The Brotherhood of Timber Workers: ‘Complete and Defiant Solidarity’
“Only a low-life lickskillet would do such a thing. … I would live on wild plants that grow in the hills before I would sign.”
That’s how one African-American worker responded in 1912 to the demand from the South’s lumber owners that he sign a “yellow dog” contract – a promise not to join the Brotherhood of Timber Workers.
February is African-American History Month. February also marks the anniversary of two turning points in the struggle of the South’s lumber workers – African-Americans, whites, Native Americans, and immigrants -- to unite across ethnic lines, form a union, and better their conditions. February 1912 brought these workers an important victory; in February 1913, they tasted a bitter defeat. Both results of the “Lumber War” of 1910-1914 contain lessons that all workers can take to heart during this African-American History Month 2007.
After the Civil War, huge sections of the magnificent forests of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, East Texas and South Georgia were ripped from the public domain by lumber companies. Some companies paid as little as 12.5 cents per acre. One company owned 87,000 acres in a single tract in Western Louisiana and East Texas. These “lumber barons” ran their operations as if they were feudal possessions. They set up company towns, filled them with gun thugs (who were given commissions as deputy sheriffs), and jailed anyone who questioned their rule.
Early in the 20th century, those who worked in the lumber camps of the South were forced to labor 10-12 hours a day. The pay was as low as $1.25 a day, with the average weekly wage about $7-$9. Wages were usually paid monthly, often in some kind of “scrip” – paper, chits, cardboard coins, metal tags, etc.
Most Southern lumber workers lived in company towns where they were charged high rents for primitive huts heated with open fires. They were forced to pay a compulsory medical insurance fee (usually $1.00-$1.50 a month) for doctors they could not pick, “doctors” who often knew nothing about medicine. Lumber workers were also compelled to pay from 75 cents to one dollar a month for “accident insurance,” even though the company secured this at a price of from 50-60 cents per worker.
By 1910, the South had 262,000 lumber workers toiling in the piney woods. More than half of these workers were African-American. Most blacks were restricted to unskilled jobs, positions where the pay was low and there was little opportunity for advancement. African-Americans did most of the heavy manual labor in the sawmills, on railroads, in the turpentine camps, at skidways and in the swamps. In 1910, out of 7,958 African-Americans in the sawmills and planing mills of Texas, 7,216 were laborers. (Not one single African-American was a sawyer.)
Discrimination against African-American workers was open. The St. Louis Lumberman – the official journal of the industry – brazenly defended it with these words: “[T]here is a limit to the amount of wages that can be paid with safety to colored laborers around sawmills and wood camps. Too much pay breeds discontent and idleness among them.”
For the African-American lumber worker – as one observer of the industry noted – “emancipation from slavery had not brought the fruits of freedom. He simply had exchanged his lot for a different system of economic bondage.”
From the beginning, the brutal conditions that all lumber workers were forced to endure provoked resistance, but the initial attempts to form unions failed. In 1906, the lumber barons formed the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association. This group’s stated purpose was to prevent unions from developing in the timber camps.
In secret correspondence, the members of the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association bragged to one another that promoting race hatred was a good way to prevent unions from developing. One journalist observed: “The Lumber Trust carefully studies methods for intensifying race antagonism and then sits back to watch it work. Black men or white men, a few lives more or less, are of no consequence to the masters of the swamp lands if their snuffing-out turns a profit to the companies.”
Despite the great obstacles, in December 1910, the first local of a Southern lumber workers union was formed in Carson, Louisiana, by Arthur L. Emerson, Jay Smith, and group of workers sympathetic to the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party.
By June 1911, enough other locals had been organized to set up the Brotherhood of Timber Workers as a national union. The constitution of the union allowed African-Americans to join, although segregation was preserved by providing for “colored lodges,” which were required to hand over their initiation fees and dues to the nearest white local “for safekeeping.”
The union spread rapidly in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Brotherhood of Timber Workers recruited black and white lumberjacks, mill workers, and small farmers who worked in the lumber industry for part of the year.
The employers struck back quickly. In July 1911, the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association held a secret meeting in New Orleans and vowed to crush the union. The group ordered the immediate shutdown of 11 mills in the vicinity of De Ridder, Louisiana (a center of union militancy). With this move, 3,000 workers were locked out. Over the next several months, more than 300 other Southern mills were closed down, and union workers were locked out of, or blacklisted from, every lumber mill influenced by the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association.
During the summer and fall of 1911, between 5,000 and 7,000 of the most committed members of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers were blacklisted. The only way for these workers to get their lumber jobs back was either to sign a “yellow dog” contract pledging not to join the union, or to vote for a resolution declaring the same thing at a public meeting. Despite the fact that there were very few (if any) job prospects outside the lumber industry in the timber regions, the overwhelming majority of members of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers refused to break ranks with their union. This was true of union members of all ethnicities.
Meeting again in secret in New Orleans on October 31, the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association hatched another plan. The group decided to reopen the mills, invite the African-American union members to return to work at higher wages, and then recruit African-American workers from all over Louisiana and Texas to work in the mills and break the union.
The lockout fails
The strategy failed. Not one African-American member of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers went back to work. The union issued an appeal to the African-American workers of Louisiana and Texas which was circulated widely; it was effective. Very few African-Americans entered the mills while the union was locked out.
The lockout was officially declared over in February 1912. When the mills reopened, it was not with scab labor. While the Brotherhood of Timber Workers was not recognized by the employers, it was not broken either – and slightly higher wages were won by many workers, and some workers won the 10-hour day. During this February 2007, we should all remember that victory won with so much sacrifice in February 1912.
The unity shown by the timber workers of different ethnicities in the battle against the lockout inspired the Brotherhood of Timber Workers to take more militant positions.
In April 1912, the union published a pamphlet written by its secretary, Jay Smith. Entitled “An Appeal to Timber and Lumber Workers,” the pamphlet began by proclaiming that the purpose of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers was “the organization of all wage workers employed in and around the timber and lumber industry … regardless of creed, color, or nationality.”
The “Appeal” continued:
“As far as the ‘negro question’ goes, it means simply this: Either the whites organize with the negroes, or the bosses will organize the negroes against the whites.”
The pamphlet appealed to Southern workers to realize that while there were “two colors” among the workers in the South, there was actually only one class. Smith explained that it was the goal of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers “to teach that the only hope of the workers is through industrial organization; that while the colors in question are two, the class in question is only one; that the first thing for a real workingman to do is to learn by a little study that he belongs to the working class, line up with the Brotherhood of Timber Workers or the Industrial Workers of the World, and make a start for industrial freedom.”
‘Rebels Fighting Slavery’
One month after Smith’s pamphlet appeared, in May 1912, IWW leaders Bill Haywood and Covington Hall attended the convention of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers to discuss the Southern timber union affiliating with the IWW. Haywood expressed surprise that no African-Americans were present. He was told that the African-American union members were meeting separately in another hall because it was illegal in Louisiana for whites and blacks to meet together. Haywood then said:
“You work in the same mills together. Sometimes a black man and a white man chop down the same tree together. You are meeting in convention now to discuss the conditions under which you labor. This can’t be done intelligently by passing resolutions here and then sending them out to another room for the black man to act upon. Why not be sensible about this and call the Negroes into this convention? If it is against the law, this is one time when the law should be broken.”
Covington Hall supported Haywood’s suggestion completely, telling the delegates: “Let the Negroes come together with us, and if any arrests are made, all of us will go to jail, white and colored together.” The African-American members were called into the session. The united meeting agreed to affiliate with the IWW and elected delegates, both black and white, to the IWW international convention scheduled to take place later that year.
Haywood and Hall also spoke at a mass meeting at the Alexandria Opera House sponsored by the Brotherhood of Timber Workers. It was the first time in that Louisiana town since the defeat of Reconstruction that there was no segregation. The IWW newspaper Solidarity welcomed the developments with a story headlined: “Rebels of the New South No Longer Fighting to Uphold Slavery but to Abolish It.”
Shortly after these dramatic events, on May 13, 1912, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers presented several of the mill owners with demands for better wages and conditions. The demands were quickly rejected, and the members went on strike at those mills. The Southern Lumber Operators’ Association declared a lockout throughout the entire industry and vowed to destroy the union. The fact that the union had allowed black and white workers to meet and discuss matters together as equals, in violation of “the traditions of the South,” was cited by the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association as sufficient reason alone to destroy the union.
The Southern Lumber Operators’ Association recruited an army of gun thugs and deputies and dispatched them into the lumber districts. Notices were posted around the lumber camps reading: “Private Property. All Unionists, Socialists, Peddlers and Solicitors, Keep Out Under Penalty of the Law.” Mobs organized by the mill owners broke up union rallies.
Violence in Grabow
On July 7, 1912, in Grabow, Louisiana, as union founder Arthur L. Emerson was preparing to speak to a gathering in front of the Galloway Lumber Company, shots were fired at the rally from the lumber company office. A 10-minute gun battle took place which left three men dead, another dying, and over 40 wounded. Emerson and 64 other union members were indicted for murder.
The union organized a defense committee and began issuing leaflets to expose the frame-up to the world. One of its most widely discussed circulars was addressed “To all Negro Workers, and especially to the Negro Forest and Lumber Workers of the South.” The leaflet pointed out that the minute the Brotherhood of Timber Workers began to organize, the lumber operators began raising the cries of “white supremacy” and “social equality” and charging that the union was organizing African-Americans against whites. The appeal noted:
“For a generation, under the influence of these specious cries, they have kept us fighting against each other – us to secure the ‘white supremacy’ of a tramp and you the ‘social equality’ of a vagrant. Our fathers ‘fell for it,’ but we, their children, have come to the conclusion that … the ‘white supremacy’ that means starvation wages and child slavery for us and the ‘social equality’ that means the same to you, though they mean the ‘high life’ and ‘Christian civilization’ to the lumber kings and landlords, will have to go. As far as we, the workers of the South, are concerned, the only ‘supremacy’ and ‘equality’ they have ever granted us is the supremacy of misery and the equality of rags. This supremacy and this equality we, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers, mean to stand no longer than we have an organization big and strong enough to enforce our demands, chief among which is ‘A man’s life for all the workers in the mills and forests of the South.’ Because the negro workers comprise one-half or more of the labor employed in the Southern lumber industry, this battle cry of ours … has been considered a menace and therefore a crime in the eyes of the Southern oligarchy, for they, as well as we, are fully alive to the fact that we can never raise our standard of living and better our conditions as long as they can keep us split, whether on race, craft or religious or national lines. … Emerson and his associates are in prison because they fought for the unity of all workers. Will you remain silent, turn no hand to help them in this, their hour of great danger?”
The flyer (and others like it) had a tremendous effect. Support for the defendants poured in from the pro-union workers of Louisiana and Texas, workers of all different ethnicities. Ultimately, Emerson and his co-defendants were acquitted. On November 11, 1913, nine days after the end of their trial, 1,300 union workers – whites, Native Americans, and African-Americans – went on strike at the American Lumber Company in Merryville, Louisiana. It was the largest strike in the history of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers.
‘A glorious sight’
Shortly after the strike began, the company began building enclosures around the workers’ shacks and the mills. It also began importing non-union work crews from other parts of Louisiana and Texas. Many of these workers – who knew nothing about the strike -- were African-Americans or workers born outside the United States. The area where the new hires were housed was surrounded with a high barbed-wire fence which had been charged with electricity to prevent any strikers from getting inside to talk to the new arrivals. (The strikers still managed to talk to them.) The railroad track was lined with pickets for four miles on each side of town.
As the trains slowed down to enter Merryville, union members threw leaflets through the windows or on the platforms. The leaflets explained the strike’s cause and appealed for support for “the lumberjacks of Merryville, white, Indian, and Negro members of Local 218, Brotherhood of Timber Workers” and asked those reading the flyer to “stay away from the mills.”
The appeal had an effect. Many African-American workers who had been brought to Merryville to break the strike refused to enter the mill. Quite a few joined the strikers. Immigrant workers also took this position. The Brotherhood of Timber Workers rejoiced, noting in a widely published statement:
“It is a glorious sight to see, the miracle that has happened here in Dixie. This coming true of the ‘impossible’ – this union of workers regardless of color, creed or nationality. To hear the Americans saying ‘You can starve us, but you cannot whip us’; the Negroes crying, ‘You can fence us in, but you cannot make us scab’; the Italians singing the Marseillaise and the Mexicans shouting vivas for the Brotherhood. Never did the Santa Fe Railroad, the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association and the American Lumber Company expect to see such complete and defiant solidarity.”
Unable to break the strike by importing out-of-towners, conducting evictions, or by bribing union leaders, the company recruited a gang of “strong-arm men.” Then, a “committee” of “public-spirited individuals” was created – the Good Citizens’ League. The “strong-arm men” were incorporated into the Good Citizens’ League, and made deputy sheriffs. The stage was set for a classic vigilante assault.
Early in 1913, the deputies went on the rampage, assaulting African-American strikers and ransacking their homes. On January 9, 1913, Robert Allen, an African-American strike stalwart, was arrested at a union meeting and taken to jail. That evening, he was placed in a car and deported from Merryville. The next evening, the same thing happened to several other strikers.
The assaults culminated on February 16, when mob violence broke out against the strikers. Five organizers were kidnapped, brutally beaten, and deported. One of them, F.W. Oliver, an African-American, was shot. On February 18, a mob of gunmen and members of the Good Citizens’ League raided the union office and seized all its books and papers. The same day, the mob deported the acting secretary of the union. On February 19, all remaining union men in Merryville were deported under penalty of death if they returned. Union signs were torn from shops and houses. Individuals were searched without a warrant; anyone found possessing a union flyer was arrested. Company gun thugs – deputized as sheriffs – marched through the streets, armed with rifles, terrorizing the public.
Twenty miles away, hundreds of bruised union members hobbled into the town of De Ridder, sore from the long trek on foot and the rifle beatings. Although they had been threatened with hanging if they returned to Merryville, a number actually did hike back to the town to walk the picket line. While the main brunt of the picketing was borne steadfastly by the wives and daughters of the deported strikers, the back of the strike had been broken by the four-day wave of violence.
The strike dragged on for four more months. (It was not called off by the union until May 1913.) Most of the strikers were refused re-employment and blacklisted throughout the entire Southern lumber industry.
In the weeks that followed the outrages in Merryville, the story was the same across the South: mob violence; attacks by gun thugs; arrests and deportation of union members. Appeals to governors, even to the president of the United States, fell on deaf ears. But in the midst of this terror, black and white timber workers continued to meet together to plan ways to fight for a better life.
By the spring of 1914, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers had been effectively destroyed.
During this February 2007, we should remember both the triumph of the lumber workers in February 1912, when they prevailed over the lumber owners’ lockout, and the tragedy of February 1913, when the Merryville strike was crushed. While the Brotherhood of Timber Workers was ultimately destroyed, it left the labor movement of this country with a legacy that must endure. During its too-short life, the union stood up bravely for the unity of all workers regardless of color, immigration status, or sex. (Its decision to welcome women workers into membership was as controversial as its position on organizing workers of all ethnicities.) The Brotherhood of Timber Workers took courageous positions at a moment in history when advocating such positions was bound to draw heavy fire.
We should draw strength from the courage of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers, but we should also learn from its wisdom. As its leaflets and pamphlets demonstrated, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers understood that organized labor has one of two choices: It can reach out to the most vulnerable worker in society, or it can allow the owners of society to use that most vulnerable worker against the rest of us, driving down the conditions of everyone.
The Brotherhood of Timber Workers grasped that the unity of the working class has to begin by uniting in defense of those at the bottom of the ladder. That’s a lesson from February 1912 and 1913 that all of us should take to heart during this African American History Month 2007 -- and continue to remember every day of the year.
The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.
Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.