Oregons middle class took eye off the prize
- Kevin Bunker
- Portland Tribune - Opinion
My View • History shows that working folks can't rely on Big Employers' promises
The Tribune's lead story, 'Portland's middle isn't holding,' (May 20) is something I'm all too familiar with, being another baby boomer now dependent on self-employment and 'barely getting by.'
But let me summarize: Oregon, and Portland, especially, don't get it.
The lessons of history are abundant as to why the middle class is shrinking throughout the Pacific Northwest and across the United States.
We all should have paid a lot more attention. This state, like most of Northwestern California and Washington, was built on the back of the timber, coastal shipping and railroad industries that hauled the lumber off and merchandise in. Timber was king, and the money flowed out.
But even as early as 1905, change was in the air here. Yes, there was the Lewis and Clark Exposition, but that was as much a celebration of growth as it was a deliberate popular distraction. There was a sad sequence of big banking and stock market panics, depressions and recessions: 1873-77, 1893-94 and 1907. Two generations lived through these and they only coped because the lumber industry was strong.
But the same industry was also weak and prone to wild market pricing and oversupply that eroded the market further. Only San Francisco's devastating earthquake and firestorm relieved the pressure temporarily. 'Unionization Now!' became the cry of the working class as early as 1890 because the lumber and timber owners held them to 12-hour working days, six days per week at low wages paid once a month.
Mill and timber owners fought unions at every step. Every gain made by unions in wages and hours of service brought more hardship later on. Greed and corporate profit was just as much a constant then as now.
Then there was the miserable Great Depression in between two major world wars. As unions rose, so rose the middle class. But it was temporary. Corporations found new ways in the post-World War II years to make goods overseas as a result of obligatory war reparations in Germany and Japan. The offshore outsourcing trend caught on like the Tillamook Burn.
Lumber eroded as the Northwest's best plum, as concrete and synthetics came to the fore in the 1960s; houses made from lumber then began to use maximized scrap or waste - plywood. Air transport in the 'Jet Age' and bulk containerized ocean shipping made it so much easier to bring and send hot commodities far and wide.
This region - we - need to pay closer attention. We will always be shortchanged by large scale job providers and corporate manufacturers. If we shop at Walmart, we fan the flames of our own funeral pyre: They give us 'cheap cost' goods at our own expense and help wipe out our independent small merchants, every time.
If we demand more than our fair share in wages and benefits, we sow the seeds of our demise.
The lessons are: (1) pay attention and be fair;(2) assume nothing will last when it comes to Big Employers' promises, which are 90 percent empty and prone to circumvention; (3) don't always assume that buying a brand new house is best for you or the community, regardless of its price; and (4) buy local whenever possible.
Kevin Bunker lost his full-time retain job in November 2008 and hasn't found anything permanent since. He freelances, catch as catch can, and is writing a book on once-huge Northwestern California redwood and fir lumber and logging industry that has mostly vanished. He lives in North Portland.