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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Industrial Workers of the World

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: April 6, 2024, 6:07am

America entered World War I on April 19, 1917, unprepared to provide the spruce essential to every airplane of the era, which helped protect Allies in muddy European trenches. Airplanes required the spruce found only along 50 miles of Oregon and Washington coastline.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) led a timber strike in the Pacific Northwest that year, demanding management provide fair wages, shorter workdays and safer logging practices.

Although the Wobblies’ strike failed, the Army feared a spruce shortage. The federal government allowed the Army to send soldiers into the woods and establish a government-sponsored union for the timber industry, an unprecedented act to assure uninterrupted spruce production.

Anyone strolling through the Old City Cemetery at Mill Plain and Grand boulevards can see grave markers displaying a portion of a tree with the letters “4L.” The LLLL, or Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, the government-backed union.

Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing wanted the Army to control spruce production and chose Capt. Brice Disque to lead the operation. Disque had overseen civilian labor for an Army repair depot in the Philippines, where skilled Army personnel were scant. In touring the logging camps, Disque found not an ideological problem, but a working and living conditions crisis. Disque organized the 4L to undercut the IWW in the woods and improve conditions as part of his effort to control logging production. He signed up 120,000 4L union members by Nov. 11, 1918.

Pledging to further the production of timber was the sole 4L membership requirement. Members received a button, and wearing it became necessary for acceptance by Pacific Northwest people. In theory, the 4L sought to balance labor and management needs. By Armistice Day, the Army’s total demand was being met, much through the Spruce Cut-up Plant that covered most of Pearson Field at the time.

By 1920, the organization admitted it had showed less success in lumber camps than in lumber mills. In short, the organization needed to do more for those in the camps. One reason was that camp work was contract work. Loggers worked long, hard hours for penny-ante wages. As contractors, the 4L regulations didn’t apply, so few loggers joined, and only the rare owner-contractor signed up. Also, lumber market uncertainty tended to push wages down.

After World War I, the 4L continued to assist its members in new ways. Some districts provided employment agencies for members, and most maintained legion halls, which offered recreational opportunities for members. In 1926, the government’s union provided group insurance for on-the-job accidents and illness.

The IWW considered the management-labor conflict a class struggle. However, by absorbing the IWW labor causes, the 4L deflated the issue by awarding members the benefits the IWW demanded. Sedition laws passed by Congress increased the threat against the Wobblies if they protested during the war. Legionnaires acted as spies in the woods during the war. Afterward, they retrenched as strongly anti-liberal and anti-communist without the Army’s backing. The legion’s ranks shrank until the organization dissolved itself in 1937.

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Columbian freelance contributor