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Workers hope tree-planting cooperative will take root.

MOUNT ANGEL, Ore. - Everything seems to be stacked against the hope behind a proposed tree-planting cooperative here, the Oregon Reforestation Cooperative.

The tree planters have no money. Timber is a declining industry. The grueling work is seasonal. The competition for federal and corporate tree-planting contracts is tough. Profit margins are low so there is little room to cut bidding prices.

But the Mount Angel-area Mexican-Americans and Mexicans who want the cooperative know the alternative - working for someone else until, as Juan Mendoza said, "after 10, maybe 15 years, your body starts going."

Four years ago, the people of St. Joseph's Parish, Salem, understood, and through Fr. Arnold Beezer provided the group with its first $400 - to pay for a telephone. Oregon legal services helped with the formal organization; a local venture capitalist voluntarily drew up the applicants' business plan.

So, earlier this year, the signatures of Mendoza, a community organizer and cooperative secretary-treasurer, and Francisco Barocio, cooperative president, were on the letter that asked the Catholic Campaign for Human Development for a start-up grant.

They have it, $50,000. But even that is conditional - the cooperative needs to find matching funds.

Mendoza talked about the search for money while seated on the grass in front of what was once the Benedictine Sisters' Mount Angel College (and, later, for seven years, Colegio Cesar Chavez, probably the only Latino community-run, four-year college for Mexican migrants in the country). Now it is mainly offices.

The current, all-volunteer co-op is trying to tap a local foundation and has an application into an insurance company for a loan.

"We understand why it's a long road," said Mendoza, who supports himself as a translator in the local court system and government agency network. "It's not easy for people to give a group of Mexicans money just because they want to have a company or something."

The core group of tree planters - meeting around a local immigration project formed originally to combat INS raids - came up with the idea. "We're out there anyway," was the argument, "why don't we organize and bid on the work we're already doing?"

Organizing is not new to people in western Oregon's Willamette Valley Latino community. But tree planters are hesitant to join the farm workers' organization, the Willamette Valley Immigration Project, for fear of being blacklisted or fired.

For some, the cooperative was seen as a way to move beyond the impasse while they still could. Tree-planting pays a federally mandated $10.21 an hour minimum in a state where unemployment is endemic and the minimum wage is $4.25. And perhaps a co-op could also help with medical care for the families, maybe even share some profits, they reasoned.

How tough is tree-planting?. "A good tree planter on a good day plants 1,500 trees. From top to roots the seedlings are about 3 feet long," said Mendoza.

The worker, leaning into Oregon's isolated mountain slopes, has a 40-pound bag of seedlings strapped to his shoulders as, November to May, in harsh winter weather over hazardous terrain, he stoops to his task. A whistle-blowing foreman keeps up the rhythm and a grueling pace.

Tree-planting is a $30 million annual market in Oregon, essentially government reforestation under the U.S. Forest Service - which owns half the land in Oregon and Washington - and the Bureau of Land Management. For winning contractors, productivity is tbe key or the govemment penalizes for non-performance.

The cooperative's application mentioned, as if routinely, that "Latino tree workers are among the most exploited and abused workers in the U.S. ... with one of the highest on-the-job injury rates."

CHD's analysis of the cooperative's grant application noted that "it is difficult to see any way in which ORC will have a competitive advantage or a particular marketplace niche ... but (leaders) feel its cooperative structure will give it a competitive edge."

CHD analysts noted that "empowerment" and "leadership skills" were a strong strand in ORC's application, and that the core group of co-op leaders has "tenacity, endurance and commitment."

Fortunately, CHD is a Catholic fund where the bottom line sometimes comes second.

CHD's approach is a bit like that of the local Mount Angel Benedictine Sisters, who have opened their old college dorms to migrant workers: not particularly profitable or popular - just Christian.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Oregon Reforestation Cooperative
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 15, 1993
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