Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests

By Harter, John-Henry | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests


Harter, John-Henry, Labour/Le Travail


Erik Loomis, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests (New York: Cambridge University Press 2016)

ERIK LOOMIS' BOOK, Empire of Timber, examines the history of workers' environmental activism in the Pacific Northwest of the United States through five case studies of five different labour organizations. As Loomis points out, "examining how unions conceptualized nature to appeal to members or how unions articulated a specific environmental program that shaped resource usage are understudied questions in the environmental history of work." (8) Empire of Timber tackles this topic by looking at the Industrial Workers of the World's (IWW) organizing of Pacific Northwest logging camps, the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumberman (a company union) during World War I, the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) from its formation in 1937, the more conservative United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and the experiences of tree planters or, as Loomis refers to them, "countercultural reforestation workers." (9) Much of Empire of Timber predates the modern environmental movement and illustrates the existence of a working-class environmentalism that has been understudied both in labour history and environmental history.

In Chapter 1, the author explores the early history of the IWW organizing in the region. Loomis connects the radical labour union's well-known actions to the demands that he frames as proto-environmentalist. By shifting the focus to "the IWW campaigns around sanitation, food, and health" he shines a light on activity which he considers, "should be considered as environmental justice concerns linking labour, class, and environmental concerns." (20)

The following chapter continues the story of the IWW as it gained more of a foothold in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. Loomis notes the, "IWW's presence in the forests grew rapidly in 1916, as did the escalation of violence against them." (55) He tells the story of how timber operators sought to eliminate their organizing efforts. In Everett, Washington one group of Wobblie organizers, "were met at the dock, rounded up, stripped naked, and forced to run the gauntlet while the vigilantes beat them." (55) Loomis shows how the companies tried to sidestep radicalism by creating a company friendly union, the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumberman (Four-L). The Four-L, with the complicity of the employers, delivered on some of the demands of the IWW by banning "IWW members from work, but guaranteed the eight-hour day, steady work, and improving conditions." (65) This "led to a major victory for workers, but a complete defeat for the IWW." (65) The IWW declined but a new union, the International Woodworkers of America, was created in the late 1930s.

Chapter 3, "Working-Class Forests," focuses on the IWA'S fight for a sustainable resource policy. Loomis describes the IWA as, "a powerful working-class voice for conservation, challenging the timber industry's control over the Pacific Northwest forests." (89) The IWA was the first American union to hire a professional forester, Ellery Foster, providing it with added credibility. Problematically, though, "with Forster's hiring, the IWA forestry plan would be funneled almost entirely through him, making this program a top-down exercise that did not engage the rank and file." (102) Despite this limitation, Loomis shows how Foster was key to the battles the IWA waged attempting to balance conservation with its members' needs. The fight against the Sustained Yield Forest Act of 1944 is one example of this. Empire of Timber shows how the IWA influenced public discourse around forestry issues in the Pacific Northwest and the role they played in fighting for a sustainable forestry policy.

Chapter 4 shifts the focus to workplace health and safety. As Loomis argues: "Whereas forest policy primarily engaged union officials, workplace health placed power into the hands of workers to evaluate their own workplaces and shape the environment in which they labored. …

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