiram, stopped rodents from eating newly planted seedlings. It shared chemical properties with Antabuse, a drug given to alcoholics that makes them sick upon a single taste of alcohol. Joe Earp worked on the Roseburg job for three weeks before attending a wedding. Upon his first sip of wine, he suffered an excruciating headache, which helped him make connections between the chemical and the illnesses so many Hoedads were suffering. Earp became a leader in the Hoedads’ first political action, fighting the use of thiram.

The timber industry bemoaned thiram’s decline. Smith warned that rodent damage to seedling would rise because new seedlings had not had a thiram treatment. But for Hoedads, rodents brought the forest one step closer to ecological health. Hoedads took credit for the chemical’s decline. One wrote of his surprise when he realized that some new workers in the coop had never planted a tree treated with thiram, “largely due to the efforts of Joe Earp and David Straton, supported by Hoedads.” Many planters turned to biodegradable tubing to protect seedlings. For the cooperatives, the tubing demonstrated how the use of appropriate technology through worker activism could transform industrial forestry into something more ecologically sustainable.

Hoedads saw the thiram victory as a model to apply to the herbicide battle. Workers were exposed, learned about the powder, and started a process where after years of testing and political fighting, the industry began to abandon thiram. Having to restart this process against 2,4,5-T and other herbicides, Gerry Mackie was “quite skeptical” about industry-based scientists who claimed workers were safe and urged workers to develop their own scientific knowledge. Instead, workers needed to “make a conscious practice of observing changes to their health,” according to Marla Gilham, a leader in the Hoedads’ Herbicide Committee, in order to empower themselves to understand the effects of working on their own bodies. Gilham urged crews to interrogate their forestry agency supervisors and find out the spraying history of a given unit, study description sheets of the various pesticides, and make choices on whether to drink water or collect edible wild plants depending on the that history. If workers became sick, she suggested walking off the job, documenting the symptoms, attempting to discover probable cause for the exposure, and drawing blood immediately for scientific testing.

Hoedads positioned itself in this fight as representing not only its members, but also reforestation workers without access to the political system. Hoedads admitted their own privilege as middle-class whites with access to the needed knowledge to fight against chemicals. Hoedads realized that nearby the unit where Slentz became ill, “a contractor whose crews were arrested a couple of times this winter because they were illegal aliens” won a large contract. “A worker with illegal status is unlikely to mention unusual health effects,” noted the Hoedads. The fight was also to keep the forest ecosystem healthy, of which reforestation workers were just a small and transient part. Marla Gilham wrote, “I look around at the death produced by herbicides…cancer rates in humans and other animals, the pollution of the air and water and land and space, that we’re getting pretty damn close to the point of no reversing.”

The United States’ most famous usage of these chemicals framed how Hoedads and other anti-pesticide groups springing up across the country fought against them. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military had relied heavily on Agent Orange, a 50:50 mix of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The massive damage inflicted upon Vietnamese forests and people led many scientists and citizens to begin a campaign against the “ecocide” committed by the United States and galvanized international opposition to U.S. efforts. Exposure to the same chemicals outraged reforestation workers who had come to the forest in part to escape from a society that would commit such acts. A Hoedad named Wolfgang wrote to Together on how the herbicide industry “put their mark on the soil of the earth, not only in the forests” but “in southeast Asia in the form of Agent Orange. The dirty dogs.” Implicitly comparing the Hoedads to Vietnamese freedom fighters, Wolfgang went on: “the forests and jungles notoriously been the home of dissidents, revolutionists, and outcasts of society. Herbicide poisoning may be an effective means of keeping these segments of society unhealthy.”

Hoedads’ Herbicide Study Committee took the lead within the group on researching herbicides. It worked up an economic assessment of 2,4,5-T, designed an experiment to test the timing of brushing on growth and resprouting, and measured the effect of spraying on replanting sites. In the summer of 1978, it undertook the Groundwork Lowell Project, a research effort on the efficacy of spraying, gathering information on spraying in the Lowell Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest. It compared sprayed to unsprayed acres on a parcel that had previously gone a decade without herbicide treatment, demonstrating that the brush herbicides targeted did not interfere with proper growth as “most of the crop trees are quite healthy…and the presence of brush doesn’t constitute a problem necessarily.” Actual spraying was haphazard, with evidence suggesting areas near helicopter launching points receiving the vast bulk of herbicides. Finally, it found that areas receiving herbicide treatment had significantly less Douglas fir growth in the following year. Noting the disparities between their report and the Forest Service judgment of its own brush problem, the Herbicide Committee concluded, “it calls into question the whole array of confident statistics which are the very underpinnings of justification for aerial herbicide use.”

In response, Hoedads called for the manual trimming of brush, which would reduce toxicity and increase jobs. They began showing up at forestry conferences, challenging the timber industry and politicians directly, and forcing a government response. By 1980, the Bureau of Land Management was giving Hoedads tours of the forest to help understand the problem, which did complicate the narrative that the government was the bad guy. Hoedads ultimately fell apart in the early 1980s for a variety of reasons. Their success led for their competitors to push for bills that would require Hoedads pay each worker a minimum wage, and to be fair, they had been underbidding based around this. This forced them into a significant legislative and lobbying presence to make their case. They also then turned against the undocumented immigrants that made up much of their competition and which eventually overwhelmed them. While they initially tried to reach out to the Mexican community in the forest, they later called for deportations, an unfortunate transition to say the least. They briefly flirted with joining the International Woodworkers of America, the more progressive of the two timber worker unions, but unionization was anathema to a bunch of independent hippies who thought of themselves as escaping the capitalist system by entering the forests. By the mid 1980s, the group had disappeared, yet they had made a significant contribution to pesticide politics and forest management during a time of rapid transition in the Northwest.

The most prominent of the Hoedads was Gerry Mackie, who became a fairly famous political scientist whose master’s thesis was on the difficulties of horizontal structures in political organizations, based on his experience in Hoedads, where a new kid had equal power over the organization as those who had been around for years and actually knew what they were doing. Alas, these lessons would have to be learned repeatedly by left-leaning organizations over the decades, most especially during Occupy Wall Street, which has mercifully decreased the horizontal emphasis in the aftermath.

This post is taken from Chapter 5 of my book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests. Forgive the length; it’s always harder for an author to summarize their own material than that of others. Plus I have so many good stories.

This is the 299th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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