Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

International Woodworkers of America (IWA) locals 1937-1955

by Henry John

All unions in the AFL-CIO call themselves "Internationals," acknowledging locals in Canada. No union more deserved the label than the International Woodworkers of America (IWA). Through most of its history (1937-1994), the Canadian districts balanced the US districts in membership and influence.

The union's history began in the Pacific Northwest timber strike of 1935. The failure of the AFL-affiliated United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners to respond to its members’ demands led to lumber and sawmill unionists splintering from the craft union to form the Federation of Woodworkers. A year later, the new union affiliated with John L. Lewis’s CIO through a vote ratified at their 1937 convention in Tacoma, Washington. They renamed themselves the International Woodworkers of America.

Canadian Harold Pritchett was elected president of the new IWA. He was the former president of the Lumber Workers’ Industrial Union of Canada and a supporter of the Communist Party. The union’s initial locals were heavily concentrated in the Pacific Northwest (from British Columbia to the California border) and until 1942 the IWA made little headway in the other forest regions of North America.

Due as much to the union’s affiliation with the CIO as to the Communist leanings of their leadership, the first years of the IWA’s existence were characterized by violence and hostility, as AFL-affiliated unions announced a boycott of all goods handled by IWA members. The late 1930s and early 1940s also saw sustained conflict within the IWA itself, with the anti-communist “White Bloc”, concentrated in the Columbia River District Council, waging a protracted struggle to wrest the leadership of the union away from Pritchett and the “Red Bloc” communist organizers. Pritchett was forced out of the presidency in 1940 when the U.S. government banned him from traveling into the United States.

Political tensions within the union reached the breaking point in 1948 after the U.S. Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act requiring unions to ban Communists from leadership positions. Pritchett and other British Columbia District Council 1 officers vowed to separate and launched the Woodworkers’ Industrial Union of Canada (WIUC). However, rank and file majorities rejected the move and almost all Canadian locals subsequently reaffiliated with the IWA.

Despite these struggles, the 1940s were a time of explosive growth for the IWA. Between 1941 and 1948, the forestry union doubled in size from 35,000 members to 85,000. Much of this growth occured in British Columbia, where Chinese-Canadian organizer Roy Mah and South Asian organizer Darshan Singh Sangha led efforts to organize non-white workforces around the Canadian province. The IWA in British Columbia expanded from five locals and 1,151 members in 1941, to thirteen locals and 24,453 members in 1948. Although still heavily concentrated in the transnational Pacific Northwest, the union also broadened its geography and by 1948 claimed locals in 31 states and provinces. Growth continued in the early 1950s with international membership surpassing 94,000 in most years, roughly one third of it in the British Columbia locals.

The maps below show the geography of the IWA from 1937 to 1955 when the CIO reunited with the AFL. Please see these pages for other CIO unions. The maps below are hosted on Tableau Public and may take a few seconds to respond. If slow, refresh the page.

Move between five maps and charts using the tabs below

Sources: The data for these maps and lists are compiled from roll call documents in the I.W.A.’s convention proceedings for 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955. These were found in the I.W.A. Canada Collection at the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives in Lake Cowichan, British Columbia. .

Research: Henry John

Data compilation and maps: Cameron Molyneux and James Gregory


Additional CIO maps and charts

CIO Unions History and Geography - Introduction

The CIO transformed American labor and American politics. Defying the American Federation of Labor's commitment to craft unionism, the Committee for Industrial Organization was launched in 1935 by leaders of the United Mine Workers and other AFL unions that had previously embraced industrial union organizing strategies. The goal was to build unions in core industries like steel, auto, aircraft, electrical appliances, meat packing, tires, and textiles that had blocked organizing efforts at every turn. Here we explore the history and geography of the CIO unions from 1935 through the end of the 1940s with maps and membership data showing the growth and in some cases decline of what will be a growing list of the major unions starting with United Auto Workers (UAW), United Electrical Workers (UE), International Ladies Garment Workers (ILGWU), International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

United Auto Workers (UAW) locals 1937-1949

Founded in 1935 as one of the first initiatives of the industrial union organizing committee led by John L. Lewis, the United Autoworkers won a breakthrough victory against General Motors in the dramatic Flint Michigan sit down strike in the winter of 1936-1937. After General Motors agreed to bargain, Chrysler and several smaller auto companies followed suit and by mid-1937 new union claimed 150,000 members and was spreading through the auto and parts manufacturing towns of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. These maps chart the spread of the UAW from April 1939 when it counted 172 locals and about 170,000 members to 1944 with 634 locals and more than one million members then though the late 1940s when conversion to civilian production and a post-war recession caused a dip in membership even as the number of locals increased. Watch the UAW spread across the map in the 1940s, anchored in Michigan and the Great Lakes states but claiming dozens of locals in the Northeast and California, and a sprinkling in Alabama, Geogia, and Texas.

United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) locals 1939-1949

Founded in 1936 by workers from General Electric, Westinghouse, Philco, RCA and other companies that made electrical appliances and machinery, UE soon became one of the largest and most controversial unions in the CIO, claiming a peak membership of 686,000 in 1944. UE was known as a left-wing union, many of its top leaders closely associated with the Communist Party. This had various implications in the early years. The union took strong positions on racial and gender equality. Women were important part of the work force and by the end of the war comprised about 40% of the membership. At the same time, the leftwing reputation left the union vulnerable to red-baiting, which nearly destroyed the union in the early 1950s. Here are five interactive maps and charts showing the year by year geography of the UE.

International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) locals 1934-1949

The ILWU broke away from the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) in 1937 in order to join the CIO. The West Coast locals of the ILA had waged a three-month long strike in 1934, closing all the ports up and down the Pacific Coast and winning employer recognition for locals that had been without bargaining rights since the 1920s. Led by militants who defied orders from ILA headquarters, the 1934 victory had set the stage for the 1937 split. Over the next 12 years, the newly independent ILWU would solidify longshore locals along the entirety of the West Coast while starting successful organizing drives in farming in Hawaii and warehouse locals both on the West coast and states further east. During this period, the union’s membership more than doubled, from 25,000 to 65,000 dues paying members.