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Industrial Workers of the World

What was it like 100 years ago to be a logger in the forests of the Northwest? I have lived through most of those years and know something of the hardship suffered by the men who labored to cut trees with a crosscut saw - men with no union or any group to protect them from the barbarous way they had to live in order to earn a living under conditions imposed by the corporate industry for which they produce profits.
Many books have been published which I have also depended on to supplement what I have known about these conditions.
Here is what has been written by historian James Rowan in his book The I.W.W. in the Lumber Industry, a second edition of which was published in 1973. Here is his description of a lumber camp, typical of its time:
"With few exceptions the work day was ten hours, and in addition to this the men had to walk long distances to and from work. Considering the long hours and the hard and dangerous nature of the work, the wages were miserably small. The camps were relics of barbarism... The bunk houses were dirty, unsanitary and overcrowded, the men being packed in double bunks built in two tiers one above the other. The companies furnished neither mattresses nor bed clothing, thus forcing the men to furnish their own blankets. No provision was made for ventilation and when all bunks were full, the amount of air space per man was less than one-fourth of the minimum specified by the government health authorities."
There were no drying rooms in the camps. The only place to dry clothing was around the stove in the bunk house, and the steam and odor from these wet clothes added to the impurities of the stagnant air. As a rule the lighting of the bunk houses was so poor that it was almost impossible to read. There were no baths in the camps, neither were there any facilities for washing clothes.
In most lumber camps the food was fairly substantial and plentiful as was necessary to enable the men to endure the long hours and hard work; but this was not always the case. In some camps, especially in hard winters when men were plentiful, the food was both insufficient in quantity and of poorest quality.
"There was no sanitary method of disposing of garbage in the camps. It was usually dumped just outside the cook house door. In hot weather these garbage piles rotted and stank, forming an ideal breeding place for swarms of flies. Another unsanitary feature of the camps was the existence of dry, open toilets a short distance from the cook house."
Another writer, Robert L. Tyler in his book: Rebels in the Woods, wrote a similar description, of which the following is a short quotation:
"Loggers worked in all kinds of weather and frequently returned to camp in wet and muddy clothes....and the men ate their ...supper...while sitting in their wet clothes...... (After supper) the men relaxed as best they could and exchanged gossip about recent binges and favorite prostitutes in the nearest town, or aired their grievances against the foreman."
It was impossible under such harsh, nomadic conditions for the men to establish a family life.
Many attempts were made to organize the workers but they were short-lived until the Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the Wobblies, was founded in about 1909. They led some successful strikes against the inhuman conditions faced by the loggers. The industry was forced to increase wages in some places from the low of $9 to $25 a month to $35 to $50 a month. In March of 1918 the eight-hour day was established and conditions were improved 100% in the woods. This improvement came out of the pockets of the Lumber Trust.
The Lumber Trust decided: THE I.W.W. MUST GO!
Quoting from Rowen, "Taking advantage of the inflamed and hysterical state of public opinion during the war, the ...Lumber Trust carried on a relentless campaign of persecution against the I.W.W. Some of the most active members were murdered. Many were convicted under the criminal syndicalism laws and sent to the penitentiary. Members were held in filthy county jails for nearly two years without trial; others were deported; scores were tarred and feathered; hundreds were beaten up by mobs. The I.W.W. halls were raided and officials arrested. The I.W.W. was misrepresented, vilified, abused and outraged."
Many living today will recall the raid on the I.W.W. hall followed by a brutal lynching in Centralia and the mass murder by the sheriff of Everett as a tugboat approached the dock loaded with I.W.W. members.
The Wobblies were crushed.
More than a decade passed before the forest and mill workers were engaged in an organizational drive. When, under President Roosevelt, the National Recovery Act in 1933 was passed. it became a criminal offense to interfere with workers organizing to better their conditions.
Under this protection the great drives took place in the otherwise unorganized steel, automobile, chemistry, oil and the forest and mill workers. The loggers of the Northwest and western Canada formed the International Woodworkers of America.
There was an office in Port Angeles under the leadership of Rex McCarthy whose responsibility included all of Clallam County. There were union representatives in all of the timber dependent communities.
The timber corporations faced an impassable obstruction to their pursuit of maximum profits. Only when faced with the rising cost of labor did they introduced the chain saw, which caused 38,000 jobs go down the drain. With the increase in technology over the years, more was produced with fewer and fewer workers.
The spotted owl and the environmentalists had no part in this loss of jobs, then or now.
The environmentalists have made an effort to save the 2.7 million acres in the Northwest of the 33 acres million that existed before the coming of the white settlers. They have good reason for this - which leads to a discussion of just what role do our forests play in our well being?
Ancient forests are a whole system, an ecosystem, made up of the soil and its micro-organisms, the trees, birds, plants, fish and wildlife, rivers, insects, mushrooms and many other elements, even the special moisture in the air, all dependent on each other for survival. When a forest is cut, the whole system is done away with.
Environmentalists point out that these ancient forests provide unique opportunities for scientific study and medical research. They may contain the secrets to advance medical knowledge for the cure and prevention of disease. For example, it was only recently that the bark and needles of the yew tree which thrives best in old growth forests, were found to help with the treatment of certain kinds of cancer.
These forests also are useful for studying what makes forests grow, thus providing information that can be used to plant sustainable forests to produce second growth. Future jobs depend on development of sustainable forests of second growth.
Forests retain and slowly release water into the streams and rivers, thus guaranteeing the populations downstream a steady supply of clean, high quality water for homes, industry, agriculture, fish and wildlife.
The winter snows and heavy rainfalls are absorbed by forests and slowly released without flooding the land. Most floods are caused when the land is laid bare by clear-cutting allowing the water to race down the slopes, carrying silt into the streams covering on its way the gravel spawning grounds of salmon and other fish.
Many of the timber companies have impressive replanting projects. There is no way, of course, that rows of Douglas fir can create a forest. These projects simply establish tree plantations, which very definitely have their place in maintaining the economy.
It is necessary to stress that if the cutting continues as it has in the past, we will be out of old growth trees in 15 or 20 years. Then the same job loss will occur, but there will be no trees, and the land will be dotted with ghost towns, as it is now with abandoned mining towns when the resource ran out. Trees, however, are a renewal resource if sustainably managed.
Much can be done by the united efforts of workers, environmentalists, and the industry-dependent communities. Sustainable forest management alone will provide jobs because this method requires low technology and light equipment. In other words, more jobs because fewer heavy machines.
Forest workers and environmentalists have two things in common. The workers love the forests because they provide for the well being of their families in the short term (that is until the trees run out); the environmentalists love the forests because they provide for the well being of all of us in the long term. The workers also love the forest for its beauty and wildlife; the environmentalists share this love. They can work together to provide for the workers' long-term benefit.
This has already been tried when the two groups lobbied together and got state legislation extending unemployment compensation; providing retraining and education to the workers and relief to those who had mortgage payments to make. Low interest, long term loans were offered to the mills to retool for processing second growth logs. Many of these mills had shut down when they were unable to compete for old growth logs against the high prices paid on the Asian markets. These mills provided jobs for unemployed mill workers. And, finally, the same loans were offered to the timber-dependent communities to repair their roads, bridges, public school buildings and the like. Some $6 million was allocated to implement the Act.
Admitted this was only a bandaid, but it was a step in the right direction. Similar bills were introduced in the both the House and Senate of Congress. This legislation also mandated sustainable forest management which would provide thousands of jobs. Both bills died in committee. Labor and environmentalists should push for their reintroduction.
Because of the composition of the 104th Congress, whose Contract With America is against the interests of labor and environmentalists, it is urgent that a coalition be formed to defeat the intent of this industry-oriented legislature.

Hazel Wolf

(Last updated October 24, 1998)

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