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Working Unwanted Jobs

— Mike Dawson, Peninsula Daily News 1993, reprinted with permission

Timber: Mexicans work cedar jobs no one else wants.

WorkerLake Ozette — Giant cedar stumps on the North Olympic Peninsula like monuments to the men who felled trees with cross-cut saws many years ago. Those loggers of European descent left springboard notches in the stumps like historical markers of a time when only the best was plucked from the forests. They were followed in the 1970s by the "shake rats" often longhaired, bearded sawyers, who cut the remaining cedar trees into blocks- or bolts- for sale to mills that split them into shakes and shingles.

Today, Mexican immigrants with chain saws carve up what is left- the old stumps and the logs buried under slash. Dario Ruiz, a legal Mexican immigrant, is one Hispanic who has made it in the shake bolt business. Last year he netted $19,000 as an independent cutter, paying $2,000 in federal income taxes. Hi said he like the work because he is outside, in the woods and on his own.

The shake bolt industry is what draws immigrants to the Peninsula. That, and salal picking, where immigrants pick green underbrush and sell it to floral companies, who in turn sell to shops for use in flower arrangements. In both salal and cedar harvest, the immigrants work as independent contractors for whoever buys the permits, immigration officials say.

They like it because they are paid in cash, without having to prove legal status to an employer or the state Department of Labor and Industries. Some say that because immigrants work for less money, they have stolen jobs away from Americans trying to make it in the West End.

Sean McCaffey "years ago when I started in this business it was 100 percent white, redneck-oriented," he said.

Then a few years ago the Mexicans arrived. At first they were tree planters. He resented them, especially when they moved into cedar.

"I started out as an ethnic bigot," he said.

Last summer he worked side-by-side with Ruiz and several other Hispanics near Lake Ozette.

"After a while you get to understanding the entire picture- these people are the future." He said, standing in a patch of second-growth timber dotted with stumps.

"The reason they are doing so great is because they have developed a fine American work ethic- better than most Americans," he said.

The Mexicans generally work salvage sales or old clear-cuts where they have to dig the logs out of the dirt to cut them. The sales are usually on clear-cuts that have been worked over once or twice before, McCaffrey said.

"Gringo cutters" have already cut what they could get on the surface, he said, adding that Mexicans always seem to get a little more.

"There is no limit to what they will do to take every bit of merchantable cedar from a show," he said.

Walter Culbertson of Port Angeles, who came to the Peninsula from the East Coast in the 1970s and became a shake rat, buys such sales. He signs up Mexicans as contractors. They are not stealing jobs from Americans, he said.

"Why do the gringos who have worked with us must leave and go where the wood is better?" he asked. Few Americans will work the salvage sales, he said.

"Actually, I see the Mexicans supporting the mills, because for every Mexican in the woods, that makes a job in the mill," he said.

With cedar becoming more scarce, he said, " All of sudden a mill owner who wouldn’t even talk to a Mexican says, ’Please sell me wood.’"

However, many of the Mexican cutters are not honest, clean-cut woodsmen. Many of the cedar sales are worked by illegal immigrants and some criminals, officials say.

Culbertson said he keeps illegal immigrants and drug dealers off the job because he does not need hassles from police and Border Patrol agents. Nor goes he need any more threats or guns pointed at him by bad elements of the immigrant population.

Most of the bosses who recruit undocumented workers are themselves legal, immigration officials say. Called "patrons" they are middlemen, brokers who buy timber sales and hire illegal immigrants to work them. The same practice is common on salal picking. Their bids often can beat others because their overhead is low. Their workers sleep crammed into camp trailers. They live off beans and tortillas and other inexpensive food. Such outfits include drug dealers or those working off drug debts, officials say. Many of those operations are located in Grays Harbor County.

Ruiz said he has seen drug dealers and various other criminals on shake jobs, but he minds his own business.

"I do my job, and I say nothing," he said.

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