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Part 3 - The Human Element "The Timber Beast"

Lumber workers are, by nature of their employment, divided into two categories-the saw-mill hand and the logger. The former, like his brothers in the Eastern factories, is an indoor type while the latter is essentially a man of the open air. Both types are necessary to the production of finished lumber, and to both union organization is an imperative necessity.

Sawmill work is machine work-rapid, tedious and often dangerous. There is the uninteresting repetition of the same act of motions day in and day out. The sights, sounds and smells of the mill are never varied. The fact that the mill is permanently located tends to keep mill workers grouped about the place of their employment. Many of them, especially in the shingle mills, have lost fingers or hands in feeding the lumber to the screaming saws. It has been estimated that fully a half of these men are married and remain settled in the mill communities. The other half, however, are not nearly so migratory as the lumberjack. Sawmill workers are not the "rough-necks" of the industry. They are of the more conservative "home-guard" element and characterized by the psychology of all factory workers.

The logger, on the other hand, (and it is with him our narrative is chiefly concerned), is accustomed to hard and hazardous work in the open woods. His occupation makes him of necessity migratory. The camp, following the uncut timber from place to place, makes it impossible for him to acquire a family and settle down. Scarcely one out of ten has ever dared assume the responsibility of matrimony. The necessity of shipping from a central point in going from one job to another usually forces a migratory existence upon the lumberjack in spite of his best intentions to live otherwise.


The problem of the logger is that of the casual laborer in general. Broadly speaking, there are three distinct classes of casual laborers: First, the "harvest stiff" of the middle West who follows the ripening crops from Kansas to the Dakotas, finding winter employment in the North, Middle Western woods, in construction camps or on the ice fields. Then there is the harvest worker of "the Coast" who garners the fruit, hops and grain, and does the canning of California, Washington and Oregon, finding out-of-season employment wherever possible. Finally there is the Northwestern logger, whose work, unlike that of the Middle Western "jack" is not seasonal, but who is compelled nevertheless to remain migratory. As a rule, however, his habitat is confined, according to preference or force of circumstances, to either the "long log" country of Western Washington and Oregon as well as California, or to the "short log" country of Eastern Washington and Oregon, Northern Idaho and Western Montana. Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin are in what is called the "short log" region.

As a rule the logger of the Northwest follows the woods to the exclusion of all other employment. He is militantly a lumberjack and is inclined to be a trifle "patriotic" and disputatious as to the relative importance of his own particular branch of the industry. "Long loggers," for instance, view with a suspicion of disdain the work of "short loggers" and vice versa.


But the lumber-jack is a casual worker and he is the finished product of modern capitalism. He is the perfect proletarian type possessionless, homeless, and rebellious. He is the reverse side of the gilded medal of present day society. On the one side is the third generation idle rich-arrogant and parasitical, and on the other, the actual producer, economically helpless and denied access to the means of production unless he "beg his lordly fellow worm to give him leave to toil," as Robert Burns has it.

The logger of the Northwest has his faults. He is not any more perfect than the rest of us. The years of degradation and struggle he has endured in the woods have not failed to leave their mark upon him. But, as the wage workers go, he is not the common but the uncommon type both as regards physical strength and cleanliness and mental alertness. He is generous to a fault and has all the qualities Lincoln and Whitman loved in men.

In the first place, whether as faller, rigging man or on the "drive," his work is muscular and out of doors. He must at all times conquer the forest and battle with the elements. There is a tang and adventure to his labor in the impressive solitude of the woods that gives him a steady eye, a strong arm and a clear brain. Being constantly close to the great green heart of Nature, he acquires the dignity and independence of the savage rather than the passive and unresisting submission of the factory worker. The fact that he is free from family ties also tends to make him ready for an industrial frolic or fight at any time. In daily matching his prowess and skill with the products of the earth he feels in a way, that the woods "belong" to him and develops a contempt for the unseen and unknown employers who kindly permit him to enrich them with his labor. He is constantly reminded of the glaring absurdity of the private ownership of natural resources. Instinctively he becomes a rebel against the injustice and contradictions of capitalist society.

Dwarfed to ant-like insignificance by the verdant immensity around him, the logger toils daily with ax, saw and cable. One after another forest giants of dizzy height crash to the earth with a sound like thunder. In a short time they are loaded on flat cars and hurried across the stump-dotted clearing to the river, whence they are dispatched to the noisy, ever-waiting saws at the mill. And always the logger knows in his heart that this is not done that people may have lumber for their needs, but rather that some overfed parasite may first add to his holy dividends. Production for profit always strikes the logger with the full force of objective observation. And is it any wonder, with the process of exploitation thus naked always before his eyes, that he should have been among the very first workers to challenge the flimsy title of the lumber barons to the private ownership of the woods?


Without wishing to disparage the ultimate worth of either; it might be well to contrast for a moment the factory worker of the East with the lumber-jack of the Pacific Northwest. To the factory hand the master's claim to the exclusive title of the means of production is not so evidently absurd. Around him are huge, smoking buildings filled with roaring machinery all man-made. As a rule he simply takes for granted that his employers whoever they are own these just as he himself owns, for instance, his pipe or his furniture. Only when he learns, from thoughtful observation or study, that such things are the appropriated products of the labor of himself and his kind, does the truth dawn upon him that labor produces all and is entitled to its own.

It must be admitted that factory life tends to dispirit and cow the workers who spend their lives in the gloomy confines of the modern mill or shop. Obedient to the shrill whistle they pour out of their clustered grey dwellings in the early morning. Out of the labor ghettos they swarm and into their dismal slave-pens. Then the long monotonous, daily "grind," and home again to repeat the identical proceeding on the following day. Almost always, tired, trained to harsh discipline or content with low comfort; they are all too liable to feel that capitalism is invincibly colossal and that the possibility of a better day is hopelessly remote. Most of them are unacquainted with their neighbors. They live in small family or boarding house units and, having no common meeting place, realize only with difficulty the mighty potency of their vast numbers. To them organization appears desirable at times but unattainable. The dickering conservatism of craft unionism appeals to their cautious natures. They act only en masse, under awful compulsion and then their release of repressed slave emotion is sudden and terrible.

Not so with the weather-tanned husky of the Northwestern woods. His job life is a group life. He walks to his daily task with his fellow workers. He is seldom employed for long away from them. At a common table he eats with them, and they all sleep in common bunk houses. The trees themselves teach him to scorn his master's adventitious claim to exclusive ownership. The circumstances of his daily occupation show him the need of class solidarity. His strong body clamours constantly for the sweetness and comforts of life that are denied him, his alert brain urges him to organize and his independent spirit gives him the courage and tenacity to achieve his aims. The union hall is often his only home and the One Big Union his best-beloved. He is fond of reading and discussion. He resents industrial slavery as an insult. He resented filth, overwork and poverty, he resented being made to carry his own bundle of blankets from job to job; he gritted his teeth together and fought until he had ground these obnoxious things under his iron-caulked heel. The lumber trust hated him just in proportion as he gained and used his industrial power; but neither curses, promises nor blows could make him budge. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get what he wanted. And his boss didn't like it very well.

The lumber-jack is secretive and not given to expressed emotion-excepting in his union songs. The bosses don't like his songs either. But the logger isn't worried a bit. Working away in the woods every day, or in his bunk at night, he dreams his dream of the world as he thinks it should be-that "wild wobbly dream" that every passing day brings closer to realization--and he wants all who work around him to share his vision and his determination to win so that all will be ready and worthy to live in the New Day that is dawning.

In a word the Northwestern lumber-jack was too human and too stubborn ever to repudiate his red-blooded manhood at the behest of his masters and become a serf. His union meant to him all that he possessed or hoped to gain. Is it any wonder that he endured the tortures of hell during the period of the war rather than yield his Red Card-or that he is still determined and still undefeated? Is it any wonder the lumber barons hated him, and sought to break his spirit with brute force and legal cunning-or that they conspired to murder it at Centralia with mob violence-and failed?

Next page: Part 4 - Why the Loggers Organized