Chapter 2 - The Lumber Trust Autocracy Over Labor
The Lumber Trust we may consider as the One Big Union of the bosses in the timber industry. We find the lumber companies closely and efficiently organized, with tremendous power and fabulous wealth; while among the workers in the lumber industry there was until lately an almost complete lack of organization. As a class they were lacking in power and reduced to a state of economic dependence and servitude.
In the lumber industry there are two classes of workers, those who work in the woods and those who work in the saw mills. In a typical saw mill town, industrial feudalism exists in it's worst form. The lumber company by reason of it's economic control, is the one supreme power. Usually the local political office holders are either employee of the company, or are economically dependent on it in some way, and thus completely under it's control. The entire life of the community revolves around the saw mill. The workers in the saw mill live in company owned houses, or board at the company boarding house. They trade at the company store; their children go to a company controlled school; when they are sick they go to the company hospital, or are treated by the company doctor. When they are dead they are buried in the company cemetery, and their souls are saved by a company preacher.
In large lumber centers, where there are a number of saw mills, the companies do not maintain their own stores, and in some ways there is a little freedom.
As a rule about half of the saw mill workers are men with families. The companies usually prefer this kind of employee, as a man burdened with the responsibility of family life takes his job more seriously, works more steadily, and is less apt to exhibit those admirable--but to the bosses undesirable--qualities of independence and rebellion than the unencumbered migratory worker.
Long hours and low wages prevailed in the saw mills. Ten hours was the work day. With the exception of head sawyers, saw filers and a few others the saw mill workers were paid just enough to enable them to maintain their existence. The constantly rising cost of living made the life of the saw mill worker a perpetual struggle to make ends meet--perpetual because the ends refused to meet.
Saw mill work is monotonous and uninteresting. Like all machine tenders, the saw mill worker is reduced to a mere automaton. The pace is set by machinery speeded up to the limit of human endurance. The day's work consists of a continuous repetition of the same motions, at top speed. The work of saw mill employee is also exceedingly dangerous. Few men who have worked as sawyers for any length of time, are possessed of a sound pair of hands, and many have lost one or more of their fingers. Often it is a whole hand. Most of the other jobs in a saw mill are equally dangerous. A single misstep or a slip would mean death or mutilation in the whirling, unguarded machinery accidents are frequent. Most of these happen in the last hour of the work day, which proves that long hours of exhausting work cause a man to lose his quickness, alertness, and accurate coordination of hand and eye. Statistics show that, other things being equal, accidents are more common on ten hour than on eight hour jobs.
The lumber companies have always bitterly opposed organization among their employee. In the lumber towns the company spotters, the stoolpigeon, and the spy are always in evidence, and on the alert to win the favor of the company officials by reporting any union activity. If an employee of a lumber company is suspected of being an agitator, or of belonging to a union, he at once becomes a marked man, and soon finds himself out of a job and blacklisted.
If a saw mill worker is submissive and subordinates his manhood and sacrifices his independence to the will of the company, he is rewarded by a life of grinding poverty, hopeless drudgery and a condition of economic dependence and insecurity If he asserts his manhood, he faces discharge and the blacklist which, if he is a married man, means the breaking up of his home, and separation from wife and children.
Different methods of logging are used in different parts of the country. The western part of Washington, Oregon and California is known as the long log country. Eastern Washington and Oregon, Northern Idaho, Western Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are known as the short log country.
Conditions in the lumber camps were no better than in the saw mill towns. With few exceptions the work day was ten hours, and in addition to this the men had to walk long distances to and from work. Considering the long hours and the hard and dangerous nature of the work, the wages were miserably small. The camps, especially in the short log country were relics of barbarism--more like cattle pens than the habitations of civilized men in the twentieth century. The bunk houses were dirty, unsanitary, and overcrowded, the men being packed into double bunks, built in two tiers, one above the other. The companies furnished neither mattresses nor bed clothing, thus forcing the men to furnish their own blankets. No provision was made for ventilation and when all bunks were
full, the amount of air space per man was less than one-fourth of the minimum specified by the government health authorities. There were no drying rooms in the camps. The only place to dry clothing was around the stove in the bunk house, and the steam and odor from these wet clothes, added to the impurities of the stagnant air. As a rule the lighting of the bunk houses was so poor that it was almost impossible to read. There were no baths in the camps, neither were there any facilities for washing clothes.
In most lumber camps the food was fairly substantial and plentiful as was necessary to enable the men to endure the long hours arid hard work; but this was not always the case, and in some camps, especially in hard winters when men were plentiful, the food was both insufficient in quantity and of the poorest quality.
There was no sanitary method of disposing of garbage in the camps. It was usually dumped just outside the cook house door. In hot weather these garbage piles rotted and stank and formed an ideal breeding place for swarms of flies. Another unsanitary feature of the camps was the existence of dry, open toilets a short distance from the cook houses.
In the long log country, conditions were somewhat better. The bunk houses were larger, cleaner and better ventilated. There were no double bunks. In most camps springs and mattresses were furnished, and in a few places,after the strike of 1913, shower baths were installed.
Every man was charged a hospital fee of one dollar per month. This was deducted from the wages and was supposed to be used for the maintenance of hospitals for the benefit of the men in case of sickness or accident. In most cases contracts were made with hospital associations but these arrangements were far from satisfactory. In these hospitals lumberjacks were looked upon as paupers and were usually treated with a neglect nothing short of criminal. The main object was to get them out of the hospital with as little trouble and expense as possible. In some places men received fairly decent treatment but these were the exception. In providing hospital treatment economy, not tile welfare of the men, was the main consideration. No treatment was given for any chronic disease and on the hospital tickets it was distinctly specified that no medical attention would be given except for accidents sustained, or disease contracted, while actually in the employ of the company. A list of diseases for which no treatment would be given was printed on the tickets, arid this list contained all the diseases a lumberjack was ever likely to get. In some places a joint use was made of hospitals by lumber come' panics and railroads. The railroad men received far better treatment than the lumberjacks. The railroad men were organized and the lumberjacks were not and the better treatment of the railroad workers was a tribute to the power of unionism.
Some of the lumber companies maintained their own hospitals and in these, in conformity with the rules of "good business," cheapness and economy were the main consideration. Most of them were lacking in equipment and often incompetent doctors and nurses were employed. The lumberjacks had paid marry times over for these hospitals, yet they received less consideration than charity patients. Whether a "timberbeast" lived or died, was of little concern to the company doctors. All they cared was to get him off their hands as quickly as possible, whether alive or dead made little difference. Often a lumberjack would go into one of these hospitals with some comparatively slight injury, such as a broken leg, which by skillful arid conscientious treatment could have been completely cured in a few weeks, only to be turned out a permanent cripple. Many a formerly able-bodied man is now dragging thru life, a hopeless cripple, as a result of the criminal and brutal neglect received in these hospitals. It is bad enough to rob and exploit strong and healthy men but, for the sake of a few paltry dollars, the ghoulish greed of the Lumber Trust did not scruple to rob sick and injured men of their chance of health or life.
As the lumber companies furnished no bedding in the camps, each man had to furnish his own. This was not only an added expense, but forced a man to carry his bed on his back when looking for a job, which was a great and
unnecessary waste of energy. At one time a law was passed in Montana, prohibiting the carrying of blankets in that state on the ground that it caused the spread of disease. This law was never enforced for it would have compelled the employers to furnish bedding and that would not have been profitable.
Besides being robbed and exploited on the job the lumber workers were subjected to the petty graft of the employment agents who infect every city and make a business of recruiting men and shipping them out to the job. These petty grafters who fleeced the workers by making them pay for the privilege of being skinned by the big grafters had, in many places, a practical monopoly on the jobs, exacting tribute from all in search of work. They practiced the meanest and most contemptible kind of graft--not only robbing workers, but workers who could least effort to be robbed--the unemployed. The usual price a man had to pay for a job was one dollar but in slack times when jobs were scarce these parasites took advantage of the necessity of the workers and extorted a much higher price, often selling jobs to the highest bidder. Not only were men forced to pay for the right to work, but the most brazen frauds were practiced, especially on new arrivals from the farming districts and from other countries. It was a common occurrence for a man to buy a job and pay his fare to some distant place, only to find that there was no job there. The law offered no protection to the victims of these sharks as they usually "stood in" with the local authorities, and the migratory workers were regarded as their legitimate prey.
Bosses and employment agents worked in collusion to skin the workers. In many camps and mills a man could not get a job unless he held a ticket from an employment office. Often a foreman would have an agreement with
one or more of these sharks for a division of their graft and its increase, by which they would keep shipping him men, and he would keep discharging them, thus giving rise to what is known as the "three gang system," that, is, one gang coming, one gang working on tile job, and the third gang going back to town to buy more jobs.
At one time this abuse became so glaring that the legislature of the state of Washington passed a law forbidding employment agents to charge for jobs. But this law did not abate the evil in the least. Most of the sharks
were small store keepers, poolroom or soft drink joint proprietors, or worked in conjunction with other small business men and instead or charging a man direct for a job, they forced him to hand over several dollars, ostensibly for clothes, blankets, or cheap, worthless jewelry, but in reality for the job. This law only made it worse for the workers, as it forced them to pay mole for jobs and if a man, after making the required purchases, was sent to a place where there was no job, he had not even his former slim chance to get his money back as he was not supposed to have paid for the job at all. This law was afterwards declared unconstitutional but it made little difference for the robbery of the sharks continued unchecked, regardless of whether or not the law remained on the statute books.