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This Day in Labor History: September 29, 1917

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On September 29, 1917, General John J. Pershing appointed retired Colonel Brice Disque to find a solution to the labor situation in the Northwestern forests. He led the Spruce Production Division, a special unit designed to ensure the military acquired the needed wood to build airplanes for World War I. To do so, Disque had to enter the fractious labor relations between timber employers in the Northwest and their workers, who lived brutal conditions and had joined the Industrial Workers of the World in increasing numbers. This unprecedented government intervention in an industry’s labor relations led to both better conditions for workers and the suppression of the IWW, as well as pioneering the company unionism that would become synonymous with capitalism in the 1920s.

Disque was a lifetime military officer who enlisted in 1899, playing a role in capturing Filipino freedom fighter Emilio Aguinaldo. He retired from the military in 1916 to take a position as warden of the Michigan State Penitentiary but reenlisted when the nation entered World War I. Pershing gave Disque the authority to recruit a division of soldiers to log spruce for the military.

This was necessary because conditions in the logging camps around the Northwest were so horrendous. Adulterated food, a lack of bathing facilities, meat covered with flies, toilet pits next to overcrowded bunkhouses, rain-soaked bedrolls spreading fleas, and many other daily indignities had convinced many loggers to join the IWW in the years after 1907 and especially after 1912, once the IWW organized figured out that what motivated loggers was not the overthrow of capitalism, but living cleaner, more comfortable lives. The IWW organized effectively around this issue and in the summer of 1917, engaged in a series of significant strikes to press this agenda. On March 4, Wobblies established Lumber Workers Industrial Union No. 500 in Spokane to coordinate the coming IWW actions. In April, loggers near St. Maries, Idaho walked off the job when their bosses refused demands for improved bunkhouses and better food, higher wages, and the eight-hour day. By June, some camps near St. Maries had forced employers to grant eight-hour day. Workers in the pine forests near Sandpoint, Idaho then struck in protest of the camp conditions and the strike rapidly spread through eastern Washington, Idaho, and western Montana. Building upon the actions of the Idaho loggers, the IWW called for a strike in the pine country on June 20 and then an industry-wide strike effective through the Northwest on July 17. When workers at the Humbird Lumber Company demanded, “clean bunk houses, decent food and the eight hour day,” the company refused and the loggers joined the growing strike. The IWW expanded out of its eastern Washington and Idaho base, opening an office in Klamath Falls, Oregon and leading western Washington loggers out of the forests in July.

One Wobbly strike poster listed very specific requirements for housing, with “Sanitary sleeping quarters with not more than 12 men in each bunkhouse” that included good lighting and reading tables. It also demanded laundry rooms and bathrooms with showers. Finally, workers wanted “wholesome food on porcelain dishes with no overcrowding at dining tables,” and well-staffed cookhouses “to keep them sanitary.” Mill workers sought not more than two men per room. Wobblies called for the end of the timber camp medical system exploiting them, fighting for the end to hospital fees and incompetent company doctors. Good food prepared in sanitary conditions remained central to workers’ demands in the strike. Camps near Cle Elum, Washington struck because of food described as “nauseating.” Striking meant that loggers lost their food supply, nauseating as it might be. The Cle Elum loggers had to walk four miles for food, where local miners fed them. That summer, the fecundity of the Northwest forests fed many striking loggers. As E. Phelps put it reporting on his strike in Stillwater, Washington, “the weather is fine, plenty of berries are at hand, there are lots of fish, and no scabs are coming in.”

While the strikes concluded at the end of the summer, often with employers giving workers a lot of what they wanted, everyone knew that this was hardly the end of the labor agitation. This concerned the military. With the rise of airpower, the military needed certain trees to build airplanes. The best wood was the Sitka spruce and the Douglas fir. These are Northwestern species. All of a sudden, a remote bit of labor agitation became a critical national security question. And thus the appointment of Disque.

Disque created the Spruce Production Division (SPD), an army unit fighting in the Northwest forests instead of the French trenches. Made up primarily of experienced loggers, the SPD helped the military acquire the necessary wood, placed Army men among the radicals in camps, and limited drafted Wobblies from spreading their doctrine into the Army mainstream since many radicalized loggers made up the core of the SPD. But the soldiers could not work directly for the government. There were not enough SPD troops to log all the needed spruce and to do so would have made the military look like a strikebreaking outfit, making the labor problem worse. Troops would be interspersed with civilian loggers but the military would not allow them to live in the conditions that lumber workers endured daily. Getting out the cut required government intervention in the industry’s sanitary regime.

Disque initially dismissed sanitation as the reason for the labor problems. He wrote the War Department about the strikes, “I do not believe that the living conditions in the camps are responsible for it because there is a general effort by employers to improve living conditions in every way.” He changed his mind after touring the camps. Witnessing housing and toilet facilities and eating with loggers, Disque compared conditions unfavorably to American POW camps in the Philippines, noting, “We treated captured Moros better in the Philippines during a war.” After one meal in a camp cookhouse, he remarked, “We could not eat it.”

The timber industry was initially suspicious of Disque’s presence. Edwin Ames was happy to use federal troops as a strikebreaking force, but resisted further incursions in labor relations. He wrote Disque, “all that is required is for the government to detail a small squad of men to guard each logging operation and sawmill plant manufacturing lumber for government purposes,” while calling for limited government interference in his operations. Disque thus had to integrate his soldiers into civilian camps while ameliorating suspicious owners, raising the sanitation standards to those acceptable to the military, convincing workers the troops were not strikebreakers, and getting trees processed for the war effort. To accomplish this Herculean task, Disque and his advisors, particularly labor economist Carleton Parker, convinced the timber operators to place their labor problems in Disque’s hands in February 1918, promising an end to strikes and consistent production.

Disque then announced the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (Four-L), which became the nation’s first government-sponsored company union. The Four-L required a loyalty oath and banned active IWW members from work, but guaranteed the eight-hour day, steady work, and improving conditions. In return for meeting workers’ demands, the Four-L insisted that workers not strike during the war and consider it a mediating organization between themselves and their employers. This led to a major victory for workers, but a complete defeat for the IWW.

In March 1918, Disque issued an order that laid out the environmental improvements the industry must make. In addition to enforcing an eight-hour day and setting minimum wages for each job in the camps, this order demanded that camps provide real bedding to their workers, including mattresses, pillows, blankets, and sheets. He also sent subordinates to inspect mess halls and renovate “the entire physical conditions under which the lumber workers lived.” The camp operators had to undergo government inspections of their camps with enforcement power from the military. This ensured that labor tumult would not result from the government-employed soldiers.

Military repression went far to ensure worker participation. A SPD officer made an impassioned speech to convince loggers to join the Four-L. Most signed up but when George Harper refused, some workers threatened to tar him. After the lieutenant worried about the bad publicity of such an act, they beat him and evicted him from camp. “C.C.” was not a Wobbly but was disgusted by the pressure to join the Four-L. He took a position with the Admiralty Logging Company, where he faced a vermin-infested bed and poor food. Five days later, a SPD officer came into sign up the camp for the Four-L. 120 of the 190 workers signed cards after a rousing speech, but C.C. and others did not, instead “debating on a man’s rights in a free country.” He quit, but this pressure forced most loggers, even most radicals, to accept it.

The quasi-military organization of the forests had long-term effects upon the workscapes of the timber industry. First, it effectively ended the iron control of operators over their camps. One employer confessed to a government investigator that the strikes had convinced him to provide decent bunkhouses, but not until he had eliminated the IWW because “he was not going to allow those fellows to tell him what he had to do.” Disque intervened in this standoff, building upon health measures the military adopted in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines and was implementing during World War I, as well as the broader emphasis on cleanliness among middle-class reformers in the 1910s. The SPD ordered seven changes to an Aloha Lumber Company camp, including placing the toilets farther away from the kitchen and keeping them clean, providing shade for the meat house so the food did not spoil, and working to keep flies out of the mess house. Military sanitation inspectors challenged timber operators on many of the same issues as the Wobblies. Paul E. Page protested an order that he clean up his company’s water supplies. He used its log pond for its camp drinking water and an inspector worried that the men would defecate in the water, leading to a “serious epidemic.” Complaining that a inspection of his camp was “unfair and unreasonable” he placed the water system in his camp within the context of the entire industry, arguing “If the entire water supply west of the Cascades is to be condemned for the reason that some log may be pulled through human excretia and come in contact with some brook that supplies drinking water, we are certainly in a bad way.”

Improving conditions meant happier workers and higher production. One Four-L report compared the worker dissatisfaction in one camp because of bad water, biting insects, and a lack of bathing facilities to a nearby camp without union problems had already provided bathing facilities. This report requested that the War Department appoint men to make camp inspection tours as a way to enforce these changes. Disque also rejected attempts by companies to get around the new mandates. When the Puget Mill Company requested workers labor after their mandated eight hours to make repairs, Disque refused, calling the eight-hour day an “iron-clad rule.”

Continued Wobbly agitation made Disque’s actions necessary. Wobblies continued striking into 1918. A Wenatchee, Washington camp walked out that winter for a new cook and the eight-hour day; winning, it forced non-Wobblies to quit. In February, the IWW announced that on May 1, loggers would burn their bedrolls and go on the largest strike in the industry’s history to force companies to provide beds and sheets. It openly publicized the plan, worrying Disque and the timber industry. One government investigator urged operators to “pull the teeth of this proposition by doing away with blanket carrying by the first of April.” When the Four-L announced beds and sheets in all camps March 1918, the IWW crowed, “Damn it all, it seems the I.W.W. can never get what it wants” because every time it fought for something, the government “’voluntarily’ grants what we were fighting for and had got in shape to take.” In this new atmosphere of reform, loggers kept winning their demands. When Wobblies working for the Mineral Lake Lumber Company held a meeting in March 1918 and demanded a bathhouse, the company immediately complied.

Although we like to romanticize the IWW, the reality is that the actions taken by the government worked, even outside of the very real pressure placed by SPD and Four-L officers upon workers. Four-L repression and the granting of Wobbly demands led to the union’s rapid decline. By the spring of 1918, a minority of loggers identified with the IWW. Only nine of forty-two loggers at a Simpson camp in Shelton, Washington were union members and about one-fourth of the seventy-five in St. Paul’s camp in Orting, Washington. The Day Lumber Company in Big Lake, Washington had no Wobblies and an organizer described the workers as “hostile” to the IWW. The IWW exhorted workers to remember why their lives had improved, urging them not “to lay down when things are coming our way; that is the time to keep on the hustle.” But by April, talk of the May 1 walkout had disappeared, replaced by detailing the state repression and mob violence against Wobblies. In Spokane, Aberdeen, Anacortes, and Astoria, Wobblies were arrested, beaten, and tarred and feathered. Attacks upon IWW halls made organizing more difficult, leading to a call for workers to commit themselves to passing along all IWW literature to other workers in order to “show the capitalist that the closing of our halls only serves us to make us more active on the job.” The Spokane office opened to coordinate Northwest timber strikes closed in April 1918 because money was needed to fight for the release of the class war prisoners.

The IWW’s rapid decline reflects both government repression and the union’s tenuous hold on loggers. When the government met their concerns about the camps and made work dependent upon leaving the IWW, most abandoned a union that endangered their jobs. Like many workers during World War I, “they would take the concrete benefits and let the ideological loyalties go,” as David Brody has stated. Improved health and comfortable housing meant more for many loggers than abstract revolutionary goals. Even committed Wobbly organizers such as Ern Hanson recognized this fact, remembering, “The bulk of the membership were just card carriers and would fight for higher wages and better conditions but had a pretty vague idea about syndicalist organizations and revolution.”

For the federal government, the SPD and Four-L was a success. Disque established 234 SPD camps around the Northwest that included 27,661 enlisted men and 1,222 officers, working in camps with around 125,000 Four-L members in approximately 1,000 camps and mills. Disque estimated that job turnover in lumber dropped from 600 percent per year in 1917 to 25 percent by the fall of 1918 because of the Four-L’s influence, transformed camp sanitation, and improved food. Spruce production skyrocketed from 2.887 million board feet in November 1917 to 22.145 million board feet in October 1918. Fir production also rose and nearly 145 million feet of aircraft stock was produced over the year. While the Four-L was a disaster for the IWW, for rank and file loggers, its legacy is more complex. Their own activism led to military intervention to make a decisive turn in logging workscapes. The future of camp sanitation was hardly written at the end of 1918, but for the first time, loggers could expect clean sheets, sanitary toilets, decent food, and a bunkhouse that would protect them from heat, cold, rain, and vermin. This came at a harsh cost for radicals, but for many loggers, the cost was worth it.

After the war, the SPD disbanded and the government pulled out of regulating the timber industry. More progressive capitalists in the industry realized the effectiveness of giving workers a decent meal and bed and thus continued the Four-L as an industry-wide company union that existed on a volunteer basis for employers. It lasted until the Supreme Court’s ruling that the National Labor Relations Act was constitutional, which outlawed company unions, in 1937.

There is a bar in Portland called the Loyal Legion. They found the old Four-L building sign from its headquarters in Vancouver, Washington and put it inside the bar. To be loyal in this bar means drinking Oregon beers and not beers from other, less superior, states. It’s a very Oregon thing.

When the Four-L wasn’t enough to stop the IWW, the good people of Centralia, Washington would resort to violence to finish the job.

Disque went on to become a sort of early form of a consultant on company unionism.

I excerpted almost all of this from my book, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, which you should buy so I can get rich and fund more research on these issues.

This is the 240th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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