It would be a grave misunderstanding to say that the labor movement, including the IWW, is only confined to a handful of industries in the hearts of major cities. Indeed, with many industries such as agriculture or mining, union presence can extend even to the smallest of communities. In no other place was this seen historically than Grays Harbor, Washington, which during the early 20th century was one of the IWW’s most active areas of organizing, strikes and labor victories.
Just shy of 50 miles from Centralia, WA, the Grays Harbor area had one of the most active timber industries around the turn of the 20th century. It had a large multiethnic population consisting predominantly of Finnish immigrants in the thousands, with other immigrant and ethnic minorities moving in later into the 1920s and 30s. The Finnish population made up the largest ethnic group of the IWW locals, even producing a multitude of articles for the Finnish-language IWW newspapers such as Tie Vapauteen and Industrialisti. The Grays Harbor area hosted a variety of trades such as loggers, lumber transportation, shingle factory workers and other jobs related to maintaining and supporting the logging industry. Workers regardless of their age, sex, or ethnicity worked long hours for a fraction of a wage compared to the loggers of today, with many living in makeshift lodgings near lumber camps or simple one-family homes outside of downtown.
The jobs themselves were dangerous, with every injury from amputations, to falling logs, to deaths being reported in all lumber related industries on an almost constant basis. Logging and shingle weaving were some of the most dangerous, and the 10 hour workdays on average led to exhaustion, further increasing the risk of accidents. These conditions were in stark contrast to the lumber mill owners themselves, who saw record production and profits during the first three decades of the century. They saw lumber exports reach billions of cubic feet when other lumber shipping harbors around the country only saw millions. It was in the midst of these conditions that saw a rising potential for labor organizing in the region, and the IWW saw greater influence in the local life and culture, as workers began organizing strikes and community solidarity actions in the towns surrounding the harbor.
The first local of the IWW in the region was organized by the workers and opened in 1907 in Hoquiam, with others following suit over the coming decade in Aberdeen and Cosmopolis. Membership grew as workers, fed up with the long hours, poor pay and working conditions, joined up to organize their workplaces. The influx of new members and a growing desire to organize their shops made the Hoquiam and other new locals some of the fastest rates of new membership for the union, especially with lumber workers.
Local activity in the IWW saw a dramatic increase in the year 1911. During the free speech fights in Aberdeen from November 1911 to January 1912, when Wobblies soapboxed in public spaces for the right to speak freely in public about the IWW, socialism and other “radical” ideas, local socialists and the IWW joined forces to overturn local laws and ordinances banning such speech. Free speech fights were common occurrences in many towns across America at the time, as speeches promoting unionism, various forms of leftism, and the IWW were accused of provoking strikes or riots. Many Wobblies took this up as a challenge, and drew large crowds by continuing to speak publicly in the unions favor despite legal crackdowns and arrests of speakers. 1912 would become an important year, as one of the biggest strikes in the region would take place beginning in March and ending in May, with thousands of workers eventually walking off the job and ceasing production for wage increases in the lumber industries. Longshoremen, sailors and electricians would also strike in solidarity, despite the violent response from armed guards, vigilante militias and the police. Furthermore, this strike saw the fastest union growth in IWW history, with the first week garnering up to hundreds of new members a day.
The backlash of union busting and anti-IWW violence increased significantly by the end of the strike however, with jail cells filling with free speech fighters, union organizers and strikers alike. Mass deportations began near the end of the year at the hands of “citizen committees” formed by local business, banks and anti-union vigilantes. Anyone suspected of IWW membership or support were often rounded up at night and escorted out of town or beaten. Many business leaders, fearing a loss in profits over the looming threat of a general strike, also subverted organizers by using labor spies to deter would-be union-interested workers from joining, and collected intelligence for bosses to use against their workers.
The next major era of IWW activity took place beginning in 1917 and lasting for the duration of America’s involvement in the First World War. This time walkouts, protests and a general strike were focused on implementing an eight-hour work day, with many lumber workers and loggers simply walking off the job after eight hours as opposed to their usual 10, collectively enforcing their demands despite threats of joblessness and violence. Many Wobblies also took part in direct action on the shop floor by utilizing work-to-rule. They would follow every safety protocol to the last detail, feigning ignorance as to their job responsibilities, which slowed down production as a whole. The general strike eventually extended from the Grays Harbor region to multiple different lumber camps across Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho, with workers numbering up to the tens of thousands being off the job at any given time.
Much like the strikes of 1912, the Wobblies were successful in obtaining the eight-hour day, along with higher wages and safer working conditions in many of the logging camps, mills and docks surrounding Grays Harbor. However, with the end of the First World War came the First Red Scare, as many business interests as well as the government became concerned over the growing labor movement in the country. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 the IWW was seen as a major subversive threat to not only production but the capitalist economy as a whole. It was during this time that many vigilante organizations became better funded and organized, with even more backing from local business interests as well as the police and local clergy.
Ralph Chaplin, a famous union activist and journalist in the IWW, visited the Grays Harbor area in 1919, gathering information for his upcoming publication, The Centralia Conspiracy. He spoke to many Wobblies in the region, and even caught wind of four union members who were lynched outside of Montesano. He also visited to relay what information he had gathered about the so-called “Centralia massacre of 1919,” and inform Wobblies as to the current situation of the case immediately following the incident. When he attempted to make a speech at the local Aberdeen IWW hall, vigilantes threatened to raid the hall with the assistance of the police, and were met with 2,000 IWW members and supporters who defended the hall by physically blocking them from entering and showing up with baseball bats and clubs. IWW halls continued to be raided well throughout the 20s and 30s, collecting documents about ongoing organizing campaigns, destroying literature, and even hosting a bonfire of furniture and publications in 1918 as an act of patriotism during the War.
Ultimately, the IWW in the Grays Harbor area would suffer a loss of membership and influence due to an increase in strike breaking and union busting in local industries, where the IWW was active, as well as further legal sanctions against unions in the form of “criminal syndicalism” laws.
Internally, during the mid to late 1920s the local labor movement also suffered the same factional split that the IWW had, with a transition of influence turning towards mainline socialist and communist movements and parties and distancing themselves from the IWW in favor of parliamentary socialism rather than industrial unionism. In spite of this, the Grays Harbor region would continue to be a significant area of successful IWW activity well through the late 1930s leading up to the Second World War, with many local union halls continuing to host banquets, fundraisers, and coordination of organizing efforts in the lumber, transportation, and mill industries. While the IWW no longer has a significant presence in the Grays Harbor region today, their activism and organizing made up some of the most successful victories for the union, and show a colorful story of multiethnic workers coming together against the bosses for better wages, hours and conditions.
Contact the IWW today if you want to start organizing at your job.
Click here to read more early IWW organizing history, this time in Colorado.