Retired Mill Worker Keeps Battling for Industry

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Activist Recognized: Retired Mill Worker Keeps Battling for Industry

Jerry Klemm is the kind of guy you would like to take on a fishing trip. He appreciates the ironies of life. He knows how to laugh at himself as well as at others who take themselves too seriously. He knows how to tell a joke.

When you meet him, you would never guess that you just shook hands with one of the key activists in the forest products industry unless someone told you. Jerry stays eye-deep in the controversial issues that make the industry one of today’s gritty political battlefields. He deals with today’s hot-button issues, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to regulate forestry, declining salmon runs in the Snake and Columbia rivers and breaching of hydro-electric dams along the waterways, timber harvesting, and the labor issues vital to pulp and paper mill workers.

Not bad for a guy who claims to be retired. Jerry spent 40 years with Potlatch Corporation in his native Lewiston, Idaho. His official retirement date was Oct. 1, 1999, but he keeps hammering on issues that are vital to the industry. His dedication was recognized earlier this year when Jerry was awarded the Forest Resources Association National Forestry Activist Award.

Jerry is a nonpaid consultant for the Pulp and Paper Resources Council (PPRC). To understand why he fights for jobs in the pulp and paper and wood products sector, you have to know about his union involvement. The Potlatch plant in Lewiston was organized in 1951, nine years before Jerry began working. He served as president of the local for 13 years and spent 20 years on the negotiating committee. Jerry also served several years on the executive board of the Idaho State AFL-CIO.

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Environmentalists using federal programs to ‘cleanse’ rural America and to close down industries that use natural resources have made enemies with owners and management of forest products businesses. But they also have threatened the jobs of pulp and paperworkers and others who usually vote Democratic because of their ties to organized labor, so the environmentalists have become the adversary of blue-collar workers holding down jobs to take care of families.

Lewiston, with a population of 30,000, is one of those Western communities that depends on natural resources for its economic survival. And Jerry and Lewiston share the same struggles and many of the same adversaries.

Potlatch had net sales in 1999 of $1.6 billion, making it a relatively small company in the U.S. forest products industry. It owns 1.5 million acres of timberland. In Idaho, it plants more than 3 million trees annually. Potlatch has 6,500 employees, including 3,000 in Idaho and 2,000 in Lewiston.

Judging from Jerry’s family tree, it seems that if your name is Klemm and you’re from Lewiston, you are a proud member of the Potlatch labor force. Jerry’s grandfather helped build the Lewiston Potlatch mill in 1926 and then worked in the mill. Jerry’s father was a trimmerman. Several other family members, including siblings, in-laws and children, depend on the mill for jobs. Jerry’s father-in-law, known as ‘Lewiston Shorty,’ was a logger and also was active in the labor movement. “I have photos of him standing by his draft horses used then to pull timber out of the woods,” said Jerry. “They’re a lot taller than he is.”

Jerry compared the economic effect of jobs in the forest products industry to the image of a rock tossed into a pond. “The ripple effect of labor on other jobs is three to one, sometimes four to one.” It’s not just Lewiston or the Idaho panhandle that feels the economic ripples from the pulp and paper industry. “This is why we have an impact,” he said. “If a politician can’t do anything else, at least he can count. Nationwide there are more than 400,000 pulp and paper workers, and we care about the issue our jobs depend on.”

As an organizer, Jerry and his labor compatriots face unusual challenges. The pulp and paper workers are not pleased with the national political prospects. From their perspective, Al Gore is bad on environmental issues and George Bush is bad on labor issues. Which candidate should they support?

Jerry speaks his mind when he talks to Democrats. “They’re leaving us to the wolves. They’re forcing us to look for relief in the Republican camp. Forget about Gore, I tell them. Represent the people you associate with.” Many Americans now vote on issues, not party affiliation, and Jerry puts himself in that number.

Perhaps the best example of Jerry’s unique contribution to the forest products industry was the founding of the PPRC a few years ago. This is where Jerry’s mix of good personal skills and his credibility with both union members and management shines through. He helped to found the PPRC in 1991. “Some of it’s organized, some of it’s not,” Jerry explained. “A bunch of us got together and decided it was time for labor to step up to the plate on environmental issues where we were getting screwed and losing jobs. Our jobs were being threatened.” PPRC often aligns politically with property rights advocates who share their views on the environment, but PPRC remains independent.

It is understandable why pulp and paper workers and management can pursue mutual goals. An old political cliché says, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Radical environmentalists are out to undermine businesses and jobs in the forest products industry. Everyone in the pulp and paper sector, labor and management, has a common interest in uniting against those who would destroy the jobs and profits of their livelihood.

A new regulatory initiative of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could devastate forest products industry workers in Lewiston and elsewhere around the nation. The EPA proposed regulating of forestry and logging operations. Although the agency later decided to exempt the forest products industry from the new rules, it also indicated that it propose another regulatory action later this year that will apply to forestry and logging practices.

Jerry and others in the forest products industry fear the federal government will impose costly new permit requirements on loggers and others, and that timber harvesting will become further bogged down in permitting delays. The rulemaking would have a negative impact on jobs.

“There is no scientific reason for the proposals,” said Jerry. “The EPA will end up taking over state permitting programs, and that’s bad for everyone. I don’t trust government agencies to begin with.”

“To win this fight we have to stick together,” Jerry added. “We’ll lose jobs with these proposals.”

“The whole deal with EPA is the moveable environmental goalposts,” said Jerry. “They keep moving them back. You never get in the end zone. To EPA, stakeholders are people who want to protect public land from the public. To me, a stakeholder is someone in an industry or a state that is directly involved.”

Jerry Klemm is a real stakeholder. Those who chose him as the Forest Resource Association’s National Forestry Activist of the year knew a winner when they saw one.