July 17 Lumber Workers Put Down Their Axes

July 17, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1917.

That was the day 50,000 lumber workers across the Pacific Northwest participated in an industry-wide strike, called by the Industrial Workers of the World.

The IWW had been organizing loggers for years around wages, hours, working conditions and camp sanitation.

The IWW began building for the strike in the aftermath of the Everett Massacre the previous fall.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn started touring camps in Idaho.

By March, the Wobblies established Local 500 of the Lumber Workers Industrial Union in Spokane to organize actions across the region.

In his book, Empire of Timber, historian Erik Loomis details the chronology of events that led to the momentous walkout.

In Idaho, loggers began walking off the job in April, when demands for improved bunkhouses and food, higher wages and the eight-hour day were refused.

The strike spread to Washington State, the rest of Idaho and into Montana and Oregon.

Loomis notes that by August, “they made employers feel their wrath.” The strike cut production by over 80% and threatened war materiel.

Infuriated timber bosses demanded federal troops be sent in to crush the strike and IWW leaders be prosecuted for treason and sabotage.

Raids and arrests were orchestrated throughout the Pacific Northwest and the strike began to stall.

After 10 weeks, the IWW called off the strike but instructed workers to quit work after eight hours.

They continued to lead sanitation-related job actions that would substantially change conditions for the better.

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