On October 23, 1976, International Woodworkers of America Local 3-101 in Everett, Washington had its monthly union meeting.
Big deal, you might be thinking. Locals have meetings all the time and nothing much happens at them. And not a whole lot happened at this lunchtime meeting. 34 members attended. President Ken Schott called the meeting to order. Ed Bordsen read the financial report. Standing committees on grievances and safety read their reports. The Labor Council Committee let everyone know what was going on with other unions in the city. They changed the monthly meeting in December to account for the Christmas party. They then appointed new members to various committees and adjourned.
So again, big deal, right?
This series and most of our discussion of labor history focus on big events, times when capital and labor fought and good and evil were highlighted. We like violence, famous people, huge history-altering events.
But that’s not really how labor operates. Organized labor is the day to day fight for dignity in the workplace. Maybe a lot doesn’t happen in the local union meeting. They might not be very exciting to the general public or the historian. Local records don’t usually provide much detail. These were not people who wrote with a sense of future readers. They were trying to get the job done in order to go home or to the bar.
However, for all the talk of “radicalism” that people throw out there, I’ve come to realize over the years of studying organized labor that perhaps the most radical thing labor has ever done is forcing the employer to sit down across the table from you as an equal. That is so galling to capitalists–to have to negotiate with their employees. This I believe is even more important to their hatred of unions than the wages union workers make.
During the October 23 meeting, Steve Denboe reported on five grievances processed by his committee at the Weyerhaeuser plant. We don’t know what these grievances concerned. At the Publishers mill, two meetings were held in the last month, one at least over changing hours of labor. Dave Troutvine of the Safety Committee at Weyerhaeuser reported on getting a crane fixed. Roland Jacobson from the Reinell Boat Company talked about all the safety problems found on the monthly walk-around and how the union wanted them fixed. Stan Mondham at Publishers told of a safety film on proper lifting techniques to be shown to workers. Jim Nickerson at Scott Paper talked about getting the brakes fixed on the truck loader. Gene Matchett was appointed Safety Inspector for the millwrights on the swing shift at Weyerhaeuser while Tony Ruiz received the same appointment at the same mill for the road truck.
Finally, Floyd Carr spoke to the members about their medical plans and how to deal with deductibles for major operations and dental plans.
In that meeting is a whole history of action and victories. The timber industry, notoriously unsafe throughout its history and strongly anti-union for the first third of the twentieth century forced workers to radical actions in order to fight for dignified lives. Strikes over the working and living environments of the timber camps and mills shut production down during World War I; when the industry finally successfully unionized with both the IWA and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in the mid 1930s, safety was a huge concern for both unions. Decades of fighting had forced employers to accept a safety committee where workers could tell the bosses what was unsafe about their workplace and what could hurt or kill them.
Grievance procedures were fought in timber mills and workplaces throughout the nation; again, the idea that employers can’t dictate the terms of employment and act as capricious dictators to workers galls employers to this day. Grievances in the 1970s might revolve around anything from employer attempts to skirt around contract language to sexual harassment cases to unfair discipline against a worker who might have missed work. Sometimes employees won these cases and sometimes they didn’t, but they had to make employers fight it out. That in itself is an incredibly radical action.
Too often I think modern “radical” actions are committed by those who like to be radical for radicalism’s sake–and this is probably a very old phenomenon. But these actions are so frequently not grounded in any larger movement for social change or an understanding of how working people are empowered. When people are empowered they fight for the things that matter to them. A lot of times that is getting the brakes on the truck loader fixed. And that’s a radical action by almost any measure.
This is the 43rd post in this series. You can read the rest of the series here.