Report by Geraldine Carroll and Michael Moe
Abstract: The Timber Worker, the publication of the Federation of the Woodworking Industry, was the precursor of the International Woodworker, the official newspaper of the International Woodworkers of America. The paper stated its official policy as "devoted to the interests of the workers in the lumber industry and to promoting working class solidarity." Born in 1935 in the midst of a strike, the paper developed from the voice of a local community of Aberdeen, Washington, to that of the international union. Its primary focus was local union news, but, even in its early days, the paper weighed in on national and international news, class consciousness, communism in unions, and the division between the AFL and CIO.
Dates: October 9, 1936-January 15, 1942; weekly; generally 12-16 pages; collection incomplete
Circulation: Official figures available only for 1938 (24,356), 1939 (37,800), and 1940 (37,800)
Editors: Ray Nouska (1936-1938); Nat Honig (1938); Louis R. Huber (1938-1940); and Kenneth L. Pettus (1940-1942)
Affiliation: Federation of the Woodworking Industry and, later, the International Woodworkers of America
The Timber Worker, the publication of the Federation of the Woodworking Industry, was the precursor of the International Woodworker, the official newspaper of the International Woodworkers of America. The paper stated its official policy as "devoted to the interests of the workers in the lumber industry and to promoting working class solidarity." Born in 1935 in the midst of a strike, the paper developed from the voice of a local community of Aberdeen, Washington, to that of the international union. Its primary focus was local union news, but, even in its early days, the paper weighed in on national and international news, class consciousness, communism in unions, and the division between the AFL and CIO.
The Timber Worker began publication in 1935 as a strike bulletin; no copies of the first year of publication are available in the University of Washington’s collection. By 1936, the paper, which generally ran 12 pages but occasionally shot up to 20 or more, had become a weekly, published by the Timber Worker Publishing Company of Aberdeen, WA. Ray Nouska served as the paper’s first editor, managing editor, and business manager. Missing editions of the paper make it difficult to pinpoint exactly when Nouska ended his tenure, but, by 1938, Nat Honig had become editor, and Bert Dietz, previously one of the few reporters with a byline, became business manager. Later in that same year, the editorial position had been taken over by Louis R. Huber. By 1940, Kenneth L. Pettus became editor and remained in that position until at least 1942. The paper relied upon the Federated Press, the left wing, union-affiliated press service, for stories, beginning very late in 1936. Circulation figures for the publication are unknown for the first couple of years of its existence, but, by 1938, the paper reached 24,356 readers, a number that rose by 1940 to 37,800. Official figures are again unavailable for 1941 or 1942.
In a time of left-leaning union building, in an industry with a radical edge, The Timber Worker showed little evidence of socialist or communist sentiments in its editorial stance. In fact, its politics were unquestionably Democratic and unabashedly pro-Roosevelt. In an article calling for donations to help pay for Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936, the paper emphasized the need for labor to support financially Roosevelt’s bid for reelection, for the president could not turn to big business in light of his pro-labor stances. Roosevelt, in the paper’s view, had "done more for labor in one term than all of the other men" who had served as president. (October 23, 1936) Upon Roosevelt’s reelection, the editors proclaimed, "fear has been banished from the nation. Forces that have for long retarded progress and submerged liberties have been brushed aside to make way for changes in our political, economic, and social system that can no longer be denied." (November 6, 1936)
Throughout its publication, The Timber Worker strongly stressed the need for workers to support pro-labor candidates and legislation. It saw this strategy as "the only permanent means by which Organized Labor can maintain some semblance of economic security and at the same time guarantee the continued prosperity of the businessmen and farmers of the state." (October 16, 1936) A number of articles and editorials from the paper’s early days urged workers to use their votes to guarantee pro-labor politics. In fact, the paper exhorted its readers to vote no matter their politics, although the direction of that vote was not in much doubt: "It is the worker’s privilege to vote for whomsoever he wishes. . . . Labor is stronger this year than ever before in the history of organized labor. A big labor vote will be proof of that fact." (October 9, 1936)
International issues found their ways into the pages of The Timber Worker. Early on, the paper criticized the growing power of Hitler and Mussolini. In a regularly appearing column of short, general commentary on national and international issues, John Paine played on Hitler’s statement that the German people could not afford the luxury of democracy and questioned if Hitler himself was a luxury the Germans could afford. As the Spanish Civil War marched into headlines across the nation and the world, The Timber Worker allied itself with the anti-fascist forces, proclaiming in an editorial that "Hitler and Mussolini, having squandered the substance of their people for materials of war, now ride the air and seas provoking incidents which may embroil all the nations of Europe . . they epitomize the basest and most destructive forces of humanity." (June 4, 1937) A year later, the editors urged U.S. housewives to boycott Japanese silk, for its sale supported the oppression of the Chinese people in the war against Japan. (January 1, 1938)
As the threat of direct U.S. involvement in the war became more real, however, the paper was overwhelmingly anti-war in its sentiments. Time and again, articles stressed the need for America to stay out of the war. In a July 1940 article, International President Harold J. Pritchett was quoted as saying, "Each day the danger of America's involvement in the European war becomes more imminent, yet we all know the American people do not want war." (July 13, 1940) However anti-war the paper might have been, though, it did push to ensure that no labor law violators would receive defense contracts, stating in the November 16th, 1940 issue that "[t]he labor press is almost unanimously agreed that defense contracts should be withheld from violators of federal labor laws."
Later, as war became a reality, however, the paper stressed labor’s important role in assisting the war effort. Labor was called upon as an instrumental device in winning the war. Headlines in support of the war appeared frequently: "Unlimited Production Now—FDR," "Essence of Our Struggle is Freedom," "People’s Sacrifice to End Hitlerism," "Berlin World’s Main ‘Slave Market,’" and "We Must Build A Better World." Titles such as these described the shifting sentiment toward the war effort among the woodworkers.
Local Union News
The Timber Worker focused on local union issues or politics. Column fillers encouraged readers to "insist on the union label" or "buy only union products." The paper, especially at its start, reminded its readership of union meetings and union business, even if that business had nothing to do with the woodworkers. Alaska fishermen, pulpcutters, and longshoremen found themselves represented among the articles and announcements of the paper’s early days. The short articles of the first years of publication often focused on the labor troubles and issues of the Pacific Northwest. In these same years, information about life in the Northwest lumber towns can be gleaned from advertisements for local businesses, especially taverns and restaurants, and from events such as dances and other socials. Oftentimes local unions sponsored these events. Only later, when the style and publication address of the paper changed, did national labor news take a starring role. Growing aspects of the paper during the late 1930s and early 1940s were rising numbers of stories describing the triumph of African Americans and women and a growing section entitled "Rank and File Opinions." The vigor of union organizing and idealism in the Northwest can, in part, be measured by the glut of union news finding its way into the pages of the woodworkers’ paper.
Of course, all of this news was not positive. Strikes, lockouts, and pleas for money to support the victims of the two appeared regularly. The continuing struggle of workers with the local McCleary Timber Company took a lot of ink, with the paper following the recurring demands, negotiations, pickets, and injunctions. Similarly, The Timber Worker followed the strike by journalists against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Hearst Corporation; its attitude towards Hearst and the company’s actions in another labor dispute in Chicago was apparent later in an article headlined, "Hearst Thugs Face Prosecution in Chicago." (January 15, 1939)
A major Northwest labor event—the Centralia Massacre—took center stage in a series of articles that attempted to raise awareness and money for Ray Becker, the last Industrial Workers of the World prisoner remaining of those convicted in the trials that followed the 1919 massacre. Education of the public was a secondary goal, for the paper knew it was proselytizing to the faithful; it assumed the readers’ knowledge of the massacre itself and went on to relate what had happened since the trials, with the goal of securing Becker’s release.
The paper stayed true to its motto of "promoting working class solidarity" by consistently making jabs at the owning class. An early editorial criticized the actions of Mrs. Edwin Selvin and "other Seattle club women" who had gone to Olympia to lobby the governor to bring pressure to bear on striking Post-Intelligencer workers instead of demanding an investigation of the strike by a grand jury. The class division is obvious in the paper’s characterization of these women as "high-minded socialites" who "have torn themselves away from their bridge tables. (October 16, 1936) A week later, Selvin again came in for criticism in a recurring column entitled "Comment," when she was elected chair of the statewide Women of Washington. Again, the paper made no apology for its characterization of Selvin and her supporters as "a group of thrill seeking bridge devotees" headed to Olympia. (October 23, 1936, p. 6)
Class-consciousness also appeared in later issues, which ran a recurring cartoon called "The Upper Crust" that skewered the owning class by depicting an upper-echelon couple, living in opulence, facing problems with the workers, be they servants or employees of the couple’s unnamed industry. Needless to say, the depiction characterized the couple as arrogant and greedy buffoons.
The Timber Worker made the occasional swipe at those wishing to stain the paper and all unions with a red hue. A short commentary piece related events in Salinas, CA during a lettuce strike. During the strike, red flags appeared around town, specifically at intersections and on power poles. Fearing communists, the local authorities took down the flags, only to discover later that they were "part of a traffic check being made by the state highway division." (October 9, 1936)
A short time later, in an article entitled "Bosses Seek Federation Downfall," reporter Bruce Dietz reprinted and analyzed a letter sent to all major timber companies by the West Coast Lumberman’s Association. The letter warned employers about the newly formed Federation of the Woodworking Industry and its radical agenda of revolution. Dietz characterized the letter as "the source of a red-baiting campaign to wreck the entire Federation." (October 23, 1936) This red baiting made an occasional appearance later as well as labor found itself split over the direction in which it should head.
Division of Labor
The Timber Worker acknowledged splits within the labor movement itself and even contributed to them. In articles describing the changes in the timber industry from high-lead to truck-and-tractor logging, the paper analyzed how this shift would affect workers. The newer type of logging relied far more heavily on truckers. The question facing labor, however, was who should represent these truckers. The Timber Worker clearly positioned itself against the Teamsters Union when it stated "everyone except the Teamsters seem able to see clearly why the truck drivers should be under the jurisdiction of the Sawmill and Timberworkers." Still, the paper, while favoring industrial unions over craft ones, warned "with one common foe, everything to gain by maintaining solidarity and lots to lose by squabbling among themselves, the unions involved in this controversy are determined to iron out the difficulties without letting the controversy get into a dispute of far-reaching possibilities." (October 26, 1937)
This squabbling between labor organizations, based as it was on the issue of craft vs. industrial unions, grew until it uprooted the timber workers from their affiliation with the AF of L’s Carpenters Union and planted them in the newly formed CIO’s International Woodworkers of America in 1937. This conflict built through 1936 and 1937, with the paper’s editors at first urging cooperation with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, with whom the woodworkers were affiliated but denied full voting rights. At the 1936 Carpenters’ convention, the rift between the groups was already apparent but the coming complete split was held at bay. Editor Ray Nouska listed four reasons the timber workers should be happy on Christmas Day, 1936, one of which was their link to a union that was looked up to by the public as "protector of the working man in our industry." (December 25, 1936, p. 1) A second editorial on that same day stated, "We are anxious to continue our affiliation with this oldest American labor group under circumstances which insure our growth, progress, and liberty." (p. 6)
Tensions between the two organizations were rising, however, and the Carpenters’ secretary, Frank Duffy, warned of "the sweetest fight you ever saw" if the timber workers chose to walk away from the AF of L. (December 11, 1936) The Timber Worker chose to keep the focus on Duffy’s provocative stance when it reported his chronicling of the timber workers’ failed attempts at industrial unions earlier in the century. (January 1, 1937) The paper also pointed out Duffy’s attacks on the publication itself, claiming he labeled it a "communistic sheet." The editors chose to respond by stating, "if the speaking of the truth makes The Timber Worker communistic, so it shall be for it will continue as it has been in the past." (January 1, 1937)
Within months, the paper’s strong advocacy of Lewis’s group grew. The editors labeled the CIO the "People’s Choice" and claimed it was "the choice of nearly every worker, organized or unorganized, in the United States, and a two-to-one choice of the whole population." (November 27, 1936) This support of the CIO came with an equally strong derision for the AF of L and its "complacent, smug, indolent, do-nothing" policymaking. (June 4, 1937) The CIO was seen as a progressive, new institution, while the AFL was led by a "decadent hierarchy of old men." One cartoon showed a man on a wooden raft being saved by a huge boat in the middle of the ocean. The man represents the woodworkers; his raft, the Brother of Carpenters and Joiners; and the big boat, the CIO. Only through the CIO would the woodworkers be saved from drowning within the ineffectiveness of AFL. (June 4, 1937)
In July 1937, the Woodworkers voted by a five to one margin to ends its membership in the AFL and join the CIO. Bert Dietz glowed as he reported, "the delegates . . . realized their greatest ambition: a union of their own! The Charter [was] inscribed with those almost magic words that the convention had chosen to identify their new international with: INTERNATIONAL WOODWORKERS OF AMERICA." (July 23, 1937)
This definitive vote did not stop the attacks on the Teamsters or the AF of L in The Timber Worker. In 1938, the editors managed to hit both in one stroke. Dave Beck, head of the Seattle Teamsters and characterized by the paper as the "acknowledged head of the AFL," negotiated a contract for his workers for the city’s garbage removal. The contract cut wages by upwards of 23%. Still, Seattle’s mayor Arthur B. Langlie received Beck’s full support for reelection. The Timber Worker wondered, "How long—or, better, how short—a time the honest membership of the AFL will cling to the dying limbs of a tree where Dave Beck and his henchmen can shake them down at any time—is something to be wondered at." (June 18, 1938)
The Timber Worker, in its earliest years, spoke for a union that was very much still in the making and for a time that saw a dramatic increase in unionism, the likes of which would not be replicated. The radicalism of the movement, especially of the CIO, was hinted at in the paper but was never given full voice. Still, the power of labor and the knowledge of that power flowed easily from its pages. With the establishment of the International Woodworkers as a distinct union, the paper could and would turn its attention toward growth. In a way, this move took from the paper the sharp edge, the heady fever that came with its youthfulness. The paper became a source of information for a union that had found its place in an industry rather than remaining a voice calling for that industry to organize and represent itself. And that is the best measure of success for any labor paper.
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Edited by members of the Communist Party, the paper took left wing and progressive stances on many issues affecting the loggers and mill workers of the Pacific Northwest.
Representing Woodworkers In America and Canada
The Federation of Woodworkers, and then the IWA, had district councils in the American Northwest, upper Mid-West, and British Columbia, and latter in the yellow pine regions of the South. Though the union spread across the U.S., its largest, strongest, and most militant district councils were located in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.
CIO! CIO! CIO!
In July 1937, at a special convention, delegates from the Federation of Woodworkers lamented the conservative policies of the AFL and voted to disaffiliate. With an overwhelming majority, the delegates decided to align with the more radical Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) under the name the International Woodworkers of America. From then on, the union increased their organizing efforts, bringing unskilled workers in the mills and logging camps into the union, and took leftist stances on a host of social and political issues.
Locked Out and Persecuted
Immediately after the Woodworkers broke from the AFL and aligned with the CIO, jurisdictional disputes occurred throughout the Pacific Northwest as the AFL fought--sometimes violently--to hold on to its members. Fearing violent situations, many mill owners shut their plants, forcing IWA members onto the picket lines. The conflict was especially intense in Portland, where 8 mills shut down, the IWA and Teamsters engaged in violent fights, and IWA members were without work for nearly a year. But by 1938, the IWA emerged victoriorious, the workers were allowed back into the mills with the IWA as their representative body, and the union was free to build its membership.
The Women's Auxiliary
Although usually depicted as social groups, the IWA's women's auxiliaries did much more than hold social events and parties. IWA women formed political action committees, lobbied government for labor support, and auxiliary members took an active stance on many progressive issues like affordable housing, childcare, as well as advocating for birth control and gender equality in the home. The IWA women's auxiliary was also crucial to the union's victory in the lockout in Portland, where women walked the picket lines, ran soup kitchens, and lobbied the public for support. Each edition, the Timber Worker ran a full page dedicated to the Women's Auxiliary.
World War II
Although weary of involvement in the war initially, the IWA came to support America's entry into World War II on the belief that Fascism and Nazism needed to be stopped.
copyright (c) 2001 by Gerardine Carroll & Michael Moe