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Cedar Block Cutters and the Cedar Shingle Mill

Slideshow image Use the slideshow controls for a tour of images by Documentary photographer Stephen Voss. To view descriptions and larger versions of each image click on the image.


Alfredo is originally from Mexico and has lived in Forks since 1979. Below are excerpts from an interview in Spring 2005.

alfredoI arrived to Forks in 1979. I came here with my father, who had been working in Aberdeen. We first lived in the woods near the Bogachiel River. It was November and we were living under a tarp in the woods. The sleeping bags would turn into ice and we had to make a fire to make coffee. We were living only a few hundred feet from where we were cutting cedar. After working for a little while, I bought a 16ft trailer and then later moved into Forks.

The work at this time was very good. Wherever you would look, there would be land to cut cedar on. There were many mills. On the main street here, every five minutes shingle trucks would pass by. But now, you barely see any. There were more mills then, maybe 20. Everyone was working near town in the woods cutting cedar into blocks for cedar shingles.

We cut cedar from the stumps that are left over after they log the trees. Before, there was wood everywhere. There was 98% more work then, than there is now. It was just working with the chainsaw cutting and cutting for hours until the gas ran out. But now there is less cedar. You have to dig under the earth to get out the best wood. In the 80's, it was not like this. There are less areas to cut wood. We have to travel all the way to Amanda Park, 1 ½ hours away to cut wood. The wood now is not as good as it used to be.

Thrifty MartWhen I first moved to Forks, there were maybe 3 or 4 Mexicans here. When we would go the grocery store, they didn't have tortillas or jalapeño chiles. We would have to ask the manager to order them and we would pick them up on a certain day. In the mid 80's, more people started to move here until now it is like Mexico the second here.

Before I moved to the United States, I was really young. I wanted to have a good job and a nice truck. We were poor in Mexico. I thought in the U.S., things would be easier. There would be money, work, hot water, meat. Everyone said the good things, but not the bad things, that here you have to work very hard, that there are people living on the streets, and that people suffer. It is difficult here. The work is not as easy as people said. Where I work, I have to work like an animal from day to night. In Mexico, we didn't have to pay for rent, electricity, or water. Then some people move here and cry, because they have to pay for everything. They don't think about how you have to pay for everything. So maybe they move back to Mexico because they know how to survive there.

In general, I like living in Forks. I have lived most of my life here. I have raised my family here. If I moved back to Mexico, I would miss Forks a lot. But what can I do? There is little work here anymore.

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Javier is originally from Mexico and has lived in Forks since 1996. Below are excerpts from an interview in Spring 2005.

Javier I moved here because my father was working here. He said that I could earn more money here than I was making work in Los Angeles, CA. Even though the work was harder, I could make more money here. I moved here and started to make 50 dollars a day, when I didn't even know the work, until I knew the job and made 100 dollars a day.

I left Mexico to come to the United States because I had heard that you earn a lot of money, there is a lot of work, that you live well here, it's easy and you could buy everything you wanted, but in reality that is not how it is. In Mexico, I could work and make very little money. If I wanted a car, I could work but never make enough money to buy one. Here I could work and make more money and buy my car. Here I am! I moved to Forks because I wanted to have a good job to take care of family and to earn enough money to have food, a house, and car for my family. It is like what I expected because there is work here. But it is very hard work, I like the work, but it is hard.

I work cutting wood, cutting cedar for shingles for the roofs of houses. It is hard work, cutting wood in the forest. Then we tie the squares of blocks with rope and helicopters fly them out of the woods. It is hard and can be dangerous when they fly it out or if there is an accident in the woods with the chainsaws. Or for the people who work in the mills and can cut themselves on the saws. So that's it. We cut the wood in the forest, it gets flown out by helicopter, we load it onto the trucks and then it gets cut into shingles at the mill. That is the process. Sometimes there is wood and sometimes there isn't. Sometimes it is easy, other times you have to dig deep and look hard to find the wood. We work in the woods where the cedar is on the ground. It is where they logged the trees many years ago. We are cutting from the stumps and the parts of the trees that they didn't take. We use this wood to cut blocks of 16, 18, and 24 inches long.

They pay us by the quantity that we cut. Before, they would pay us about 200 dollars per box of blocks. But now, they want to pay 130 to 150 dollars for the same amount of wood. The people who pay for the areas we cut on say that they are charging more to use the areas that we work in. But now gas is more expensive, everything is more expensive, so things are getting harder because they are paying less. The areas now, also, have less wood. You have to work really hard to find wood that can be cut into blocks. It is difficult to get enough wood sometimes to fill a box. Before, there was more land and fewer workers, so we were paid more. There was more cedar out there to cut. Now things are a lot more expensive. I remember the cost of a chainsaw 5 years ago was 7 or 8 hundred dollars. Now it costs 1100 dollars. The cost of gas, you know, is very expensive. Chains used to cost 18 dollars, now they are 30.

I think the future of the industry depends on government control to help stop the exploiting of the workers. I think that the state could find a way so that they don't exploit the workers. Because, how is it possible that before when things were worth less, we were paid more money? Now that things are worth more, we are paid less. It doesn't make any sense. I don't understand how it is possible how if before a box of wood was worth less, why are they paying us less now? Many people say, well then don't work. But this is not a solution because I need to work. It's something that I would love for someone to explain to me, because I don't know a lot about the mill owners' expenses. But I do know that I am getting paid less for the same work.

This is what a lot of people say that the workers, we should get together and say this is the minimum that we will work for. Because the mill owners will say, if you don't want to work, this other guy will. There are more people moving here all the time. Even though the work may not be done as well, they will pay someone less if they can. I think the best form that we have is to organize. But there are only a few of us who feel strongly about this. We are the oldest of the workers. We have been doing this for a long time.

As well, we don't know if we have medical insurance. Fortunately, nothing has happened to me. But accidents have happened. We as workers need to know our rights. I think it is important that the block cutters organize and we get a set price for the work we do and that we receive medical insurance. It is also important that the companies educate us about our rights and our obligations. Because they call us block cutters, but we don't know a lot about our jobs. It is not just going to the woods and cutting cedar. Because each piece of land has certain regulations about how and where you can cut.

From what I can see, I am going to have to leave this work in 5 or 6 years. It is difficult to do this work when you are old. I want to learn how to do another job or I'll have to move back to Mexico. I would love to spend my older years in the place I grew up. I wouldn't need as much money as I need here to survive.

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