Bellingham Labor News

(Bellingham, WA: 1939-1943)

Report by Jordan Van Vleet

 Established in 1939, The Bellingham Labor News was the official publication of the Bellingham Central Labor Council.  It was published weekly until 1968 when it merged with other Northwest labor newspapers to become the Northwest Washington Labor News.[1]

Newspapers have long provided a window into the personality of the city or town where they are published and The Bellingham Labor News is no exception.  Although the title suggests it focused exclusively on the labor movement, the paper was crowned the “Official City Paper of Bellingham” in 1940 for its coverage of national news, local news, editorials, advertisements, and cartoons.  The Bellingham Labor News is thus an important source for understanding what life was like in a small but important Washington city in the mid-twentieth century.

The most distinct feature of the paper, however, was its coverage of the labor movement, and this fact provides individuals with a unique opportunity for understanding Bellingham’s labor history.  This essay will explore how the Bellingham Labor News reported on labor and unions between the years of 1939-1943.

Bellingham is located in the North Puget Sound region of Washington State, about ninety miles north of Seattle and twenty miles south of the Canadian border.  The city was formed when small mining and logging communities voted to consolidate in 1904.  By 1940 the city’s population had grown to over 60,000. 

During 1939-1943, a large group of individuals contributed to the Bellingham Labor News. Officers serving on the newspaper’s council changed frequently. For example, in December of 1939 the President of the paper was Phil Taylor.[2]  Less than a month later, however, the January 12, 1940 edition of the paper revealed that a new President, Ida Peterson, had taken over and the vice president, secretary, and treasurer had changed as well   William Healy, the paper’s manager, was the only councilperson to retain his position in the new year.[3]Ida Peterson held the position of President of the Bellingham Labor News into 1943.[4] 

The paper’s council members were not just passionately committed to the labor movement, they were also highly respected individuals in the Bellingham community. . For example, Ida Peterson was also named President of Bellingham’s Central Labor Council’s Credit Union in 1940.[5]  That the paper’s editorial council was respected both in the labor movement and in the broader community suggests that they had the respect of union voters as well as a passion for publishing an informative labor based paper that represented the vast majority of working peoples’ interests.  It also suggests that Bellingham was a labor city during the 1930s and 1940s.

Indeed, after reading a few issues of the Bellingham Labor News it is easy to see that the labor movement had a strong influence in Bellingham.  The fact that a labor newspaper was Bellingham’s primary news publication speaks for itself.  Moreover, the paper reveals that unions thrived in Bellingham. Nearly every job imaginable in the city had a union for employees. Meat cutters, shop owners, retail clerks, and hospitality workers all had their respective unions.[6]

Most of Bellingham’s workers belonged to unions associated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).  The AFL promoted trade unionism and mostly represented skilled workers, as opposed to the other prominent labor organization of this time, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which promoted industrial unionism and mostly represented unskilled workers.   

Between 1939 and 1943 the Bellingham Labor News had a strong focus on consumer issues and one cannot open the paper without seeing ads promoting local union organizations and their products.  Goods produced by union employees were constantly pushed and it seems like the paper expected readers to shop exclusively at union shops. One  advertisement in a 1940 issue of the paper took up about one-eighth of the page and read, “THESE STORES ARE UNION STORES AND DESERVE YOUR PATRONAGE.” Following the title came a long list of retail stores that were a part of the local retail clerks union: Retail Clerks No. 240.[7]  The Bellingham Labor News not only promoted union businesses but union products as well. One ad that continually appeared in the newspaper called for grocery store customers to, “Ask your Grocer for These Brands: Kulshan and Sonny Boy,” which were likely union made grocery products.[8]

But the task of “buying union” was not very difficult for consumers because, of the labor movement’s strong presence in Bellingham. Unions, in fact, were glue that helped hold the city together. Beginning in 1940, the “pertinent” question identified in the paper asked, “How Can We Have A Better Bellingham?”[9]  To help answer this question, the Bellingham Labor News, along with the Bellingham Central Labor Council, arranged a “Spring Gift Party.”[10]  The point of this event was to have all citizens of Bellingham and Whatcom County attend and give their answers to the question on hand. At the event, coupons to union stores were distributed at the cost of fifty cents each.[11]  In the spring of 1942, a similar event was organized. This event, referred to as the “1942 Spring Festival,” focused on helping the United States win the war.[12]  Just like the “Spring Gift Party,” labor unions from Bellingham planned and participated in the event. The 1942 Spring Festival was an extremely widespread celebration. Union groups collaborated with other organizations in Bellingham to make the event a success.[13]  These events show how the Bellingham Central Labor Council organized a large group of individuals to promote its members’ businesses.  Additionally, they show how the Bellingham Labor News was used to promote “buying union” campaigns. 

These events also reveal how the Bellingham public viewed unions in the mid-twentieth century.  During this time it was not uncommon for people to view unions in a negative light. They were notorious for interrupting America’s economy with their strikes and constant negotiations.  But from these examples it is apparent that the people of Bellingham looked favorably on the labor movement and unions were very much an important part of the city in the 1930s and 1940s.

Because of its AFL affiliation, the Bellingham Labor News’ coverage of national labor news focused on AFL campaigns and issues.  One article featured a story about the AFL’s fight for a six-hour workday without reduction of pay. “Shorter hours are held imperatively necessary to provide employment for workers whose jobs are destroyed through constant installation of labor displacing machinery.”[14]  During World War II the Bellingham Labor News reported on the AFL’s commitment to the war effort.  For example, in 1942 the paper ran a message from John P. Frey, the President of the AFL’s Metal Trades Department, where he argued “for all-out union cooperation with the nation to win the war.”[15]  A large portion of the Bellingham Labor News, then, was dedicated to highlighting AFL policies and declarations from its leaders.  This demonstrates that the paper was dedicated and loyal to this national labor organization.

But the Bellingham Labor News did not ignore local events and it was, in fact, extremely committed to reporting on local unions. The paper frequently highlighted local union events and meetings. A section of the paper entitled “Council Notes” contained local union news, reports on meetings, membership votes, and announcements.  The May 7, 1941 edition, for instance, included reports on the Teamsters, electricians, painters, electricians, painters, building laborers, laundry workers, furniture workers, retail clerks, carpenters, theater employees and barbers.[16]  By dedicating all this space to local information the paper showed its commitment to the local union movement.

One particular problem facing many small labor unions in the 1930s and 1940s involved the loss of employment jurisdiction.  Employment jurisdiction referred to a union’s right to represent all workers in a specific job or industry in a certain geographic area—without firm employment jurisdiction the jobs of union laborers could be taken by nonunionized workers. This was especially a problem from the city’s carpenters who frequently moved from job site to job site; when they completed one job they were often faced completion from nonunionized workers at new job sites. The Bellingham Labor News saw that lax employment jurisdiction regulations were hurting the local workforce.  Not surprisingly, they addressed this issue in great detail. On May 27th, 1942 the paper reported on the plight of Carpenters’ Union, Local 756 “It is the intention of the Carpenters to see that there is no repetition of what happened when the first construction job on Ruby Dam was started. At that time, although the project is located in Whatcom country and well within the jurisdiction of the Bellingham unions, work rights were usurped almost entirely by Seattle Carpenter and Construction Workers’ Unions.”[17]  The article also pointed out that this was not an isolated incident and other unions had been hurt by poor employment jurisdiction enforcement. Roofers’ Local No. 78 of Bellingham, for instance, supposedly had jurisdiction to complete roofing jobs in the Bellingham area. However, “Through thoughtlessness or lack of planning, carpenters and allied building craftsmen have been performing work on building projects in this area that should rightfully go to the Roofers.”[18]  Clearly, the Bellingham Labor News wanted to bring these labor injustices out into the public’s eye. That way, public participation could prevent such actions from occurring in the future.

In addition to just reporting on local union issues, the Bellingham Labor News set aside a portion of each edition for local union officers to write in and voice their opinions. In a 1943 edition of the paper, a representative from Retail Clerks, No. 270 wrote in, saying: “Cheerio, all my little rabbits. We are a bit wacky from all the Christmas rush, and hope you are all the same. But Merry Christmas anyhow, in case we can’t get anything written next week. Which we probably won’t.” The article later continued: “Most Salespeople who are really salespeople resent being called clerks. We for one do not like the name of our union. We wish we had something fancy like ‘Culinary’ to add to it.”[19]  Or, in a 1942 edition of the Bellingham Labor News Meat Cutters’ Local 247 was featured. “Well, the Meat Cutters continue to function in Whatcom and Skagit counties, as they have for the past quarter of a century” a representative from the union reported, “We do not make the headlines very often, but we succeeded over this period of time in gradually bettering our economic condition and in keeping our place in the van of progress.”[20]  By giving unions like the Meat Cutters and Retail Clerks a voice in its pages the Bellingham Labor News was able to provide readers with news of the labor movement that was not likely to make the headlines.  Thus, by highlighting local union issues and allowing all types of unions to submit written work, it is undeniable that the Bellingham Labor News was committed to the labor union movement in Bellingham.

During World War II the Bellingham Labor news changed its layout and began to run more articles about labor’s role in the war effort.  During the years of 1942-1943, the paper clearly called on organized labor to support the war.  This is not surprising when one considers the AFL’s reaction to the war. The AFL urged its’ members to participate in bond programs and other forms of home front support. But mostly, the AFL called upon its members to increase production to help the war effort.  In the 62nd Annual AFL Convention, for example, “Victory First” was the theme.[21]  In fact, the organization took great pride in the fact that it was a crucial to national defense.   An August 1941 article stated, for instance,” These are the questions and answers that all Americans are most interested in today: Who is building America’s defenses? The men and women of the American Federation of Labor. How are they  getting along with the job? In a way that evokes the pride and merits the praise of every citizen.”[22]  Indeed, the AFL praised their members for the hard work they put into the war effort and the organization used the pages of the Bellingham Labor Press to show that the AFL was willing to make major sacrifices for victory. “In personal expressions, the leaders emphasized their conviction that ‘labor as usual’ is ‘out’ for the duration.[23]    

Due to its’ geographic location and proximity to natural resources, Bellingham was extremely important in the American war effort.  Since it was a port town, many companies considered building a shipyard in Bellingham. In 1942, a man by the name of J. C. Foley came to Bellingham to search for shipyard sites. “According to information released by Mr. Foley, the interests he represented plan to seek contracts for the construction of navy barges and other craft.”[24]  The fact that Bellingham was targeted for a naval shipyard showed how the city’s geographical location contributed to the war effort. This was true in arenas onshore as well. Bellingham was located near dense forests. As a result, logging and the timber industry were instrumental parts of Bellingham’s economy. These industries proved to be instrumental to the war effort as well. During 1942, Milton H. Luce, deputy regional director of the War Production Board issued a statement in the paper, proclaiming, “Pacific Northwest forests will play an important role in providing the wood to replace iron, aluminum and critical metals in war production.”[25]  Indeed, during the war Bellingham industry turned its’ focus to the war effort and the city’s workers really did help lead America to victory. 

Bellingham citizens not working in the shipyards, mills, or forests still helped the war effort. Buying war bonds was something that everyone could do. During 1942-1943, the Bellingham Labor News was flooded with articles and advertisements promoting readers to buy war bonds and support the war effort and it ran many advertisements promoting war bonds.  These advertisements were large.  One appeared in a 1943 edition of the paper. This advertisement was sponsored by Puget Sound Power and Light Company and took up over half of a page.[26]  This is quite substantial when one considers that the average length of the paper was five or six pages.  Readers responded to these aggressive advertising campaigns. Bellingham’s Meat Cutters No. 247, for instance, put aside a great deal of their funds to purchase U.S. Defense Savings Bonds.[27]  This, though, is just one example of many local Bellingham unions that purchased war bonds from their union budget.

The Bellingham Labor News was written and managed by a diverse group of individuals from 1939 to 1943. All of these individuals, however, were committed to Bellingham’s labor movement.  Clearly, the Bellingham Labor News shows that in the mid-twentieth century, Bellingham was a labor city.   Moreover, the paper shows that there was a great deal of pride associated with union membership in Bellingham.  It gave small local unions a voice. One cannot rule out the importance of this paper to Bellingham labor and union history. From it, we are able to glance through windows of the past in order to gain a better understanding of labor’s role in Bellingham.                           

Notes


[1] Western Washington University, Guide to the Bellingham Central Labor Council Records, 1924-1976, http://nwda-db.wsulibs.wsu.edu/print/ark:80444/xv5233.

[2] Bellingham Labor News, December 29, 1939, p.2.

[3] Bellingham Labor News, January 12, 1940, p.2.

[4] Bellingham Labor News, December 17, 1943, p.2

[5] “Ida M. Peterson Named President of Credit Union,” Bellingham Labor News, January 24, 1940, p.1.

[6] Bellingham Labor News, May 27, 1942, p.2.

[7] Bellingham Labor News, January 19, 1940, p.2.

[8] Bellingham Labor News, May 27, 1942, p.2.

[9] “Pulling Together,” Bellingham Labor News, February 21, 1940, p.1.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Labor Will Take Part in Festival,”  Bellingham Labor News, May 27, 1942, p.1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Six-Hour Day and Five-Day Week Goal of A.F.L.,” Bellingham Labor News, January 5, 1940, p.1.

[15] “AFL Metal Trades Rally For War,” Bellingham Labor News, October 9, 1942, p.1.

[16] “Council Notes,” Bellingham Labor News, May 7, 1941, p.1.

[17] “Carpenters Fighting For Jurisdiction,” Bellingham Labor News, May 27, 1942, p.1.

[18] “Roofers Ask Help of Building Crafts in Effort to Hold Their Jurisdiction Over Roofing Work in War Building,” Bellingham Labor News, May 27, 1942, p.1.

[19] “Retail Clerks No. 240,” Bellingham Labor News, December 17, 1943, p.2.

[20] “Meat Cutters’ Local 247,” Bellingham Labor News, May 27, 1942, p.3.

[21] “Convention ‘Goes to Bat’ for War Aid,” Bellingham Labor News, October 9, 1942, p.1.

[22] “American Federation of Labor Unanimously Gives Its Support to the National Defense Program,” Bellingham Labor News, August 27, 1941, p.1.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “Kaiser Men Looking for a Site Here,” Bellingham Labor News, October 9, 1942, p.1.

[25] “Wood Is Now Vital to War Production,” Bellingham Labor News, October 9, 1942, p.1.

[26] The Bellingham Labor News, September 3, 1943, p.6.

[27] “Central Labor Council Notes,” Bellingham Labor News, June 25, 1941, p.1.

Click to enlarge

(October 9, 1942)

(January 24, 1940)

Established in 1939, The Bellingham Labor News was the official publication of the Bellingham Central Labor Council. In addition to serving on the Council's executive board, the paper's editors were also respected individuals in the community.
 


A Better Bellingham

The Bellingham Labor News not only sought to advance the labor movement, but also create a better city.

(February 21, 1940)


Supporting Bellingham's Labor Movement

While the paper contained local and international news, its overwhelming focus was on the labor movement.  Each edition contained short articles written by local unions.

(January 19, 1940)


Buy Union

Like many labor papers, The Bellingham Labor News encouraged readers to "buy union" and shop at union stores.


Support for the War

The paper vehemently supported the war effort.  In addition to running articles about organized labor's involvement in war time industries, the paper encouraged readers to by war bonds.

(August 27, 1941)

Copyright (c) 2008 by Jordan Van Vleet