Historical museum exhibit showcases key role unions played in shaping county

By Gordon Oliver and Tom Vogt

Published:

 
photo Smith Tower, under construction in 1963 and named after a local labor leader, is said to have helped revive downtown Vancouver.

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It's not often that buildings are named after labor leaders. But Vancouver's tallest building, and one of its most prominent, is named after 1960s labor leader Bill Smith.

The 15-story Smith Tower apartment building is one of many Clark County buildings financed with union pension funds, says Ed Barnes, a retired leader of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48, based in Portland and encompassing Southwest Washington. Built in 1963, the building is said to have helped revive a downtown that had been on the wane since the end of World War II.

Listening to Barnes, who is steeped in local labor history, it's easy to wonder why the work of union members over several generations is not memorialized more frequently. Labor unions fought tough battles for higher wages and better working conditions throughout Clark County's modern history, often against overwhelming odds of unfavorable laws and harsh employer opposition.

And these days, Barnes says, union members engage in countless volunteer activities and advocacy for local community improvement projects. The recognition and respect that union members once enjoyed in Clark County has faded, says Barnes, one of Clark County's most engaged community volunteers.

"I don't think we're getting the thanks that we should be getting," he said. "We've never tooted our horn but I think the time has come when we need to speak up. We're just as good as anybody else."

A new exhibit at the Clark County Historical Museum aims to bring public recognition to the vital role of labor unions and everyday workers in building the county's long, rich history as a enter of commerce and manufacturing. The exhibit spans from the Hudson's Bay Company's trading post almost two centuries ago to today's uncertain world for labor unions, which face declining membership and, as Barnes notes, scant public recognition.

The exhibit, on display through the end of 2014, comes at a time when one tense local labor conflict is in the news: the lockout at the Port of Vancouver of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4 by the United Grain Corp.

Union members are picketing at the isolated grain terminal and outside United Grain offices in downtown Vancouver. But the dispute is largely ignored by most local residents, who are unaffected by the issues and, in many cases, apathetic or unsympathetic about the union cause.

Laurie Mercier, a Washington State University Vancouver history professor specializing in labor issues, says she's seen in her own classrooms the growing disconnect between unions and the public. When she started teaching in 1995, Mercier said, many students had friends or family who were union members. "Even if they complained about unions they understood their basic function," she said. Today, Mercier noted, "I rarely have a student who even knows what a union is. That lack of knowledge has damaged union members."

Mercier, working with students, developed about a dozen narrative and photo panels that are included in the labor exhibit. And Barnes' old union, IBEW Local 48, stepped up as a major sponsor as part of its celebration of its own 100th anniversary. It's one of more than 30 union locals and regional labor councils sponsoring the exhibit. Some of the exhibits highlights are summarized below.

Hudson's Bay laborers

Clark County's history as a place of abundance for wage employment is much older than the IBEW or the exhibit's other union sponsors.

There were periods about 180 years ago when this was the biggest settlement along a 1,450-mile stretch of the West Coast.

The population center was a result of the laborers hired by the Hudson's Bay Company, which based its regional operation at Fort Vancouver.

Depending on the timetable of the fur trade, up to 600 Hudson's Bay employees lived in the village just north of the Columbia River. That made it the largest settlement between Yerba Buena in California (now known as San Francisco) and New Archangel (now Sitka, Alaska.)

Fort Vancouver's role as a cog in the global fur industry lasted just a couple of decades. Its passing marked a transition for the local labor force — the first of many.

Moving forward in history, during the period from 1860 to 1910 most Vancouver residents farmed or had trades in small businesses. Women mostly contributed to family survival through domestic labor. Chinese workers appeared on the scene here as they did elsewhere in the Northwest, opening two laundries in Vancouver around 1879 and building a ditch to LaCamas Lake to increase power to the Camas paper mill. A newspaper account from 1879 said most "pulled up stakes" around that time and retreated to Portland as anti-Chinese sentiment increased locally and nationally. One Vancouver restaurant even advertised that it had no Chinese employees.

Vancouver's population tripled from 1900 to 1910, to 9,300 people, and radical labor politics took root here and elsewhere in Washington. "In the first decades of industrial capitalism's ascendancy, many Americans, especially in the Pacific Northwest, believed that alternatives were possible," according to the history museum's narrative. Camas elected Socialist O.T. Clark as the city's mayor from 1916-18.

The period from 1890 to 1919 was dominated nationally and locally by harsh conflict between a budding labor movement and powerful companies, often backed by police or state militia. In Clark County, workers at the Michigan Lumber Co., Lucia, and WJ Ross Mills went on strike in 1890, demanding their hours be reduced to 11 hours a day while keeping wages at $1.75 a day -- still lower than wages in Portland mills.

The Camas mill was the site of a bitter labor struggle just before World War I. Camas workers had formed a 400-employee union and launched a weeklong strike. The mill hired non-union workers, and a certain Mrs. F.D. Frampton, wife of the Papermakers Union president, was found guilty of unlawful assembly for "addressing the strikebreakers as they came from the mill."

The 1917-1931 period began with a stagnant labor movement but then moved into a period of radical labor politics that coincided with Russia's Bolshevik revolution. A "general strike" in 1919 shut down the city of Seattle for a week, and the radical International Workers of the World became a presence in Clark County as well as the Puget Sound region. A state law was used in 1921 to convict IWW workers of "criminal syndicalism," a law that made it illegal to advocate sabotage or violence as a means of industrial reform.

The closure in 1921 of the Standifer Shipbuilding Corp., a shipbuilder for the Navy that was Clark County's largest industrial employer, eliminated thousands of union jobs. Workers had called strikes several times over wages.

Expansion

The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 gave workers the right to join unions, which led to huge organizing campaigns and — in Washington state — a push by the Communist Party and the Unemployed Citizens League to mobilize workers. In one of the most important strikes of the decade, longshore workers in Vancouver and other West Coast cities held an 83-day walkout of West Coast ports. The union's success inspired other organizing and strikes in other Northwest workplaces including logging camps, sawmills and canneries.

"By the end of the decade, workers in Clark County had not only created dozens of unions and improved their wages and working conditions, they also had transformed local culture to support their goals," says the exhibit narrative. That "community unionism" involved businesses, fraternal lodges, and other sympathetic community associations.

As many longtime residents know, World War II marked the high point of industrial production and union membership in Clark County. Alcoa opened the West Coast's first aluminum plant in 1940, hiring 500 union workers; the Camas mill began hiring local women and girls, and gradually increased wages to the level of men's pay; local shipyards, at their peak, employed 40,000 women.

The boom attracted African-Americans to Vancouver, but racism kept some of those workers out of union apprenticeship programs, and many ended up leaving the city. But jobs and union membership began to decline in the 1950s, even as unions enjoyed success in wage negotiations.

The reputations of unions declined nationally and locally in the post-war era, and some major unions were accused of allowing Communist Party members in leadership positions. Many unions toned down the militancy of their early years, the exhibit says. Some union members note in the exhibit that they began to face community criticism, rather than support, in their fights for higher wages.

That public resentment occurs, Mercier says, "because people feel they don't have pensions and benefits, so why should anybody else?" That's a big change from the past, when people supported unions because they thought their efforts would help raise wages for everyone else.

Now, most of the county's major employers are school districts and government jurisdictions. Many union battles are now with school boards and local government agencies, or at large health care nonprofits including Vancouver-based PeaceHealth. And public employee unions face increasing criticism from conservative opponents of labor unions, Mercier said.

Mike Honey, a professor at the University of Washington's Tacoma campus, said the union movement has lost some of its numbers and influence across the country, but "Washington is among the more unionized states."

"It's about 20 percent now in Washington," Honey said prior to a recent lecture at the museum. "It was 35 percent nationally at the height (of the union movement) in the 1950s."

But Ed Barnes, the retired electrical union executive, hopes that the message about the importance of unions gets passed down to new generations. He concedes that he's not too optimistic about what schools teach students about the past.

"They used to teach history," he said. "Now, most students don't know about (Christopher) Columbus."