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Erik Loomis @ErikLoomis
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This Day in Labor History: September 29, 1917. The Army sends Colonel Brice Disque to the Northwest to solve the labor problem in the forests. Let's talk about the government intervened in this labor conflict to crush the IWW during World War I.
Disque was a 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.
Here's a fun story. In 1917, a Red Cross doctor was touring the logging camps. He found a bunkhouse where 80 workers shared one sink. At the sink was one towel. When a guy with gonorrhea moved in, he used the towel. The rest of the workers got the clap--in their eyes.
I actually once asked my doctor about this story and whether it was possible. He said it was if the towel never dried. Given this was the Oregon forests, well, there you have it.
After 1912, the IWW figured out that what motivated loggers was not the overthrow of capitalism, but living cleaner, more comfortable lives. This was hard for them to admit, but it was true. Loggers came to the IWW because it gave them a chance to fight for themselves.
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 what they wanted, everyone knew that this wasn't 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 due to the war. 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 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 abor 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 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, Disque 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.
Ames 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 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 improvements the industry must make. In addition to enforcing an 8-hour day and setting minimum wages, this order demanded that camps provide bedding to their workers, including mattresses, pillows, blankets, and sheets.
Disque 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, 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.
Page 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.” He complaining that a inspection of his camp was “unfair and unreasonable."
Page argued “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.” Indeed.
Improving conditions meant happier workers and higher production.Continued Wobbly agitation made Disque’s actions necessary. Wobblies continued striking into 1918.
When the Four-L announced beds & 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.
But the improved conditions combined with the repression to turn loggers away from the IWW. By that spring, Wobbly organizers reported recruitment problems and indifference now that conditions were better. The planned May Day strike was called off and the IWW never recovered.
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.”
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. It was a real victory.
The government pulled the military out at the end of World War I, but the timber industry kept the 4-L as a voluntary company union which lasted until the National Labor Relations Act banned company unions in 1937.
As long as this thread is, I could have made it at least twice as long. That's because I wrote a book about all this. So read it if you want to know all the details of gross working conditions and loggers' activism on both labor and forests.…
Back on Monday to talk about the time Ironworkers blew up the Los Angeles Times building because it was so anti-union.
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