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The IWW And Earth First! - Part 2: The Crucible

By X344543 - Industrial Worker, June 2013

The IWW connection to Earth First! was, believe it or not, woven in the woof. In fact, as far as the two organizations’ struggles with the timber bosses go, both could be said to have been forged from the same crucible: the Humboldt County town of Eureka in northwestern California, the de facto capital of the Redwood Empire.

Long before the IWW joined in Earth First!’s (ultimately successful) struggles to save Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, the roots of that struggle began with the workers’ struggles against the timber bosses.

In the formative years of the timber industry in the United States and Canada—the last third of the 19th century—working conditions were abysmal. Then, as now, timber was one of the top five most dangerous industrial jobs in the world. Timber workers were subjected to long hours, dangerous working conditions, unsanitary labor camps, company towns (where the employer was literally the government) and no job security. The bosses, meanwhile, were making a killing on the backs of both the workers and the environment. Vast amounts of standing timber were held by what would soon evolve into modern timber corporations, and not too few of them had acquired their holdings through graft and very questionable homesteading laws.

This was no exception in the Redwood Empire. In Eureka, the California Redwood Company (CRC), whose owners were European capitalists, was one of the worst examples. Workers at the CRC, many of whom were populists—including a butcher by the name of Charles Keller, who was a member of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA)—formed the very first union of timber workers in North America to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Together, they exposed the CRC’s graft, in spite of vigilante mobs organized by the CRC and the other companies as well as yellow jour nalism and slander by the local press. The union didn’t secure recognition, but they did improve working conditions slightly, and the CRC was forced to shut down.

The story of the IWW’s LumberWorkers Industrial Union and its successful fight for the eight-hour day is well documented elsewhere, but what is not well known is that, while the IWW never gained much of a foothold in the Redwood Empire (its successes were concentrated mostly in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana), its influence was felt there nonetheless.

In order to keep the IWW from gaining any support from among the local timber workers, two timber companies based in Humboldt County, The Pacific Lumber Company (PL) and The Hammond Lumber Company (HLC), introduced two innovations that would give the employers the upper hand in the class struggle which would ultimately have devastating consequences for the environment as well. HLC introduced the “bonus system,” under which they paid productivity bonuses to the department that achieved the highest production quotas, expressly to undermine shop-floor solidarity. This had the effect of not only inducing the workers to compete against each other and willingly enable a speed up, it facilitated the more rapid liquidation of the redwoods, because HLC cut their forests faster than they grew back.

Most of the other companies increased their production to keep up. Meanwhile, many other companies implemented and expanded the bonus system. Some companies, like Weyerhaeuser, who had a particularly intense ideological aversion to the IWW, as well as the more conservative business unions, even went a step further, introducing the contract logging, or “gyppo,” system throughout the Pacific Northwest.

This was done in reaction to the IWW’s winning of the eight-hour day in 1918 by way of their innovative “strike on the job.” The Wobbly organizers knew that their victory was temporary and anticipated that the bosses would expand the gyppo system to undermine it. The IWW had plans to respond to the threat, and had historical currents flowed differently, they might have succeeded by using solidarity unionism, but different forms of unionism, namely that of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) eclipsed the IWW due to the influence of the ascendant communist currents.

Although the gyppo system took several decades to become the dominant method of employment among logging crews, this system ultimately made it nearly impossible for any union (other than the IWW) to organize loggers, thus making the bargaining position of the more heavily unionized mill workers far weaker.

Meanwhile, in 1909, PL began charting a different course from their fellow capitalist operations. Sensing that they could keep their wage slaves loyal to the company, they began paying their workers generous benefits and introducing a variety of social programs. These changes weren’t introduced out of pure altruism, however. On the contrary—and the PL bosses made no secret of this—they were expressly implemented to keep the IWW out, as can be seen in the following quote:

“Get your men loyal and keep them so. Let this replace loyalty to a union. The spirit is what you want in your men. Ten good men will accomplish as much as fifteen ordinary laborers if the spirit and good will is there. Treat them right and they will treat you right.” (emphasis added, A E Blockinger, Pacific Lumber General Manager, writing in the Pioneer Western Lumberman, July 15, 1911)

And the bosses succeeded. When the IWW strike for the eight-hour day shook Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, PL simply paid more benefits and added more programs.

The IWW succeeded in winning the eight-hour day, but the credit was given to a company union established by the bosses (in reaction to the IWW) called the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (LLLL). Membership in the LLLL was compulsory, and the U.S. military, under the command of Col. Brice Disque was dispatched to enforce its directive. However, Disque’s heavy-handedness was as bad as the bosses, leading to even some of the soldiers under his command to strike on the job like the IWW. Sensing defeat, Disque and the bosses “granted” the eight-hour day, and only succeeded in keeping the IWW from immediately regaining momentum by further implementing programs similar to those instituted by PL in Humboldt County.

The IWW rightfully denounced both the LLLL and PL attempts to steal their thunder, but couldn’t mount a response before the ascendant Communist Party stole the IWW’s thunder on the Left and among the working class in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, much of the union organizing among timber workers was done by the CIO, whose left wing was largely aligned with the Communist Party.

Meanwhile, PL remained nonunion, but (unlike most of its competitors) it also retained its paternalistic culture for almost 70 years. During that time, its owners, who were all part of the same family and only the second group to ever control the company after acquiring it in 1909 from its original founders, became known as the “lumber company in the white hats,” both in terms of how they treated their workers as well as how they treated the environment.

While other firms liquidated their forests for quick profits, PL logged sustainably so that by the 1980s they owned the largest inventory of privately-owned standing old growth redwoods in the world.

Ironically, these sustainability practices would have likely resulted from workers’ control as well. The IWW called for sustainable logging, primarily because it resulted in safer working conditions and job security, but also because the union recognized that unsustainable logging only aided the bosses in their consolidation of profits.

PL’s uniqueness would be their ultimate undoing. By the 1980s, PL was cash rich, with a diversified portfolio of assets that included farmland and a welding business, their sizable and sustainably logged timber holdings, the company town of Scotia (just south of Eureka), and a well-funded pension fund. While other logging firms were quickly mowing down their forests and debt financing their companies in the neoliberal Reaganite era of the 1980s, PL was an anomaly, a rare example of a business that actually followed the examples set forth in naïve, high school economics text books. By doing so, PL made itself an attractive target for the ruthless capitalist raiders that had taken over the reins of capitalism at the time, and it wasn’t long before the company was picked off like a sitting duck.

Indeed, in late 1985, a corporate raider named Charles Hurwitz, aided by the infamous Ivan Boesky, took advantage of lax regulation over corporate securities trading and managed—through a very complex series of stock trades, not all of which were (barely) legal—to acquire enough shares of the Pacific Lumber Company to induce its owners to sell the rest of it to him.

Many shareholders, including descendants of the family dynasty that had owned the company for years, attempted to fight back and filed a barrage of (ultimately unsuccessful) lawsuits in the process. They were joined by many of the company’s 800 workers who approached the International Woodworkers Union (IWA, a founding affiliate of the CIO in the 1930s) and also took out a full-page ad in the Eureka Times-Standard protesting the takeover.

Such activity, at a company that had never had a union in its century of existence, was unprecedented. All of those in opposition to the takeover feared that Hurwitz and his Maxxam Inc. would liquidate the company’s assets and abolish its sustainable logging practices. These fears turned out to be correct.

Because Hurwitz had incurred huge debts in the process of taking over PL, to meet his debt obligation he liquidated much of the company’s assets and tripled the rate of cutting. Mill workers were forced to work 60-hour weeks, and a bunch of gyppo firms were brought in to handle the additional logging. The IWA, being bound to the AFL-CIO’s ineffective business union model, was unable to organize these new workers, and the union organizing drive fizzled. In spite of the increased jobs and lucrative overtime, longtime PL employees and environmentalists both agreed that the long-term future of the company and Humboldt County looked bleak. PL was no longer “the guys in the white hats,” but was now as rapacious and greedy as most other logging corporations that dominated the Pacific Northwest.

There were many local environmental organizations that opposed these changes (and were sympathetic to the workers’ plight as well), but they were busy fighting already raging environmental battles, including opposing herbicide spraying, offshore oil drilling, and clearcutting by other logging companies in the region. Somebody new would have to take on this new struggle. Fortunately, two recently arrived activists, Darryl Cherney and Greg King, did, and they would do so under the banner of Earth First!

Earth First! had already existed for five years and had even taken on timber companies for a couple of years, beginning in 1983 in the nearby Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon, but in those cases, the protests had focused on public lands rather than private holdings. Also, in the previous cases, Earth First!’s actions tended to alienate timber workers. This time—at least initially—the new Earth First! chapter would attempt to ally with the workers, because it was fairly obvious they shared a common enemy.

Earth First! couldn’t organize workers at the point of production however, and the business unions had proven incapable, but there was one union that could succeed. It was only a matter of time before it would make its presence known, and that crucible of forest radicalism, Humboldt County in California would work its magic once again.

To be continued...

Next installment: “Tree Spikes and Wedges.”

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