The fruits of their labor built America’s cities and homes, historians say, and made some people very rich. Nowadays we call them loggers. Once upon a time they were lumberjacks. Or “timber beasts,” if you really didn’t like them. Life was rough and frequently cut short when you did this kind of work. At the beginning of the twentieth century when serious efforts were made to unionize the logging industry, most workers in the country were virtual slaves, called “wage slaves” by organizers, according to journalists John C. Hughes and Ryan Teague Beckwith. In their book On the Harbor: From Black Friday to Nirvana, they chronicle unionization efforts for loggers in the Pacific Northwest, and go into detail about their working conditions. Record-keeping wasn’t very good in those days, but a man’s life expectancy as a logger was said to be about seven years, they say.
Seldom a week went by without a buddy killed or maimed by a rolling log, a falling tree, a giant splinter run through him, or a whipping cable slicing him in two.
From the time he got out of bed in the morning, a logger never knew if he’d make it back to the bunkhouse in one piece, as one writer put it. Hughes and Beckwith continue:
Sawmill workers and shingle weavers lost fingers so routinely that it was practically a rite of passage. Hands and arms went flying, too, in geysers of blood, as the saws shrieked.
None of this made much of a difference to the employers. None of what many workers take for granted today existed then in this industry – no safety regulations, no inspections of gear or practices, and certainly no health insurance or rehabilitation programs. According to Hughes and Beckwith:
When a logger was crippled or killed, the bosses often said it was his own damn fault. He was too careless, or a greenhorn. Maybe just unlucky. “Joe’s number was up. We’re burnin’ daylight. Let’s get the lead out!”
These workers were easy to take advantage of. They were typically single young men, often recent immigrants. Many were migrants who followed timber jobs as they became available. But conditions in lumber camps were so bad that, by one estimate, the annual turnover rate was as high as 600 percent. Employers didn’t seem to care. They weren’t moved in the slightest to do anything to ameliorate the conditions that were creating this astronomical turnover. Conditions like overcrowded, lice-infested bunkhouses. Another author, John E. Haynes, described some of the logging camps in Minnesota.
Bunkhouses were ventilated only by doors at each end and one or two small skylights in the roof. One or perhaps two iron stoves, kept fired all night, provided heat. The poor ventilation compounded sanitary problems. The men worked 11-hour days in the cold Minnesota winter and generally wore two or three sets of underwear in addition to their outer garments. The combination of wet snow and hard labor soaked the jacks’ clothes every day, but the men were without washing facilities either for themselves or what they wore…layers of sets of wet-from-sweat clothes hung near the stove every night to dry for the next day. The steam from the clothes joined the stench of tightly-packed, unwashed bodies in the bunkhouses, prompting one Wobbly to comment that “the bunkhouses in which the lumberjacks sleep are enough to gag a skunk.”
Toilet facilities were primitive in the extreme, says Haynes. Privies were simply shallow, open pits with a roof and some poles for seats. The privies were rarely treated with lime or even covered with dirt. To the men who hired the workers, all of this was perfectly okay. If you were a worker who didn’t think it was okay, your option was to quit. A perfectly fine arrangement, correct? Not so, said union organizers, specifically the IWW, or Industrial Workers of the World – also known as the Wobblies. It was workers just like these loggers that the Wobblies focused their energies on. Any wage earner could be a Wobbly, says labor historian Gibbs M. Smith. It didn’t matter what your occupation, race, creed, or sex was. You could be Black or White or Asian, American or foreign-born, skilled or unskilled. This openness toward unskilled workers is what set the IWW apart from the American Federation of Labor. The AFL adhered to a craft union philosophy and were too conservative for the Wobblies. Consisting mainly of skilled workers, the AFL refused to organize the unskilled. “Big Bill” Haywood led the IWW. He favored industrial unionism over craft unionism, stating:
We are going to go down into the gutter to get at the mass of workers and bring them up to a decent plane of living.
Machinery and advancing technology were progressively eliminating the need for skilled craftsmen, Smith writes. The IWW believed that since the employers had united into great combinations of capital to maintain supremacy, it was necessary to organize all workers, skilled and unskilled, into industrial unions “to wage effective war on the integrated power of modern industry.” In their efforts to organize loggers, it wasn’t just conditions in the camps that the IWW protested. They strongly objected to the “job sharks” who supplied laborers to the mills and logging camps. Because working conditions were so awful, employers hired agents to snare fresh bodies, as Hughes and Beckwith put it. In the winter of 1911-12, the IWW took a stand against the logging companies and their job agents in Aberdeen, Washington. Off-duty laborers would pass by and congregate near the Sailors’ Union Hall in downtown Aberdeen, where IWW organizers had begun their outreach efforts. The favored spot was near a saloon owned by a city councilman. The City Council didn’t like the IWW, seeing them as subversives, so it passed an ordinance prohibiting street speaking in the locality. But the City Council chose to look the other way for one group in particular, another group that was interested in the laborers, or at least in their souls – the Salvation Army. The Wobblies didn’t like this one bit. Joe Hill, an immigrant from Sweden who had worked his way across the country as a laborer in factories and mines, and on farms and waterfronts, had joined the IWW once he made it to California. He mocked the “Starvation Army” in a song that parodied their hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”:
Long-haired preachers come out every night, Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right; But when asked how ’bout something to eat They will answer with voices so sweet: You will eat, bye and bye, In that glorious land above the sky; Work and pray, live on hay, You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
The IWW kept up their protests of the Aberdeen ordinance, suffering vigilante violence in the process. In January of 1912, the City Council passed another ordinance – this time outlawing all street speaking. The Salvation Army, too, had to lie low. But the IWW wasn’t contented. This was about the principle of free speech as well as organizing workers. They staged another protest, complete with singing, soap boxing, a boycott of local merchants, and a lot of bad publicity. Eager to avoid the kind of destructive conflict that had gripped Spokane a couple of years earlier during IWW-led protests, the city of Aberdeen reached a settlement with the Wobblies. They consented, finally, to street speaking. The Wobblies moved the free-speech fight on to other cities, and organized a massive strike that closed every wood-working plant on Grays Harbor. The timber industry eventually met many IWW demands, such as clean bedding and the 8-hour workday, during World War I. According to Hughes and Beckwith:
Frightened of paralyzing strikes that could harm logging of spruce for military planes, the U.S. Army created a special Spruce Production Division. With military efficiency the “Spruce Army” improved conditions more than the Wobblies ever had.
The Wobblies didn’t get everything they set out to get as an organization. They wanted all workers united into “One Big Union.” It hasn’t happened. They wanted workers to unite to overthrow capitalism. Capitalism is still here, a hundred years later (and so are the Wobblies). But the city fathers in Aberdeen became afraid of them. Lumber company owners were afraid of them, and so were Chamber of Commerce managers. The U.S. Army became afraid of them. That’s quite a feat.
- Haynes, John E. 1971. Revolt of the “Timber Beasts”: IWW Lumber Strike in Minnesota. St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society.
- Hughes, John C. and Beckwith, Ryan Teague, eds. 2005. On the Harbor: From Black Friday to Nirvana. Las Vegas: Stephens Press.
- Smith, Gibbs M. 1969. Joe Hill. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.