On March 4, 1912, sawmill workers in Hoquiam, located on Grays Harbor on the Olympic Peninsula, go out on strike. Within a few days the strike spreads to Raymond, Cosmopolis, and Aberdeen, nearby lumber towns in Grays Harbor County. The strikers are members of the Forest & Lumber Workers Union of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
To Emancipate the Working Class
The IWW was an "industrial" union that embraced and organized both skilled and unskilled workers within particular industries. Formed in 1905 partly in opposition to the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), it was a democratic union with a mix of radical anti-capitalist politics. The founding membership included socialists and labor unionists of various kinds, dominated by the militant, radical metal miners of the Western Federation of Miners.
The founding convention took place in Chicago on June 27, 1905. Bill Haywood, leader of the Western Federation of Miners, called the 203 delegates to order with these words:
"We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism ... .The aims and objectives of this organization shall be to put the working class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters. The American Federation of Labor, which presumes to be the labor movement of this country ... does not represent the working class" (Dubofsky, 81).
Bindlestiffs and Timber Beasts
Northwest loggers and other lumber industry workers flooded into the IWW. In 1907 the Seattle Local of the IWW had 800 members. By March 1907, locals were formed in Tacoma, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Ballard, North Bend, Vancouver, and, (in Oregon) Portland and Astoria. The IWW called loggers "timber beasts." An IWW lumber industry organizer explained the term to a federal commission:
"Now the logger, he walks out in the woods and he looks around at a wilderness of trees. He works hard in there. And what does he get? He gets wages that are below the dead line, I say dead line in wages means below the line necessary to keep him alive ... . They are being murdered on the installment plan ... .
"They breathe bad air in the camps. That ruins their lungs. They eat bad food. That ruins their stomachs. The foul conditions shorten their lives and make their short lives miserable. It rains a great deal and they work in the rain...When they come in from the camps, they are wet ... . They go into a dark barn, not as good as where the horses are, and the only place to dry their clothes is around the hot stove ... . Those in the top bunk suffer from heat; those far away, from the cold ... . Business is business. And so the logger, he finds that he is nothing but a living machine" (Dubofsky, 128).
As historian Melvyn Dubofsky points out, loggers were easy to organize because they lived together and worked together, "slept together, whored together, and fought together" (p. 129).
Loggers wanted what might seem fairly simple improvements. They wanted a place to dry their clothes after working in the rain all day. They wanted good food. They wanted clean bunks and decent bedding. But for employers in a competitive industry, labor was an expense to be reduced to the lowest possible minimum.
Loggers and sawmill workers were distinct groups, usually working apart, but many men moved back and forth from one occupation to the other. Out-of-work loggers would find work in mills and vice versa.
The Hoquiam Strike
In Hoquiam, on March 4, 1912, the IWW struck every sawmill in town. The strike soon spread to Raymond, Cosmopolis, and Aberdeen. These were lumber industry towns located on or near Grays Harbor. (Hoquiam is on the Hoquiam River; Aberdeen is on the Wishkah River.) The demand was a wage increase from $2 to $2.50 a day.
In Aberdeen, the mayor tried to make city employees into deputies to break the strike, but most quit rather than do so. A Citizen's Committee opposed the strike by breaking into the union hall, arresting many strikers, and dragging others into the surrounding swamps and clubbing them.
At Hoquiam, these vigilantes put 150 strikers into boxcars in an attempt to deport them, but here the town mayor along with railroad workers stopped the deportations.
From Raymond, Greek and Finnish sawmill workers were deported. Ethnicity continued as an issue when the Citizen's Committee recommended that the firms raise wages to $2.25, but give preference to hiring native-born American workers.
The companies agreed. The IWW strike committee recommended that the strikers return to work with this gain, and continue to build the organization. Thus the strike came to an end, and production resumed.