FORT KENT, Maine — Taylor Martin is a man caught in a crossfire between two titans.
As Maine officials and Irving Woodlands LLC argue the validity of a state law allowing forest workers collective bargaining options, Martin and hundreds of northern Maine woods workers can only stand by, waiting to see which side blinks first.
“All I know is some kind of red tape is in the way of us working,” Martin said Thursday afternoon during a break from his household chores. “Like everyone else, I’m just wondering when we can go back to work.”
Martin, who operates a skidder for a logging contractor, was told this week that he is out of work indefinitely while Irving and the state iron out their differences.
Last week the J.D. Irving Ltd. subsidiary halted operations on more than 1 million acres it owns in northern Maine, arguing it is the only landowner affected by legislation allowing forest workers to bargain.
Initially, 80 workers were laid off and up to 300 more jobs could be in jeopardy if the law is not repealed, according to the company.
Enacted in 2004, the law was suspended until June 1, 2009, and allows loggers who own and operate their own forest equipment to enter into collective bargaining agreements when one forest landowner owns, possesses or acquires economic control over more than 400,000 acres in a labor market area.
An Irving company spokeswoman said competition on the global market and other economic factors helped push wood prices down by 25 percent.
“The global market is fiercely competitive,” Mary Keith, vice president of communications for the New Brunswick-based company, told the Bangor Daily News last week. “There is a significant cost to managing our operations under this punitive law [and] this continued financial burden is unfair and makes our company un-competitive.”
Local politicians, including Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, a logger who co-sponsored the legislation with Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, doubt the state will back down on the law after several years of suspending enforcement in the face of Irving threats.
Gov. John Baldacci, Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman, Maine Department of Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan and U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud are expected to attend a forum and job fair for loggers today at the University of Maine at Fort Kent focusing on employment and labor issues.
Loggers like Martin, who is no relation to Rep. Martin, should have been going back into the woods to begin the new cutting season June 8.
“I’d just gone into the garage to clean the skidder out and was told we were not going back to work,” Martin said. “They told me they needed to clear some stuff up with the state.”
The 35-year-old father of six operates a skidder for local independent logging contractor Voisine Bros., which declined comment for this story. Martin said he feels bad that his employer is caught up in the political arguments.
Several other contractors and loggers affected by Irving’s work stoppage also declined to comment, pending resolution of the labor issue.
The logging season in northern Maine lasts 10 months, from June to March. During those weeks Martin and his fellow loggers often put in 12-hour days, not counting up to an hour and a half travel time to operations from Allagash to central Aroostook County.
It’s hard work in sometimes extreme conditions.
“We work in all kinds of weather,” Martin said. “Sometimes it’s 30 below [zero] and you’re out there swapping hoses on a piece of machinery and you wonder, ‘What am I doing?’”
For all that, Martin can’t imagine earning a living any other way.
“The people in my family worked in the woods for four generations,” he said. “I love the woods the way a sailor loves the sea.”
At the same time, he recognizes he is part of a dying breed.
“I read not long ago that in 1820 the census showed 80 percent of the people in Maine were involved in logging, commercial fishing or agriculture,” Martin said. “Now that number is less than 1 percent.”
Martin, his wife, Stacey, and their children live off-grid outside of Fort Kent in a house Martin built with lumber he cut himself.
Chickens wander around the yard near a goat tethered in the fresh grass. Nearby, a draft horse grazes in a pasture.
“If we don’t go back to work I’ll cut wood using my horse and do carpentry,” Martin said. “I’ll find a job.”
He hopes it doesn’t come to that, as he knows that also means his employer won’t be working.
“I have a history with the Voisines and they treat us real good,” he said. “If I can’t go back with them, I won’t go back at all.”
Today’s meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Fox Auditorium at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.