Do treeplanters suffer from Stockholm syndrome?
A portrait of the industry of treeplanting
While it used to be a dignified and respectable way to earn your life, treeplanting is now nothing but a way to live counter-culture for wanderers and students who seek an alternative to the minimum wage. Nowadays, the possibility of escaping the threshold of poverty is only attainable for the best of us, who endure a very long season from west to east of the country. There is no mistaken it, wages have not risen for a long time. When we ask why, we are always met with the same answer: there is not enough money, or we are told to shut up.
The ultra-competitive practices of the industry are to blame. For all these years, companies have ferociously maintained their market share, at the expense of our wages. They often leave thousands of dollars to win their submission. This represents the amount of money that separates the lowest submission of their closest competitor. And if the other companies that pay up to the standard of the industry find themselves incapable of offering lower costs, then where did they cut? In our safety? In our kitchen budget? In our wages?
In all of this, we don’t have a word to say. Of course we musn’t voice our opinions on the practices of the industry or on those of our company. Production must continue, but production for whom? “If you’re not happy, find yourself another job”… A reality that manifests itself through the figure of the foreman, who systematically demands job candidates with a “good attitude”.
The bosses really don’t want to hear us complaining about our extraordinarily low wages for an extraordinarily difficult job. They don’t want to hear our complaints, but they do nothing for us. And will do nothing! And yet, who will pay the price of their irresponsibility and their endless greed? It’s us, because our wages are their biggest exploitation cost. Lower wages mean more contracts and more money for them. Although, more insecurity for us; more injuries because we always feel the pressure to out-perform if we want to be able to pay our rent, our food, our tuition, our leisure… Whose prices keep climbing year after year! But it doesn’t stop there. They sometimes “forget” to include our transportation hours in our total working time, intimidate us when we want to get our WCB (CSST), make us work for free when it’s time to dismantle and reassemble the camp, abandon the maintenance of the showers, provide insufficient funds for food… On top of all this, we also have to pay 25$ to shit in the shitters that we dug ourselves.
But we are also to blame. Because, with each passing day, we continue to dance without ever setting our foot down. We prefer to stay silent as we watch our comrades plant trees with tendinitis in their wrist. Sometimes, at the point where it’s in both wrists. We don’t want to see them as our reflection, but rather as competitors. When someone is forced to work with an injury, because they are intimidated or because they are denied any form of compensation, it’s all of us who pay the price. Have you ever gotten through a season without at least one case of tendinitis in your camp? It will be your turn soon and you most likely won’t have access to any aid or compensation. If it hasn’t already been the case. It is the most frequent injury, but there are also infections due to the showers not being functional. There’s the lumbar sprains and the sprained ankle. Finally, when it is time to take a bow and retire, there’s the chronic tendinitis and the damaged knee. Sometimes even, it’s a case of pneumonia that spreads, or who knows what kind of viruses and food poisoning. That’s without mentioning the harassment and the assaults, done by the bosses as well as amongst ourselves, of which we never talk about but that nevertheless happen every summer.
In spite of all that, we are not even content with merely observing our collective agony with indifference. We have completely assimilated our bosses’ line of thought, convincing us to always work harder. We compete with each other. We put pressure on each other. No more need for policing on the camp, we are our own police. This reality finds itself best represented through the emblematic figure of the highballer. The one who attains the highest degree of accomplishment in social scale of treeplanting. Sometimes, legends even form around these figures. And yet, the value of these people is only measured through their production, never through their individuality. Antagonistically towards ourselves, we only perceive ourselves through the prism of productivity. Such a reality can only favor our bosses.
All this, and we have nor problem drinking with our bosses. We assure them they are our friends. That the experience of treeplanting would not be the same without them. Indeed, it would be far better! I cannot help but feel the bitterness of it all… friends? How can we reconcile friendship and abuse, unless we have no respect for ourselves? We who share the same conditions, the same problems. Our bosses are hypocrites. The love-hate relationship that we develop towards our job, it isn’t hard to understand. We love the camp life, the unforgettable evenings, the friendships we nurture, the stars in the sky, the afternoons by the beach… We hate the unpaid labor, the insults, the injuries, the psychological problems, the pressure, the days and the weeks without ends… It is not them that make the seasons unforgettable, but us. How many of you have already daydreamed, for hours, a thousand and one ways to torture your foreman? They do nothing but force us to experience pain and indignity. Experiences that help us workers bond, but that aren’t a pleasure by any measure.
Foremen are not our allies. They are agents at the service of the companies. The wage system based on the treeplanters’ production and the necessity of meeting production quotas only act as an incentive for our exploitation. The widespread myth that the foremen take better care of us when they are paid more is one that is constantly repeated to us. But, is it really how that works? The unfair distribution of lands, the abusive warnings when production is too low, the pressure to go beyond our mental and physical limits, all seem to indicate the contrary. If it isn’t a downright botched job, while we work to pay their salaries. Let’s not forget that the foremen don’t work for us, but it is us who work them.
We must stop complaining all on our own. That only serves to comfort each other as we constantly descend further into hell.
The two solutions most often mentioned will lead us nowhere. The first would have the companies meet at a negotiation table to agree to a minimal price for the industry, under which they would not compete with each other. In that case, we might as well do nothing and wait for money to grow on our trees. The other solution would be to form a cooperative. With this model, we would effectively have control over our working conditions, but we would still have to submit to the law of the market. The cost of the tree would have to remain competitive in order to have contracts. These cooperatives would remain very small since they could not carve a bigger spot in the market. What would become then of the vast majority of the workers, still trapped in the rookie mills?
Organization is key
There is only one solution: solidarity unionism. The only way to improve our working conditions is to shape the balance of power in our favor. To do this, we have to stand in solidarity in the face of exploitation. The major objection to signing on with a union is that they do not understand the reality of our work and our needs. We would only be paying dues to a union that doesn’t really represent us. Our relationship with unionism has been corrupted by the trade unions that today seem to be more of a weapon for the owning class than a weapon for the working class. And yet, unionism is a way of struggling for better. A struggle that can be horizontal and with no other representation than ourselves. We can lead this fight and make gains that we will collectively choose: the IWW is the union for that. Workers that have chosen to join forces, no matter their trade, to organize their workplace with union model that would not escape their control. We will be the union, and no one else.
Our insecurity grows each year, we have to act now! This text will not invoke unanimous approval, like all the posts on the group King Kong Re-forestation that denounce our working conditions. Some would like to regurgitate their cult of the highballer. But isn’t that the sign of a deep discomfort and uneasiness? Let’s join forces now to organize our fight back! Those of you who wish to organize, contact us!
Cover photo credit: http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/into-the-wild/
Source image 1 : http://www.replant.ca/phpBB3/viewtopic.phpf=27&t=66036&p=86600&hilit=graphic#p86600
Source image 2 : http://www.replant.ca/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=27&t=66856