On March 5, 1917, the Lumber Workers Industrial Union, IWW, holds its founding convention in Spokane. The union, which includes both loggers and sawmill workers, is a unit within the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and represents the continuing progress of a new way of organizing within the IWW that began in 1914 with the founding of the Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO). During the summer of 1917 a strike of lumber workers will paralyze the industry across the state of Washington.
A Shift in Direction
Before 1914, IWW members (called Wobblies) belonged to scattered locals throughout a region. In the new form, all workers within a given industry (beginning with migratory agricultural workers) belonged to the same union with one national secretary who controlled funds and paid organizers. From 1915 to 1917, Wobblies who worked as loggers and sawmill workers belonged to the AWO.
The organization of the AWO (in Kansas City on April 15, 1914) caused the IWW to leap forward in membership and in successful job actions. The leader of the effort was the extremely able organizer Walter T. Nef. The goal was to shift away from the soapboxing and revolutionary statements to which the IWW was prone, and to concentrate on building a stable organization and bettering conditions of harvest workers in the field.
Organizing during the first harvest in Kansas during the summer of 1914 was quite successful with many demands (for such things as a shorter work day and clean bedding) met. As the harvest moved north, the influence of the AWO spread, and by November the organization claimed 3,000 members.
For the first time, IWW treasuries were full, and organizers were paid. (Previously organizers had scraped along, paying themselves out of commissions made from selling literature.) In 1915 Nef and the AWO began to organize lumber workers, and that year the entire membership of the IWW Spokane Local took out membership in the AWO.
Again it was conditions on the job, not revolutionary ideals, that took the forefront in the AWO. In 1916 the AWO waged a spectacularly successful campaign among wheat harvesters across the country, claiming more than 12,000 members and job control over many harvesting machines in many farm districts. The economic context of this success was prosperity among wheat farmers spurred by World War I.
Harvesters of the Forest
Lumberjacks suffered some of the same egregious conditions as did the harvesters of wheat and other crops. They worked a ten-hour day, returned filthy and often wet to a camp that provided no place to wash, indecently poor food, and tiny hard bunks often infested with bedbugs and lice.
The demands of the inaugural Spokane convention of the Lumber Workers Industrial Union held in March 1917 were as follows:
- An eight-hour day with no work on Sundays or holidays;
- Minimum wage $60 per month plus board;
- Wholesome food in porcelain dishes, no overcrowding, sufficient kitchen help to keep the kitchen clean and sanitary;
- Sanitary sleeping quarters with no more than 12 men per bunkhouse; single spring beds and mattresses with good clean bedding to be furnished free by the company; bunkhouse to be well lit and furnished with reading tables; dry room (a room to dry clothes), laundry room, and shower baths;
- Free hospital service;
- $5 per day minimum for river drivers;
- Two paydays per month by bank check without discount;
- All men to be hired from the union hall; free transportation from place of hiring to place of job;
- No discrimination.
By April, area river drivers (who drove logs down the river to the mill) had won an eight-hour day (reduced from 12 hours) and a pay raise from $3.50 per day to $5. Spontaneous strikes began in logging camps. The new union had to hasten its call for a strike (originally planned for July) due to loggers and mill workers walking off the job without being called out. The economic context was the increased demand for lumber due to World War I.
During the summer of 1917 a strike of lumber workers would paralyze the industry across the state of Washington.