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Chapter 10 - Past Battles of the Lumber Workers

MANY attempts at organization among lumber workers have been made with varying success. The first lumber workers' union of which we have any record was organized at Eureka, Calif., in 1884. Six months later it took out a charter in the Knights of Labor, and soon gained a membership of over two thousand. It had locals in Eureka, Arcata, Freshwater, and several other points in Northern California, and published a weekly paper called "the Western Watchman." One of the principal grievances of the lumber workers was the hospital fee. This union put the company hospital out of commission, and forced the head doctor to leave town for parts unknown. It prevented the rapid reduction of wages, exposed the land steals of the companies, and, four years later, was a factor in reducing the hours of sawmill workers from twelve to ten. After a militant career of about five years this union was broken up by the lumber companies of the Pacific Coast weeding out and blacklisting the most active members.

In 1908 the Western Labor Union, an organization closely allied with the Western Federation of Miners, began to gain a foothold among the lumber workers of Western Montana. In 1905 this organization, which had changed its name to the American Labor Union, was one of the unions which went to make up the IWW. By that time it had a considerable membership among the Montana lumber workers, and the union charter hung in many bunk-houses.

In 1907, 1908 and 1909 there were strikes in Western Montana, but these were only partly successful. In some camps in the neighborhood of Missoula the nine-hour day was gained. This section supplied the timber for the mines of Butte, and during the strike of 1908 an appeal was made to the miners to refuse to handle the timbers cut by scabs. This appeal was turned down by the corrupt clique then in control of the union, and that broke the back of the strike.

In order to break up the lumber workers' union and also to save the faces of the miners from the reputation of using scab timbers, the lumber and copper companies made a deal with the A. F. of L., by which the latter was to invade the territory, and form a new "union" among the lumber workers. With the help of the companies the A. F. of L. lined up foremen, scabs, stools and company spotters. Many men joined this so-called union to hold their jobs. This union was completely controlled by the companies and was looked upon as a joke by the workers. However, it was partly successful in breaking up the existing union which was considerably weakened by the hard struggles it had gone through.

In 1907 two thousand sawmill workers struck in Portland, Oregon, tying up the lumber industry of that city. A minority were organized in the IWW, and these were the leading spirits. The strike lasted about three weeks, but was broken by the scabbing of the A. F. of L., which at that time was maintaining a lumber workers' organization.

Rise and Fall of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers

The Brotherhood of Timber Workers was organized in Western Louisiana in 1910, and affiliated with the IWW at its convention in April, 1912. At the time of affiliation it had about 5,000 paid-up members and probably 15,000 to 20,000 lumber workers and working farmers who were in arrears on dues, but still claimed membership. The union was the outcome of a great, spontaneous walk-out of all the Southern lumber workers in 1907, which was caused by the Lumber Trust attempting to cut wages heavily and to lengthen hours still more. Everywhere, except in the Lake Charles district of Louisiana, where the IWW's influence has already begun to make itself felt, the workers took the promise of the Trust that, if they would return to work and not form a labor union, the Trust pledged its "word of honor" to restore the old wages and hours just as soon as "prosperity" came back. This the workers, except in the district mentioned, fell for, but the Lake Charles district resisted and won a partial victory. This heartened the workers somewhat and as prosperity began to return and the Lumber Trust completely forgot its pledge, the workers and farmers, as soon as it began to organize, rushed to the Brotherhood in mass. Frightened at the success of the Brotherhood, the Trust resolved on desperate remedies and, in July, 1911, declared a lockout in all the largest sawmills of Western Louisiana and Eastern Texas. This lockout lasted over seven months, during which time between 5,000 and 7,000 of the most active union workers, white and colored, were blacklisted out of the lumber district and thousands of families were reduced to living on three meals of cornbread and molasses a day. Thinking this frightful punishment had sufficiently cowed tire workers and farmers, the Trust began to re-open its mills in the early part of 1912, offering, however, a little higher wages and about a ten-hour day.

But this did not satisfy the workers, and they insisted on the full union demands of 75c. a thousand for cutting logs and of a minimum wage for common labor of $3.00 a day for a nine-hour day, together with reforms in the method of collecting and handling insurance and doctor's fees, which the workers demanded be turned over to their own committees to be managed by and for the workers. They further demanded reduced rents and commissary prices.

The Trust refused these demands and began a more violent campaign against the Brotherhood and used the blacklist more viciously than ever. But still the workers fought on. But all this failed to smash the union, and so, on July 7th, 1912, the "riot" at Grabo, Louisiana, was provoked. This "riot," which the chief organ of the National Lumber Trust boasted "was brought about to finish the union," resulted in the arrest of 58 members of the Brotherhood, including their organizer, A. L. Emerson, all of whom were "tried" at Lake Charles, La., in the autumn of 1912 and all unanimously acquitted on the first, or trial ballot, of the jury.

The Brotherhood still fought on, but by this time, the trial having taken all the resources and funds of the union, ail the most active men had been driven into the mill at Merryville, La., which belonged to the Santa Fe Railroad gang, but which had, under its old general manager, recognized and dealt with the union. The old manager was removed; the new one began the discharge of all union men, and this resulted in the last great strike of the Southern lumber workers. This strike lasted seven months, during which time the workers and farmers kept the mill shut down totally for five months and partially for two months more.

Furious at the resistance of the workers and farmers the Trust turned a mob, called the "Good Citizens' League," loose on the now exhausted workers, which beat up and deported from the town all the officers, organizers and most active men. The governor of Louisiana, of course, refused to interfere with this campaign of violence on the part of the Trust, and this practically ended the work of the Brotherhood.

The last strike occurred at Sweet Home Front, La., in the autumn of 1913, when the woodsmen walked out against the Iron Mountain Lumber Co. which spent $40,000 to break it. After this strike was lost, or rather just after the Merryville strike, the Trust began a campaign of raising wages a little, shortening hours, putting rent and insurance collections on a weekly basis, with a weekly payday, etc., brought in the Y. M. C. A. to do "social welfare work" and, coupling these concessions with a threat to fire any and all men who still stood by the union, succeeded in breaking its power at last.

However, many of the blacklisted men, who were, of course the cream of the Brotherhood, went over into Texas, Oklahoma and other States and there exerted a powerful influence on the A. F. of L. and Railway Brotherhoods and Oil Field Workers' Union; so, from the workers' standpoint, it was once again proven that "no strike is ever lost," for they had undoubtedly bettered conditions for all the workers over a wide section of the South. Moreover, the "Old Guard" is still watched and feared.

Wonderful solidarity was displayed in these strikes, the workers, time after time, literally dividing their last crust with one another, and the farmers killing the last calf they had in the woods to feed the strikers. The Brotherhood is dispersed, but its spirit still lives and a greater and more powerful union will in the end rise from the ashes of the old.

In the spring of 1912 a strike broke out in the sawmills of Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and Raymond, Washington, against the ten-hour day and the low wages. The demands were for an eight-hour day with a minimum wage of $2.60. A small percentage of the mill workers were members of the IWW and these played a leading part in the strike. Many of the loggers of Western Washington struck in sympathy, and for some weeks a bitter struggle was waged. This strike was characterized by the usual lawless violence of the Lumber Trust. Many strikers were jailed on trumped-up charges. Others were dragged from their beds at night, murderously assaulted, and deported in automobiles. The strike lasted about five weeks and was partly successful. An increase in wages of about fifty cents a day was gained in the mills. The loggers gained the same wage increase and forced the companies to furnish springs and mattresses and clean up the camps.

In 1913 there were a number of other strikes in the lumber industry. Early in the spring a strike started in the Coos Bay County, Oregon. There was also a strike in Montana, principally effective around Missoula, caused by an attempt to force a return to ten-hour day. In Western Washington there was a partial strike of loggers. In Minnesota many sawmill workers struck. Some gains were made by these strikes. In Montana return to the ten-hour day was prevented. In other places some wage increases were gained, and food and camp conditions improved.

These strikes taught the workers something of the power of organization. The greed and brutality of the Lumber Trust showed the necessity for united action. Experience with the A. F. of L. demonstrated the futility of craft union scabbery, and showed its labor fakirs in their true colors as traitors to the workers. It was plainly evident that only One Big Union could successfully lock horns with the Lumber Trust. The IWW maintained lumber workers' locals in the principal cities of the Northwest, and carried on its propaganda by holding meetings and distributing literature. Slowly but surely the One Big Union idea took hold in the minds of the workers of camp and mill. In 1916 a strong drive was made to organize the lumber workers of the Northwest. It met with immediate success, and by the spring of 1917 thousands of lumber workers were lined up in the IWW.

In March, 1917, Lumber Workers Industrial Union No. 500 (now 120) was launched, with a membership of about ten thousand. A strike was voted for the summer, and demands were drawn up, principal of which was the eight-hour day. In June the strike started and quickly spread to all parts of Eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana. Three weeks later it spread to Western Washington. Some of the sawmill crews joined in the general walkout. In a few weeks practically every sawmill in Washington, Idaho and Montana had to shut down for want of logs. Strike camps were formed and a system of pickets was organized to cover the whole strike zone. Owing to the extent of the strike, the great number of men involved, and the vigilance of the pickets the most strenuous efforts of the companies were unavailing to recruit enough scabs even to make a show of keeping up production.

Never before had the lumber barons been confronted by such a situation. They were at a loss how to meet it. Their fury knew no bounds; but it was impotent fury. Every method formerly successful in breaking strikes was tried and failed. Thugs and gunmen infested all the camps and lost no opportunity to harass and annoy the strikers. Spies and stools attempted to cause dissension and disruption within the ranks. Police and sheriffs jailed strikers by the hundred. The press carried on a daily campaign of lies, slander and abuse. The editorial prostitutes worked overtime concocting stories calculated to deceive and discourage the strikers. It was constantly reported that the strike was broken and that the strikers were returning to work. Stories were printed that the strike was instigated by German agents and financed by German gold to obstruct the United States in the war. Mob law was stirred up, union halls were raided and furniture and supplies destroyed. In some places strikers were beaten up and run out of town. In Troy, Montana, a striker was burned to death in jail.

But in spite of all this violence, persecution and abuse, the men stuck to the picket lines. When pickets were arrested others took their places. Jails held no terrors for the striking lumberjacks, for jails could be no worse than the camps they had left. The vindictive ferocity of the Lumber Trust was met by stiff-necked, sullen resistance on the part of the strikers and a bitter labor war was the result.

The Lumber Trust governor of Idaho made a tour of all the strike camps in that state, appealing to the patriotism of the strikers and trying to convince them that it was their duty to work for the industrial kaisers of the Lumber Trust at starvation wages and under inhuman conditions in order to expedite the war against the political autocracy of the German kaiser. The logic of this reasoning did not impress the strikers very deeply for it was well known that the lumber barons' hypocritical pretensions of patriotism were only a cloak to cover their own crimes. They had fastened themselves like leeches at the throat of the government and were profiteering on a scale before unheard of.

But brute force and not logic is what the Lumber Trust has always relied on to hold its employee in subjection. As soon as the governor had taken his departure the sheriff and his deputies would raid the camp and arrest the most active of the strikers. All over the strike district hundreds of men were lying in the filthy jails and every day added to the number of arrests. When the jails would hold no more, "bull-pens" were built at several points and these were filled with strikers and guarded by armed thugs. To enumerate all the instances of violence and lawlessness practiced on unarmed strikers by Lumber Trust gunmen and subservient officers of the law would fill volumes. But all this hounding, persecuting, beating and jailing could not break the strike or crush the spirit of the strikers. Logs can not be got out with clubs and guns. The lumber industry remained paralyzed.

But as the strike progressed it became increasingly evident that, notwithstanding the solidarity and determination of the strikers, the tactics employed were bound to end in failure. The fallacy of long strikes off the job had been demonstrated many times in other industries. It was impossible to raise sufficient funds to support the strike indefinitely. By staying away from the job they left it open to scabs, and it would only be a matter of time before the companies would recruit enough of these degenerates to run the camps again. With the most active strikers in jail and starvation staring the rest in the face, every day made it harder to maintain a solid front. The longer the strike lasted the blacker the outlook became for the strikers and inevitable failure and defeat faced them in the end.

On the other hand, by transferring the strike to the job, and using the tactics long advocated by the IWW, the situation would be reversed and failure would be impossible. Many of the strikers had been opposed to a long-drawn-out strike from the start, and had advocated an early return to the job and the use of the job strike. They pointed out that the object of a strike is to reduce the profits of the boss, and that this can be done just as effectively and with far less effort by the use of job tactics. Poor work for poor pay is the quickest and easiest way to bring the parasites to time. With the job strike, instead of starving on the picket line, the strikers would be eating three squares a day at the expense of the boss and drawing their pay besides. These tactics would eliminate the scabs, for if any were on the job when the strikers returned they would undoubtedly find it unpleasant to make a long stay. After considerable discussion it was decided to use the job strike.

About the middle of September the movement back to the job started. The strikers' return was hailed by the press as a victory for the Lumber Trust. Far from being such, it was only the beginning of a new and far more effective form of strike. The tactics employed to break the strike, instead of discouraging the strikers, had only aroused their fighting spirit. Their minds were freed from any illusions they may have had about the "identity of interests" between labor and capital, "constitutional rights," "equality before the law" and all similar high-sounding but meaningless bunk. They were smarting under a burning sense of injustice. The mask of hypocrisy had been torn off and press, courts, legislatures, officers of the law, and politicians were plainly shown to be nothing but the tools of big business. They had learned from experience that a workingman has no rights under capitalism except such as his organized power can maintain.

When the strikers returned to the job, instead of doing a day's work as formerly they would "hoosier up," that is, work like "greenhorns" who had never seen the woods before. Perhaps they would refuse to work more than eight hours, or perhaps they would stay on the job ten hours for a few days, killing time. When they had a few days' pay earned they would agree to quit at the end of eight hours. At four o'clock, the prearranged signal being given, all would quit and go to camp. The usual result was that the whole crew would be fired. In a few days the boss would get a new crew and they would use the same tactics. In the meantime the first crew was repeating the performance in other camps. When a boss had a crew he got practically no work out of them, and what little he did get was done in a way that was the reverse of profitable. With a little practice the fob strikers became experts in inefficiency. A foreman always thought he had the worst crew in the world until he got the next. The only men doing any real work were the cooks and flunkeys who were kept on the jump trying to satisfy the sharpened appetites of the strikers.

In most camps the job strike was varied at times by the intermittent strike, the men walking off the job without notice and going to work in other camps. This added to the confusion of the bosses as they never knew what to expect. Never before had these tactics been used on such an extensive scale in the United States. The companies could not meet them. All over the Northwest the lumber industry was in a state of disorganization and confusion. There was no hope of breaking this kind of strike by starvation; much against their will the companies were forced to run the commissary department of the strike. It was no longer necessary to call on the working class to contribute their hard-earned dollars. Job strikes are not financed by the workers but by the companies against which they are directed.

With the strikers on the picket line the "authorities" could arrest and jail them. But the job strikers were practically safe from arrest, for it was impossible to arrest them all, and there was no way of telling which were the most active. In a few cases men thought to be the leading spirits were arrested in the camps, but this only added fuel to the flames of discontent and resentment, and its effect on the production of logs was anything but encouraging to the companies.

It might be supposed that under these circumstances the companies would resort to a general lockout; but they were unable to do this, as there was an active demand for lumber at the time and their reserve supply was exhausted, owing to the long strike off the Job.

This state of affairs lasted all winter. If the lumber barons had any hopes the men would tire of the job strike they were doomed to disappointment, for these tactics can be used for an indefinite length of time.

Shortly after the strike was transferred to the job the government placed Colonel Disque, with headquarters in Portland in charge of the production of spruce which was needed in large quantities for the manufacture of airplanes. Although spruce production was little affected by the strike, the lumber companies purposely held it back to discredit the strikers and make it appear they were striking against the government, and to force the government to aid in breaking the strike.

With the object of breaking up and displacing the Lumber Workers' Industrial Union, Colonel Disque started the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen. This organization was simply a strike-breaking tool for the plunder patriots and its "loyalty" was only a cloak for scabbery.

Colonel Disque put soldiers to work in the camps, ostensibly to aid in spruce production; but as soldiers were placed in many camps where not a stick of spruce was produced, it is evident the real object was to break the strike, and to further the profiteering schemes of favored lumber companies by supplying them with cheap labor. The companies took advantage of the position of these soldiers to exploit them to the limit. They paid them practically no wages, and kept them in a state of chronic starvation, the food being unfit to eat. If they rebelled it was mutiny. Naturally they used the only available weapon--the slow-down system.

Colonel Disque and the lumber barons finally began to realize they were up against a method of fighting in which they were hopelessly outclassed. Every method formerly successful in breaking strikes had been tried and failed. There remained only one thing to do--concede the eight-hour day. March 1, 1918, after official announcement by Colonel Disque on behalf of the lumber barons, the eight-hour day was recognized in the lumber industry of the Northwest.

This was one of the most successful strikes in the history of the labor movement. The efficacy of the tactics used is further emphasized by the fact that it was directed against one of the most powerful combinations of capital in the world. Two hours had been cut from the work day. Wages had been raised. Bath houses, wash houses and drying rooms had been installed. The companies were forced to furnish bedding. Old-fashioned, unsanitary bunk-houses were displaced by small, clean, well lighted and ventilated ones. Instead of bunks filled with dirty hay, beds, clean mattresses, blankets, sheets and pillows changed weekly were furnished. The food was improved a hundred per cent. In short, practically all demands were won.

The lumber barons claimed they had granted these concessions "voluntarily" "for patriotic reasons." In reality, they had granted nothing. All they had done was to bow to the inevitable, and officially recognize the eight-hour day after the lumber workers had taken it by direct action. The LLLL. also claimed credit for the victory. This was the joke of the season. A skunk might as well claim credit for the perfume of a flower garden, after having failed to pollute it. At the present writing there is scarcely a trace left of the LLLL. The last feeble squeal heard from this conglomeration of boss lovers was when they went on record in Portland as favoring a reduction of wages.

Soon after the 1917 strike the piece-work or "gypo" system was introduced. This proved very injurious to unionism. In October, 1919, a strike started at Fernwood, Idaho, caused by a raise of twenty-five cents a day in the price of board and a charge of one dollar a week for blankets. This strike slowly spread over the short log country of Eastern Washington, Idaho and Western Montana. At this time there were many piece workers and most of these failed to join the strike. Consequently the tie-up was not complete and the strike was a failure. After this strike most of the active union men were refused work or were allocated only to work by the piece. This caused a great increase in gypoing. Piece-work and organization do not mix. Wherever the gypo system gets a foothold union activity falls off.

Another A. F. of L. Fiasco

In the summer of 1920 the sawmill workers of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan went on strike for the eight-hour day. A considerable percentage were members of the International Timber Workers' Union, affiliated with the A. F. of L. Most were induced to join by false promises of financial support, and misleading statements by officials.

The IWW loyally supported the strike and worked for its success in every way possible. After having been on strike nearly two months the I. T. U. members were ordered back to work by their officials, and returned to the sawmills having gained absolutely nothing.

At the present time the outlook in the lumber industry is good. It has been proved beyond all question what can be accomplished by the right kind of organization, and the sentiment for industrial unionism is steadily growing. The principal obstacle is the gypo or piece-work system. This has proved to be the most dangerous and insidious scheme ever introduced to break strikes and destroy unionism. Its effect is to make a man a capitalistic minded scissorbill and cause him to lose interest in the union.

However, there is no occasion for discouragement. Gypoing is only one of the obstacles that must be met and overcome. Like most of the evils that afflict the human race, it has its roots in ignorance. There is every reason to believe that, with the right kind of education and the organization taking a consistent stand, this form of scabbery can be abolished.