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The One Big Union

The One Big Union – the Industrial Workers of the World – is available online at IWW .  It never did become the one big union – the website describes the membership as “The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is a labor union representing nearly 9,000 workers across North America.”  We can put that number in perspective by pointing out that Montana alone has 52,000 union members.

Still, I once toyed with the idea of joining the IWW.  Unlike Montana, where the teachers’ union is ranked as the third strongest in the nation South Dakota’s teacher union is ranked #34, and fourth tier. I’d made the smartalec comment that maybe we could become Wobblies – and, when I looked at the IWW website, I realized we actually could get IWW membership. The IWW looked at things realistically – had we joined, their assistance would have been in updating resumes and finding jobs in other states.

Coming of age in Trego, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Wobblies.  A little over a century ago, they were here, organizing labor in the logging camps.  A description at washington.edu begins

The Lumber Strike of 1917

The Pacific Northwest was viewed as the final frontier in the continental United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Loggers from the east migrated to the Northwest because the timber harvest was abundant at the beginning of the twentieth century. There was an abundance of land, an abundance of trees, and many men in the forests who helped make great profits for the employers. Companies such as the Simpson Logging Company, Weyerhaeuser, Long-Bell, St. Paul and Tacoma were the main logging companies and earned immense profits. Fredrick K. Weyerhaeuser owned so much land in the Northwest that the government investigated him for corruption; but due to the way land was sold in the region, the government could do nothing to limit Weyerhaeuser. Even though the employers (lumbermen) earned huge profits, they passed little on to the loggers. On average, the loggers made only 35 cents an hour working in wet and dangerous conditions. In addition, the working conditions in the woods were unsafe, unsanitary, and cooks subjected the loggers to food that was inedible at times. For example, the food was so wretched in one Northwest logging camp that one logger, A. Linquist killed the chef claiming that “God told him Ed Gosseling (the cook) was the devil.” In logging towns, it was fairly common to hear of periodical work-related deaths occurring in the forests because conditions were unsafe and the trees and machinery were very unforgiving in event of an accident. Lumbermen did not want to sacrifice profits for the sake of safety. One logging camp close to Port Angeles had two separate, accidental logging deaths on the same day in 1915. Even though the majority of loggers were discontented with working conditions, there was little they could do to increase their wages or improve working conditions.

Prior to World War I, work was scarce, labor was in abundance, and the lumbermen knew it. Lumbermen exploited employees and did not worry whether or not horrible working conditions would drive them away. After working a ten-hour day in the woods, the “timber beast” (as the logger was commonly called) retreated to a blazing fire at the camp. In the camp, the logger had to share space with numerous pigs, (which were kept at all logging camps to eat food scraps). Even though outhouses existed, they were located 100 yards or more from the camp and were seldom used. As a result, the “timber beast” lived in an intensely unsanitary living environment. The typical year for a labor worker in the Northwest consisted of orchard and construction work in the summer and lumber in the winter. Thus, the low demand for labor and constant labor turnover prevented any real improvements in working conditions. As a result, the wages stayed low, the conditions unsafe, and the food bad.”

What separated the IWW from other unions was its organization and ability to bring together a union and organize a strike. The IWW created pro-labor propaganda in attempts to strengthen their union. In addition to trying to spread their beliefs, they demanded hefty stipulations when workers went on strike, breeding the hatred of employers. In Montana, the IWW asked for a wage raise from $3.50 to $5.00 along with a cut in the working day from 10 to 8 hours. In addition to striking, the IWW operated in an all or nothing strategy. If the hostile union did not get their way, they encouraged sit down strikes and sabotages when the workers went back to work.

As a result of all the work stoppages and violence, many people, including local authorities, employers, and even other unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL), were against the IWW. The AFL condemned the IWW for its un-American propaganda and tried to persuade everyone not to support or join the IWW. In Aberdeen, Washington, the AFL council “Condemned any interference with the bonafide unions of this city (Aberdeen) by the antagonistic union, un-American organization styling itself the Industrial Workers of the World.” Three days later, the Central Labor Council of Seattle also denounced the IWW stating that “the IWW, by their radical methods, had succeeded in erecting an insurmountable wall of prejudice between capital and labor so far as members of that organization were concerned.” The IWW had irritated a great number of people and organizations because of their intense antagonism and degree of success. It was highly successful at stopping work across the Northwest in the summer of 1917.

To understand the nature and significance of the IWW in the Northwest lumber industry, it is necessary to look at the demographics of their recruits. Many members of the IWW were migrant laborers or hobos. However, a smaller, yet significant number of IWW members were recruited from lower socio-economic levels of the settled workers. Such workers were naturally drawn to the closing words of the communist manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!” It was easy for the IWW to make headway amongst its men, shaping their ideas, tactics, and actions as they went along. As the rest of the population sacrificed for the general welfare of the country in the name of patriotism, most if not all of the IWW workers could have cared less. Harold Hyman wrote concerning this class difference in the United States, “The mob spirit, always close to the surface in America and now clad in patriotic garb, was merely accelerating a process of class cleavage that had long been under way . . . Patriotism was an emotion that ‘a bum without a blanket’ could hardly share.” The Bulletin of the 4L described this problem frequently. Looking back on the strike, it wrote, “It was a complete industrial collapse, an orgy of loafing and plundering. A reign of horror.” By the time of the 1917 lumber strike, this lack of patriotism was to be one of the hardest obstacles to overcome in an attempt to end the strike.”

As a kid, I knew some of these old loggers that had been involved in the great 1917 strike.  While Pinkham Creek inherited the moonshining reputation, Trego kept the reputation the strikers built – suspected of being wobblies and socialists just by residence.

The IWW, though small, remains close – there is still a General Membership Branch listed in Missoula. 

The IWW is an affordable union – the website shows that the basic dues are $11/month (rising with income up to $33/month).

The website includes stories about why the IWW members were called wobblies, links to the little red songbook, and tales of Joe Hill.  They are part of our history, and it is kind of nice to see that there is still a bit of an IWW organization in Missoula.

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