Unions want higher pay on California forestry work. Here’s why rural counties are worried

·6 min read
Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions/ Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions

As California scrambles to reduce wildfire hazards by thinning its overgrown forests, rural government officials and forestry lobbyists are making a last-ditch effort to kill legislation that would mandate hefty pay hikes under the state’s “prevailing wage” laws for the workers wielding chainsaws and heavy equipment in the woods.

Assembly Bill 1717, authored by Yolo County Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, has the support of influential labor unions looking to grow their ranks and get their dues-payers a bigger share of the large amounts of state and federal money that’s going to be spent on forestry projects in the coming years.

The unions usually get their way in a Legislature ruled by Democrats, but opponents of the bill are urging lawmakers to buck unions just this once. They say the bill would put California’s forested communities at risk by jacking up costs, which would dramatically reduce the number of acres that are in desperate need of thinning.

AB 1717 sailed through the Assembly this spring. The legislation could go for a final vote before the California Senate as early as this week.

“If this bill passes, it will necessarily shrink the dollars that are going into the projects,” said Staci Heaton, senior policy advocate for Rural County Representatives of California.

The bill’s chief sponsor, the California-Nevada Conference of Operating Engineers, counters that the higher paychecks will actually accelerate the forest-thinning work because it will bring more workers into the field.

“If you give folks fair pay and stable working conditions, you’ll attract a stable workforce,” said Tim Cremins, political director of the engineers’ group. “There’s going to be an expansion of this type of work, and we think the workers should make a good livable wage.”

The legislation comes as another difficult wildfire season bears down on California in spite of billions of state dollars being spent on firefighting as well as forestry projects designed to tamp down the risks. In late July the McKinney Fire killed four people, including a veteran U.S. Forest Service fire lookout, in the remote Siskiyou County community of Klamath River.

The bill says any government-funded forest-thinning project would be required to pay forestry workers the prevailing wage —comparable to the pay scale that laborers, electricians and others in the construction industry are paid when working on taxpayer-funded roads, bridges or other public works projects in California. State officials set prevailing wage rates for each region typically based on what companies pay members of local trades unions through their collective bargaining agreements.

Prevailing wage is commonplace in big taxpayer-supported projects, such as the construction of Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento in 2016.

Cremins said the bill would exempt projects overseen by nonprofit groups, even if they’re funded with taxpayer dollars.

Steve Wilensky, founder of a Calaveras County nonprofit that oversees forestry thinning projects, understands the tensions behind the bill.

“The people doing this work deserve prevailing wage,” said Wilensky, a former labor organizer. “It’s hard work.”

But Wilensky, whose organization is called Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions, said anything that would reduce the amount of acres thinned would be “catastrophic” for forested communities such as his.

“The fires are devastating,” he said. “And the communities are being ravaged.”

Costs would rise for forest thinning

The exact wages for forest-thinning projects would vary by job description and the local cost of living. The Department of Industrial Relations would set the pay scales.

But it’s clear the pay hikes would be significant. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says logging-equipment operators were paid an average of under $27 an hour in California last year. Cremins said the same equipment operators would earn about $45 an hour on projects covered by prevailing wage rules.

With California’s worsening wildfires burning down entire communities every summer, the state and federal governments have set a combined goal of thinning around 1 million acres of forest each year. To do so, they have each committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to thin trees and brush in the state’s forest to reduce fire danger, particularly around rural, forested communities. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2021 budget alone committed $200 million a year until 2029 from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund for “wildfire mitigation projects.”

But to ensure the work actually gets done, groups such as the Rural County Representatives and the California Forestry Association say the bill needs to die before it gets to Newsom’s desk.

They argue it would cause forest-thinning projects’ costs to rise dramatically and force small, impoverished local governments as well as state agencies such as Cal Fire to scale back much-needed forest thinning projects.

Opponents’ arguments against prevailing wage

Opponents of AB 1717 also fear that work would particularly grind to a halt at small state-funded agencies, such as conservancies and local resource conservation districts, that typically dole out grant funds for local forest-management work.

These small agencies, typically staffed by a handful of people, would have to dip into their limited budgets to train and hire new employees to learn the complexities of the state’s prevailing-wage system, said Matt Dias, the president of California Forestry Association, representing private timberland owners and others in the state’s forest products industry.

“They don’t have the program staff to support it,” he said.

Another concern is that in rural counties, wages are traditionally lower than they are in larger metropolitan areas. As it stands, many local contractors can’t afford to bid on public works jobs that require paying workers prevailing wage, so the work often goes to large corporations from out of the area, said Melinda Barrett, executive director of the Mariposa County Resource Conservation District.

She fears the same thing would happen if local logging or heavy equipment companies were required to pay prevailing wage rates.

“I would love it if our local guys can compete on some of these projects,” said Barrett, whose group runs an organization that coordinates forest-thinning projects around Yosemite National Park.

Should the bill pass both legislative chambers this week, it would go to Newsom for his signature. He’s not indicated whether he’d sign it into law.

His administration has made increasing the pace and scale of forest thinning projects a priority, and if the bill passes, it could force Newsom to make a difficult choice: Risk angering his typical union allies or increase the costs for one of his signature environmental-policy goals.