Diablo Dam incline railway climbing Sourdough Mountain, 1930. Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives, 2306.
Children waving to ferry, 1950. Courtesy Museum of History and Industry.
Loggers in the Northwest woods. Courtesy Washington State Digital Archives.
This Week Then
Seventy years ago this week, on April 22, 1948, one of Washington's longest and most bitter strikes began when more than 14,000 Boeing machinists walked off the job. At issue were seniority rules, which the company wanted to scrap, and a 10-cent-per-hour pay raise. The five-month strike led to a showdown between labor and management, and even pitted union against union.
In the early days of the Great Depression, hiring rates and wages for Boeing workers were erratic. In 1936, the International Association of Machinists District Lodge 751 -- then less than a year old -- negotiated its first agreement with the airplane company, one that guaranteed wage levels, overtime rates, job classifications, and more. During World War II, when the number of workers skyrocketed, the union's membership rolls swelled, giving it more leverage. Even during the height of war production, the IAM secured a significant wage increase for its members, arguing that skilled machinists were leaving aviation jobs to work in shipyards, where the pay was better.
After the war, Boeing went through a dramatic shift as it transitioned into commercial aviation while still seeking lucrative military contracts. Looking to increase profits, a new company president, Bill Allen, sought to turn back the clock on worker-seniority provisions, and also to lower overall labor costs. The union balked, and after almost a year of unsuccessful negotiations the sides could not come to an agreement. Members of IAM 751 voted overwhelmingly in favor of staging their first strike.
Although the recently enacted Taft-Hartley Act barred other unions from starting secondary strikes and sympathy boycotts, the machinists did find a new ally in Group Health, which expressed solidarity by deferring its dues and providing free health care for the workers during the walkout. Meanwhile, Boeing found an unlikely ally in Teamster boss Dave Beck, who attempted to lure workers into a Teamsters-affiliated union local. Both Beck and Boeing recruited strikebreakers and scabs throughout most of the strike.
The walkout lasted for 140 days, and in the end there was no clear winner. On September 13, 1948, the machinists returned to work with no contract victory, while Boeing was stuck with a backlog of orders and had to hire tens of thousands of additional workers to meet the demand. And as for Dave Beck and his union, the National Labor Review Board held an election in 1949 between the IAM and the Teamsters. The IAM won the right to represent Boeing workers by a 2-1 margin.
On April 22, 1970, Seattle held its first Earth Day celebration to to raise awareness of environmental issues. On the same day, Washington Senator Henry M. Jackson -- a leader on environmental legislation -- spoke at UW and WSU on the dangers of environmental degradation. In Pullman, some students pelted him with marshmallows in protest of his hawkish stance on the Vietnam War. Jackson caught a few and threw them back, eliciting cheers.
In keeping with Earth Day celebrations, we also note that this week marks two early investigations of the Northwest's natural world that took place about two centuries ago. On April 22, 1812, fur trader, map maker, and geographer David Thompson left Kettle Falls for Montreal, having spent the previous year undertaking a scientific survey of the Columbia River. His explorations led to the first accurate rendition of the Inland Northwest north of the Snake River.
On April 24, 1877, General Oliver O. Howard met in a day-long council with Smohalla, an influential Wanapum spiritual leader. Howard told Smohalla that he and his followers must move onto the Yakama reservation. However, distracted by the Nez Perce War, which broke out a few weeks later, Howard took no steps to enforce the order and Smohalla ignored it.
On April 22, 1889, Duncan Hunter filed a homestead claim to 80 acres of densely forested in south Snohomish County, becoming the first non-Indian resident of what would become Lynnwood. Other homesteaders soon followed, but the city didn't incorporate until April 20, 1959.
Fifty years ago this week, on April 19, 1968, the Seattle City Council approved an open-housing ordinance to ban racial discrimination in home sales and rentals. Four years earlier, Seattle voters nixed an open-housing referendum by a two-to-one margin, but after the assassination of Martin Luther King the council acted quickly to end an inequity and maintain racial peace.
The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.