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This Day in Labor History: October 23, 1976

[ 37 ] October 23, 2012 |

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?

Well, yes.

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.

That’s it.

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.

Comments (37)

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  1. ajay says:

    This is probably the best post in the entire series, because it’s so unexpected. Well done.

  2. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Well yes having been involved in two unions, most of what they do is incredibly boring. But, most human activity is pretty boring. Local union meetings like department and faculty meetings generally do not generate a lot of excitement. This is self evident on meeting two for anybody who has ever been involved in any official capacity with any union. Last year my current union got me a 39% salary increase plus $3,000 of back pay. If Dr. Loomis wants to call that radical I suppose he can. But, I will hold off on the R word until salaries for faculty here are equal to what Dr. Loomis makes.

    • MPAVictoria says:

      “I will hold off on the R word until salaries for faculty here are equal to what Dr. Loomis makes.”

      Sigh….
      You make me sad man.

      Anyway fantastic post Erik!

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        Well be sad all you want. If you think that Loomis deserves to earn two to four times what African PhD holders do that is fine. But, don’t expect me not to aspire for equality.

        • L2P says:

          Perhaps if you were part of a union that can negotiate a 39% pay increase when American salaries are static you’ll get there!

          Some might call that radical change right there. Others will continue to say nothing happened until decades later the change is long since past, and then wonder what the hell happened to create that radical change they kept waiting for. They will look at incremental changes that are actually pretty radical effects and say nothing’s happening, not really, and then wonder what the hell happened.

          Glass half empty, I guess.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            Considering it took two strikes and a year and a half to get the management to cough up maybe it was radical. But, even here since we work for the govt. they clawed most of our back pay back in taxes. They taxed our back pay at 70% rather than the normal 20%. I had originally figured $6000 net at the normal rate of taxation rather than the $3000 I did get.

        • MPAVictoria says:

          You just make me sad man. You occasionally have such insightful stuff to say but you are so bitter about moving to Africa. Why did you go if you hate it so much?

          Pay differences are to be expected between different geographical locations. This is not new.

          • Murc says:

            Otto went to central Asia and thence to Africa because he somehow managed to complete a PHD with precisely zero teaching experience, which made it basically impossible for him to get hired in the west in his field of study.

            He’s more than qualified to seek employment here now, of course. In fact his foreign teaching experience and the additional languages he’s picked up make him MORE attractive than conventional candidates. He deliberately chooses not to.

            I’m also curious if that “two to three times” number is normalized for COL. People in NYC tend to make a hell of a lot more in absolute terms for the same jobs people have in, say, Texas, because they live in the most expensive city in the world. I somehow think Ghana is likely much cheaper to live in than just about anywhere in the states.

            • He’s more than qualified to seek employment here now, of course.

              That’s only because HR departments never never use the Google to try to figure out who might be a cranky troublemaker.

              Lucky!

            • Hogan says:

              He’s more than qualified to seek employment here now, of course.

              Not until he embraces Stalin as his personal savior, he isn’t.

            • J. Otto Pohl says:

              I seriously doubt that I could ever get hired at a US institution. I have PhD from SOAS and African universities seem to be the only places in the world that take the degree seriously. Most search committees in the US seem to have never heard of the place. I would have been better off getting a degree from UNM obviously.

              In 2010 I again applied on the job market and got exactly one interview for a position in the US out of over 100 applications. I do not even think it was a serious interview. I think they just wanted to talk to somebody living in Kyrgyzstan. It was right after the revolution and the pogroms in Osh. At any rate it was only for a one year position. The only places that took my application seriously were all in Africa. The first one in Namibia I didn’t get, but the second one in Ghana basically offered to hire me until I retired. They didn’t even need an interview.

              The cost of living is lower here than in the US. That is food is a lot cheaper if you eat like the locals. Things like electronics are a lot more expensive than in the US and plane tickets are no cheaper and priced in dollars. But, I hardly think that cheaper food is an excuse for lower salaries in a global market. The lower salaries are one reason why there are so few Ghanaian PhDs left here that they have to hire foreigners. The Ghanaians all went to work in the US and UK during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Universities compete global and not local markets for labor. Faculty salaries in South Africa for instance are higher than in the US. This is despite the fact that the average income in the US is a lot higher than in South Africa.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            I don’t hate Africa. I like it a lot more than being unemployed. I wouldn’t have signed a long term contract if I hated being here. But, the reason I went to Africa is because it is the only place in the world I could get a job with any possibility of professional development. Also while the salaries are low compared to the privileged posters at LGM this is the highest paying job I have ever had by a considerable margin. Finally, while I am content to live off of nothing, my partner and children need money to eat. In the end providing for them trumps everything.

        • What makes union membership wonderful is that fulfilling sense of bitterness about what the other union is doing. It helps!

    • Cody says:

      Why is the “R-Word” something dirty?

      You’re pretty much losing there. It is radical getting a pay increase, but the work to get there may not have been.

  3. Outstanding, Erik.

    Just as it’s not the Great Man who makes history, but a billion ordinary people, so is it not the iconic event, but the the millions of daily struggles.

  4. DocAmazing says:

    In the fight to keep my hospital open, I work with an organizer who memorably said, “To do this kind of work you must have the fiery heart of a revolutionary and the plodding soul of a bookkeeper,”

  5. the idea that employers can’t dictate the terms of employment and act as capricious dictators to workers galls employers to this day

    The market fetishists like to claim that interfering with the employer’s ability to implement his preferred way of doing this is, by definition, an erosion of economic efficiency, both for the firm and for the larger economy.

    The problems with this argument are that it doesn’t recognize the difference between the firm’s interest and the manager/owner’s interest, and it assumes that the interest of managers is always aligned with greater overall value creation, and the interest of workers always aligned against it.

  6. wengler says:

    Safety is the reason that the big Wal-Mart supplier strike of 2012 started. It’s usually the simplest stuff too, like gloves or facemasks.

  7. Peter Hovde says:

    At meetings of UAW locals, the last item is a “good and welfare” section where members can make personal announcements like “We’re pregnant.”

    Great post, great series!

  8. Peter Hovde says:

    Union meetings would be more exciting if the leadership could talk about the details of specific grievances, but there reasons not to do that.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I think they probably did more or less talk about these things openly–the griever him or herself would often do so. I think they just weren’t really recorded in the minutes, which is all of 2 1/2 pages.

  9. Joseph Slater says:

    Excellent post.

  10. One of the Blue says:

    Roger to all the praise. Gets to the heart of a lot of underlying reality. Superb post.

  11. Jordan says:

    Great post, indeed. So in case this does turn into a book, and it is not organized chronologically (or even if it is!): is this the first chapter or the last?

  12. Bruce Vail says:

    Well done, Erik.

    Some unions have a tradition of a post-meeting gatherings at the local bar, where the discussion often becomes more informal – and more interesting.

  13. bph says:

    Can I just say that I love this whole series? Because I don’t think I ever did that and it needs saying.

  14. [...] Inspiring record of a “Day in Labor History: October 23, 1976” at a meeting of the International Woodworkers of America, Local 3-101, Everett, [...]

  15. Origami Isopod says:

    This post would have been on point, oh, about 35 years ago.

    Since then, countless jobs have been outsourced to China, India, and the Philippines; wage stagnation is rampant; contract work and temping are as well; and many people who try to organize face economic and even physical retribution.

    The people who are trying to win our rights back are in the streets. Not in ivory towers, scolding radicals.

  16. [...] October 23, 1976: International Woodworkers of America Local 3-101 holds a monthly union meeting [...]

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