Mainers shouldn’t have to resort to extreme measures to get the attention of elected officials. People in power have a responsibility to listen to constituents and respond to their concerns. This was true when I joined my logging brothers to block the border in 1998, and it’s true now — more than 20 years later.
By the time I was working in the woods, large landowners had already systemically stripped away workers’ rights by making loggers and haulers independent contractors instead of employees. At the time, folks had no idea how it would threaten our livelihoods.
The blockade was the product of generations’ worth of resentment among loggers and haulers, who were just trying to make a living. All we wanted was a chance to provide for our families, doing the work our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did before us. But we didn’t stand a chance in the fight against corporate landowners.
Things came to a head in October 1998, when we blocked the border to protest the illegal hiring of Canadian loggers over hardworking Mainers. Canadian loggers could work for less due to the exchange rate and their national health care system. We couldn’t compete. Landowners pitted workers against each other to grow their profits. They were getting away with breaking the law regarding hiring foreign workers — again. The Canadian government looks out for its citizens; all we wanted was our government to do the same.
Those of us who blocked the border knew the consequences. But we also knew what was at stake. We knew what would likely happen to us because we’d seen it before. Landowners had made examples of every brave worker who had stepped out of line to say what we were all thinking. But I knew that if something didn’t change, I would have to leave the industry forever. I had nothing to lose.
As a young father, I had a family to provide for, and the wages we were paid weren’t cutting it. The landowners were abusing a system designed to support an industry during workforce shortages. But there was no shortage of Mainers looking for work in the woods. The people who were supposed to represent me in Augusta and Washington weren’t doing next to nothing about it. Instead, they were accepting political donations on behalf of those corporate landowners.
I remember the feeling of frustration and anger like it was yesterday. And I’m glad. Remembering that feeling reminds me why I serve in the Senate and what I’m fighting for. The 1998 logging blockade ended with three of us being escorted by police out of the woods and banned from the land. But for me, it was just the beginning.
The fight for fair hiring practices, good wages, safe working conditions and reasonable hours is ongoing. The good news is, we’re finally seeing progress. This year, Maine adopted a law that allows loggers and wood haulers to form a cooperative and collectively bargain.
For next year, I filed legislation to protect Maine wood hauling jobs. My bill penalizes forest landowners who knowingly break the law by giving Maine jobs to Canadians. While I’m in office, I will do everything in my power to bring fairness to the northern Maine woods and protect our proud traditions.
Recently, some people have talked about a rebound in the forest industry. But let’s be clear: Going back to the way things were isn’t enough. Those of us who work in the woods know a true revival is only possible when people give a damn about loggers and haulers, not just wealthy landowners.
This progress has been a long time coming. The loggers and wood haulers who joined me at the border took a huge risk to fight for what’s right. But it did make a difference. It’s what led us to where we are today. It’s what drove me, a fifth-generation logger, to run for office and hopefully become the elected official that we deserved back then.
On the anniversary of the logging blockade, I pay tribute to those who led the fight, remember those who are no longer with us, and recommit to the cause.
Troy Jackson of Allagash is the president of the Maine Senate.