The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History

By Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 15
Commonwealth of Toil

The "blanket-stiff " now packs his bed Along the trails of yesteryear-- What path is left for you to tread? . . . Do you not know the West is dead? --Ralph Chaplin, "The West is Dead," Wobbly ( 1948)

The stereotypical picture of Oregon pioneers is of land-hungry farmers, but the westbound wagons and ships also brought mechanics and artisans. Some of those new arrivals carried with them the seeds of trade unionism. Printers in Portland organized the local Typographical Society in 1853, and locomotive engineers and longshoremen formed additional unions in the late 1860s. The few unions that predated 1880 were for the most part weak and tenuous, but after completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad, labor's power increased noticeably. Oregon became the first state in the nation to legalize the Labor Day holiday in 1887; and for many years, the percentage of unionized non-agricultural workers was greater in Washington than in any other state. But the story of working people in the Pacific Northwest is more than the history of unions.

Work for wages is today the most common way Pacific Northwesterners earn a living. That was not true before 1880, when most people were selfemployed. Early residents sustained themselves by farming or perhaps by

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