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Former Timber Workers Say Assistance Must Continue Despite Derailed Trade Agreement

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Ashley Gross
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KPLU
Brad Pierog at the site of the Weyerhaeuser saw mill in Aberdeen where he worked for 25 years before it shut down.

The vote in the U.S. House last Friday that effectively stalled President Obama’s push for a big Asia-Pacific trade deal has brought attention to a little known worker assistance program called Trade Adjustment Assistance. That program’s been around since the 1960s to help Americans who lose their jobs due to global trade.  

Under the President’s trade bill it would have been retooled and extended, but Democrats in the U.S. House torpedoed that idea as a way to put the brakes on the larger trade legislation. But in Washington state, thousands of workers have benefited from the assistance program over the years.

One town that’s felt the downsides of global trade is Aberdeen, Washington.

When driving into Aberdeen, west of Olympia, there is a welcome sign that says “Come As You Are.” It's a tribute to Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, who grew up there.

That grunge sound grew out of tough economic times in the early 1990s. And those hard times -- visible in the boarded up storefronts in downtown -- never really left Aberdeen.

Brad Pierog is one of the people who bore the brunt of a declining timber industry. On a recent day, he stood out in his yard describing everyone on his block who worked in the mills. Not many do anymore, including him.

`They Just Pulled The Plug'

On a January day in 2009, he was supposed to work the night shift at the Weyerhaeuser sawmill in Aberdeen. In the afternoon, his buddy called and said, “Want to go fishing tomorrow?”

“And I said, `Well, we got to work tomorrow,’ and he says, `Well, no, we don’t. We got some time off,’” Pierog recalled. “And I said, `What, are we laid off or what?’ He said, `Nope, they just pulled the plug. The mill’s done.’”

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Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
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KPLU
The site of the former Weyerhaeuser saw mill, near the mouth of the Chehalis River in Aberdeen

He’d spent 25 years working there. His wife worked there. All his friends worked there.

“We weren’t able to compete with subsidized Canadian lumber,” Pierog said.

That’s not the only reason, but the U.S. Department of Labor agreed that imports were a factor. So Pierog and his coworkers qualified for Trade Adjustment Assistance. It’s been around since 1962 and was created as a way to acknowledge that there are winners and losers when we trade and to help people who wind up on the losing end.

Pierog went to a meeting with union representatives and state officials to find out what kind of help he could get.

“And I said, `Since I’ve already got an associate’s degree, can I go get a bachelor’s?’ And they said, `It has to be something you can actually get a job in.’ And I said, `Well, I want to get a bachelor’s in computer science,’” Pierog said.

Boom. It was like he said the magic words. They got him into the Evergreen State College within three weeks. And now, six years later, he’s a software developer for the state of Washington.

`What Now?'

The person who helps make all that happen in Washington state is Bill Messenger of the Washington State Labor Council. Before this, Messenger spent more than 30 years working in a pulp mill himself and had never heard of Trade Adjustment Assistance until he got word his mill was closing down.

Many people haven’t heard of it, but the program offers benefits to about 100,000 people a year. Once he lost his pulp mill job, Messenger came to work for the state labor council to help workers apply for TAA. He’s almost like a bereavement counselor, showing up at factories right after employees find out they’re losing their jobs.

“Up to 800 people, 900 people, all in one facility, looking at you like, what now?” Messenger said.

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Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
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KPLU
Bill Messenger of the Washington State Labor Council helps workers file petitions for Trade Adjustment Assistance

Messenger says he’s helped thousands of workers in Washington state get benefits.

Now that program may be in jeopardy. Democratic Representative Rick Larsen, who represents a district north of Seattle, is upset about that.

“As a Democrat, I think I would call on my fellow Democratic colleagues to change their minds,” Larsen said.

He supports the fast-track trade bill, but he’s concerned that the Republicans have the votes to pass it without the worker retraining legislation.

“That would be more than unfortunate,” Larsen said. “That would be devastating to folks who are thrown out of work.”

What's Next?

Jeffrey Schott, with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, says the program does have critics.  Some say companies should provide this assistance - not the government.

“Others feel that the program is justified but it hasn’t been well constructed and that the current programs are inefficient,” Schott said.

Schott says in the end, though, it may organized labor - a group that traditionally supports the program - that brings down the president’s trade agenda.

“Big labor unions, for tactical reasons, have basically pulled the rug out from under him,” Schott said.

It’s unclear what’s going to happen next. The worker retraining bill may come up for another vote this week.

What is clear is that if it doesn’t pass within the trade package, the original program could die.  It needs to be reauthorized by the end of September.  

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.
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