Skip to main content

Chapter 7 - Labor Conditions in the Lumber Industry

OWING to the nature of the industry conditions for loggers differ considerably from those of most workers. Situated in thinly settled forest regions, lumber camps are, to a great extent, cut off from civilization. The resulting conditions are a peculiar mixture of capitalism and feudalism, civilization and barbarism. Each camp is a community by itself--a unit in the industrial empire of the Lumber Trust--and is ruled by a foreman who has the powers of a petty czar. The company not only plays the part of employer but also that of hotel and store keeper. In supplying food and shelter they have a complete monopoly, and are practically free from all restrictions which ordinarily apply to hotel and restaurant keepers. Sanitary conditions which prevail in camps would not be tolerated elsewhere; in towns or cities they would be a menace to the health of society, which means the "better classes" or bourgeois element. But the welfare of workers is no consideration. Intelligent stock breeders feed their cattle and hogs scientifically, and house them in sanitary quarters, for they are articles of value. But wage slaves have no value; consequently they have no protection unless they are organized to protect themselves. In isolated places where the greed of capitalism is unrestricted by considerations of public health and safety, and unchecked by working class organization, conditions fall below the minimum of civilization and can only be described as barbarous. Few of the characteristics that distinguish the present century from the dark ages are found in lumber camps. These camps are monuments to the greed of the lumber barons and the servile submission of the workers.

In the average unorganized camp the food is of the cheap, adulterated variety. The meat runs heavy to sausage and liver. Some years ago government investigation of the packing houses laid bare the inside facts of sausage making. Only meat unfit for any other use goes into sausages. Slunk calves, diseased chunks of meat cut from "lumpy-jawed" cattle, and dead rats, are all ground up together, preserved, colored, and flavored with chemicals, and put up in the form of sausages. In the words of Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, "There are things that go into sausages in comparison with which a poisoned rat is a tid-bit." The same conditions prevail today. These "foods" are consumed entirely by workers. Their manufacture is highly profitable, so it will continue till the workers themselves put a stop to it.

Soggy hot-cakes and syrup, rancid oleomargarine, cheap imitations labeled jams and jellies, dried or canned fruit, canned peas, canned milk, pies and puddings colored and flavored with chemical poisons, constitute a large part of the bill of fare.

The hot-cakes are made with baking powder, the principal ingredient of which is alum. Alum ruins the stomach by hardening its coat, drying up the digestive juices and destroying their active principle. The cheap pickles usually served in camps are also adulterated with alum. The syrup, prunes and other dried fruits are bleached and preserved with sulfurous acid.

Dr. J. C. Olson, Professor of Chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute, Brooklyn, introduced sulfurous acid into the food of dogs and watched them closely for six months. Then they were chloroformed and cut open and their kidneys placed under the microscope. In every instance the result was the same. The lens revealed the degeneration of the kidney cells. They had broken down. Sulfurous acid was found to be deadly to the kidneys of dogs. It produces equally injurious effects on the human organs. Dr. Wiley after his clinical experiments in the Bureau of Chemistry denounced the use of sulfurous acid as an ingredient of foods, and showed by medical and pathological data that it produces serious injury to digestion and health. His findings were reported in circular No. 37, issued by the Department of Agriculture. That circular stated plainly that sulfurous acid in the food adds an immense burden to the kidneys, which cannot fail to result in injury. It impoverishes the blood in respect to the number of red and white corpuscles therein, and in that way is highly injurious.

Cheap jams, jellies and preserves are made from rotten fruits, treated with glucose, sweetened with saccharine (a coal tar product), colored with coal tar dyes, and preserved with tartaric acid, benzoic acid, and phosphoric acid.

Canned pears are adulterated with glucose, cane sugar, copper sulfate and tin.

The lemon pie contains glycerine, glucose, oil of lemon, starch, coal tar dye, benzoate of soda, and wood alcohol.

To disguise the taste of putrid meat and add flavor to tasteless, unpalatable food, tomato catsup and other cheap condiments are provided. Cheap tomato catsup and chili sauce are made from tomato pulp, which the government has repeatedly condemned because it is found to contain millions of bacteria to the cubic centimeter. Ninety million such bacteria have been found in a half teaspoonful. Tomato pulp is a waste product prepared from the skins and cores and sweepings of the canning factory. In its partly decomposed state it is scraped from the floor, put into kegs and treated with an antiseptic to prevent further putrefaction. It then goes into storage to be used as needed in the making of cheap condiments. The Government characterizes such tomato pulp as consisting in whole or in part of a filthy and decomposed vegetable substance. It is made "fit for food" by the introduction of the sacred one-tenth of one per cent of benzoate of soda.

Ancient cold storage meat is treated with sulfites and saltpeter to give it a fresh color. As much sulfites as can be lifted on the tip of a penknife would cause one to strangle if placed on the tongue. Saltpeter disintegrates the liver and breaks down the kidney cells.

Lack of space forbids mention of the many other chemical poisons used to adulterate the cheap fakes fed to workers in camps, or description of their injurious effects. Old accumulations of packing houses and cold storage plants, too rotten to be disposed of in any other way, are sold cheap to contractors and lumber companies. It is no wonder the average worker is prematurely aged and stiffened at forty, for he is undernourished from lack of essential food elements, and his internal organs are ruined by the chemical poisons in adulterated food.

Cheapness is the main consideration in buying food, and the same is true of hiring cooks. Inferior cooks are cheaper, hence they are more common, and bad food is made still worse by bad cooking.

The bunk-houses are dirty, unsanitary and overcrowded. Men are packed like sardines in double bunks built in two tiers, one above the other. Figure out the number of cubic feet of air space in a bunk-house and divide this by the number of men. In most cases it will be found the amount of air space per man is only a fraction of the minimum specified by government health authorities. In some camps mattresses are provided, but in most the bunks are filled with hay which was put in when the camp was built, and never changed since. Except in some parts of the' Northwest, neither sheets nor pillows are furnished, so a man comes directly in contact with the blankets, which are seldom or never washed. Men are constantly coming and going, thus many different men use the same blankets during a season. This constitutes an ideal method of spreading disease. If a man has syphilitic sores on his body, the chances are he will leave the infection on the blankets to be caught by those who follow. In the Northwest it used to be the custom to carry blankets, but the strike of 1917 abolished this practice, except in a few localities. Many camps are infested with lice and the only way a man can hold these pests in check is to wash and boil his clothes every week.

No drying rooms are furnished. Wet clothing is hung around the bunk-house stove and the steam and odor from this add to the foulness of the stagnant air. The bunks close to the stove are too hot, while those farthest away are often too cold. A man sleeping next to the stove, where the heat is like that of a sweat-bath, and then going out in a temperature many degrees below zero, is quite sure to catch a severe cold. There being no cuspidors, the custom is to spit on the floor, which at bed time is covered with tobacco juice and slime. This dries, and when the floor is swept, rises and settles all over the blankets. A more efficient means of spreading disease could scarcely be devised. As an aggravation to the unsanitary conditions, there are dry, open toilets a few yards from the cook-shacks. In cold weather these are practically harmless, but in summer, swarms of flies carry their filth and infection to every part of the camp. Piles of rotten garbage around the cook-house door furnish an ideal breeding ground for these carriers of disease.

Until a few years ago bath-houses in camps were unheard of, and the great majority are still without them. A few dim, smoky oil lamps make a feeble attempt to light the bunk-house, but their light is so poor that reading is practically impossible. Thus a man is deprived of this means of cultivating his mind or passing the time in his few short hours of leisure.

A man living in these surroundings is reduced to the level of a work animal, and a poor one at that, for it would not pay to keep valuable stock in such condition. Today there are many thousands of the most useful and necessary workers living in this state of barbarism in the midst of civilization.

The above description applies to the great majority of lumber camps in the United States and Canada. In the Pacific Northwest, where a large percentage of lumber workers are organized, conditions are much better than the average. Sweeping reforms were brought about by the 1917 strike. Bunk-houses are smaller and less crowded. Sheets and pillows are furnished, and there are bath-houses and drying rooms.

One of the things that distinguishes the present century from the dark ages is modern sanitation. By this means smallpox, bubonic plague, cholera and the black plague of London, which devastated Europe in past centuries, have been stamped out. Modern sanitation has eradicated yellow fever from New Orleans and Havana, and made the Panama Canal Zone a safe and healthy place for white men to live. The Red Cross and other organizations are carrying on campaigns against the modern plagues of tuberculosis and syphilis. In practically all towns and cities spitting on the sidewalk is forbidden. In many States the public drinking cup and the roller towel are outlawed as spreaders of disease.

In all States there are laws providing for sanitary conditions in hotels and rooming houses. The following extracts are from those of Wisconsin:

Rule XI. Bedding:

  • (a) All hotels shall hereafter provide each bed, bunk, cot or other sleeping place for the use of transient guests, with white cotton or linen pillow slips, top and under sheets, also mattress, and a reasonably sufficient quantity of bedding.

  • (b) The top and under sheet to be of sufficient size to completely cover the mattress and fold under on sides and ends. Both sheets after January 1, 1918, must be at least ninety-six inches long after being laundered.

  • [(c) not included in the text]

  • (d) The long top sheet is to be folded back at the head of the bed so as to cover all top coverings at least twelve inches.

  • (e) All bedding, including mattresses, quilts, blankets, sheets and comforts used in any hotel must be thoroughly aired and kept clean. No bedding shall be used which is worn out and unfit for further use. Pillow slips and sheets must be washed and ironed as often as they shall be assigned to a different guest.

There are also laws regulating ventilation, air space, toilets, disposal of garbage, etc.; and prohibiting overcrowding. Surely sanitary conditions are just as necessary in camps as in hotels. Yet, just because they are profitable to a handful of parasites, such conditions as described above are permitted to continue.

If the various state boards of health were honest and efficient such disease breeding plague spots would be cleaned up in short order. But no relief can be expected from that source, for boards of health, like other government institutions, are controlled by big business. Sanitary regulations will never be enforced in camps till the workers themselves enforce them by their organized economic power.

On ordinary jobs, when the day's work is done, a man is free to do as he pleases within the limits of the law, to go where he likes and associate with whom he sees fit. Not so in a lumber camp. The lumberjack is at all times under the domination of the "push," who in many cases dictates what he shall say or read and with whom he shall associate. Disobedience in these matters means discharge. In most places visitors suspected of being union men or "agitators" are ordered out of camp. In this way a logging camp forcibly reminds one of a penitentiary.

The lumberjack's work is hard and dangerous, especially in big timber regions. The annual percentage of men killed and injured is high. For the great majority of lumber workers ten hours is the work day. In addition to this there is often a long walk to and from work. In places where there is a strong percentage of organization, wages compare favorably with those in other industries. Where there is no organization they are usually far below the level of a decent standard of living.

Hospital Fee

Each man is forced to pay a monthly tax varying from $1.00 to $1.25. This is known as a hospital fee and is deducted from the wages. In this way the companies collect many thousands of dollars every month. This money would be sufficient to build and maintain first class hospitals, equipped in the most modern style and with the best doctors and nurses. Instead of this, company hospitals are proverbial for their worthlessness. Cheapness and economy are the main considerations, not the welfare of the men who pay for them. The sacred profits of the companies must not be diminished, regardless of how many lumber workers die from lack of medical attention. These hospitals are usually poorly equipped and are not even kept in a sanitary condition. Incompetent doctors and nurses are employed. It is a common occurrence for a man to go to a company hospital suffering from some comparatively slight injury, such as a broken limb, which by proper treatment could be completely cured in a few weeks, only to be turned out a permanent cripple. The hospital tickets state that no treatment will be given except for injury sustained or disease contracted while actually in the employ of the company. On each ticket is a list of diseases for which no treatment will be given, and this list includes all diseases a lumberjack is likely to get. If good hospital accommodation were provided there would be no objection to paying this fee. But as it is, by far the greater part of it is pure and simple graft for the companies, and graft of the meanest and most contemptible kind, for the principal victims are sick and injured men. It is bad enough to rob men of a dollar a month; that is simply robbery. But to contract to furnish a man hospital accommodation and then when he is in desperate need of it to hand him worthless treatment, which results in death or permanent loss of health, is infinitely worse. That is murder; not committed in the height of passion, but cold-blooded and deliberate murder, systematically planned and carried out to increase profits.

Employment Sharks

Besides the robbery and exploitation of the companies, lumber workers are subjected to the graft of employment agents. These petty parasites infest all cities and towns. Most of them are conscienceless swindlers, and their victims are the unemployed. In many camps hiring is not done on the job but through employment agents, and a man cannot go to work unless he brings a ticket from one of these. Grafting foremen frame up with these sharks and, in consideration of a rake-off from the fee, keep hiring and firing, thus running their job on the "three gang system," that is, one gang coming, one working, and the third going back to town to buy more jobs from the employment sharks. In some places employment agents have a practical monopoly of jobs and it is almost impossible to escape paying them tribute. These fakers are notoriously dishonest. They lie about wages and conditions. Often they send men to places where none are needed, thus not only robbing them of the fee but causing them to lose the fare as well. Foreigners and inexperienced youths are their worst victims. It is practically impossible to obtain legal redress, as the workers they defraud lack the means to prosecute them.

Besides, these parasites are a part of the system, they are useful tools of the big lumber companies and receive protection. They are "business men" and tax payers, and "stand in" with the local authorities; migratory workers are considered their legitimate prey.

The great majority of lumberjacks are single men, and those who are married are separated from their families the greater part of the time. This is principally due to economic conditions and the nature of the industry as at present carried on. Separation from the opposite sex is not conducive to physical or mental well-being. The mating instinct is second only to that of self preservation. Those who are forced to suppress this instinct or satisfy it by visiting prostitutes, practically all of whom are venereally diseased, must pay the penalty nature exacts from all who fail to live in harmony with her laws.

The Sawmill

Sawmill work is more highly specialized than logging. In this brand of the industry machine production is highly developed. The sawmill worker is a machine tender. His life is a weary, monotonous grind. The day's work consists of a constant repetition of the same motions. In large, modern sawmills the efficiency or speed-up system is reduced to a fine science. The pace is set by machinery speeded up to the limit of human endurance. The amount of skill required is small, speed being the main requisite. This work is exceedingly dangerous and accidents are frequent. Lumber is not the only product of sawmills. There is also a bountiful harvest of cripples. In sawmill centers maimed and mutilated workers are so common they excite no comment. A large percentage of these accidents are preventable, but installing safety devices has no place in schemes of profit making.

The majority of sawmill workers are men with families. The companies prefer these for they are more easily controlled and less apt to organize or strike. A close watch is kept to prevent unionism from gaining a foothold. Stool pigeons, spies, company suckers and gunmen infest all sawmill towns. The majority of sawmill workers secretly favor unionism, but fear of discharge and the blacklist prevents them from becoming active. In most sawmill towns the companies own everything in sight. The workers live in company houses. Often they are forced to trade at the company's store, and in some places never get out of debt. Many schemes are worked to keep them more effectively in the power of the companies. Some companies do a real estate business as a side line, and sell lots to their employee at so much down and so much per. If they miss a payment the property reverts to the company and they lose all previous payments. Sometimes workers with families are induced to come from distant places by false promises and glowing accounts of wages and conditions. When they reach the mill town and find out they have been deceived, they are broke and perhaps in debt to the company, and unable to get away.

In sawmill towns industrial feudalism holds sway. The lumber companies, by reason of their control of industry, hold the whip hand and rule with a rod of iron. Sheriffs and chiefs of police eat out of their hand, and the small business element hastens to do their bidding. Often municipal and county office holders are employee of the company, or economically dependent on it in some way, and thus completely under its control. And as single companies control local officials, and petty governments of town and county, so the combined companies, organized in the Lumber Trust, in conjunction with other big financial and industrial interests, control the state and national governments and constitute themselves the real government. In the words of Woodrow Wilson in "The New Freedom," "the masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States."

The thousands of men who do work in the lumber industry are reduced to a state of economic dependence and servitude, kept constantly on the ragged edge of want, and denied opportunity to live as nature intended. The few capitalists who control the industry are possessed of great wealth and power and enabled to live in luxury and extravagance unequaled in the history of the world.

In the days of the ox team and the whip-saw the daily output of lumber was only a few feet per man. But the workers received enough to maintain life and reproduce their kind. They lived a rough and healthy life and their food was the plain and wholesome product of the farm. Notwithstanding vastly increased production, all the modern wage workers get is a bare existence. They are doped and poisoned with the product of the chemical laboratory, speeded up to the limit of endurance, and are worn out and aged when they should be in their prime.

Notwithstanding their immense profits the lumber companies claim they cannot afford to give better wages or conditions. But it is not the greed of the lumber barons that is to blame for conditions. They are in business, not for charitable purposes, but to make profits. It is the ignorance, cowardice and indifference of the workers that gives the Lumber Trust its power and makes possible the oppression from which they suffer. It is the law of nature that the strong rule and the weak are enslaved. The secret of power is organization. The only force that can break the tyrannical rule of the Lumber Trust is One Big Union of all the workers.