Wobblies on the Southern Home Front

— Abra Quinn

MOST READERS OF Against the Current know the Industrial Workers of the World by their imaginative and daring radical tactics and campaigns in the Northeast and the West  — the Free Speech campaigns; the Lawrence, Massachusetts Bread and Roses textile strike, made colorful by its propaganda, and especially the pageants and children’s evacuation that brought the strike publicity; their organizing of itinerant workers and hoboes; and the Wobblies’ clarion calls for direct action and sabotage on the job, as well as loudmouthed boasts of violent action in response to the bosses’ violence.

Yet the U.S. Left tends to be blind to regional variations on these national themes, particularly when the region in question is the South. The Wobblies were active in the American South, too, though the forms their organizing took in the South were not always so flamboyant. Considering the vicious repression facing Wobbly activists in the North, this is perhaps not surprising. If Frank Little and Wesley Everett could be lynched in the North, it’s all too clear what backlash might await them in the South.

However, the IWW successfully organized seamen and maritime workers in the docks and ports of Louisiana and Texas, on the Gulf, and also linked up with timber organizing in the Piney Woods stretching across Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.

As with Lawrence, the Wobblies did not begin the organizing drive of local workers; they joined in — or were joined by these local workers. In the case of the Piney Woods “Lumber War,” of 1910 through 1914 or so, the IWW in fact only came onto the scene once disaster and defeat were all but inevitably looming. As with other struggles they participated in, though, the Wobblies added color (pun somewhat intended, as will become clear) and creative publicity as part of their strike support.

Timberworkers in the Piney Woods

From the 1880s until about the 1920s, the timber and sawmilling industry in the South was the latest focus in the ever westward shifting “lumber frontier.” Although all of the lumber fronts and their lumberjacks and associated sawmill workers’ struggles overlapped to a fair extent, you can still locate specific areas and periods of greatest intensity.

These areas were the white pine forests of the Northeast that supplied shipbuilding through the late 18th and most of the 19th century, and then lumber for construction after that; the white pine forests of the Great Lakes region, in the mid and late 19th century, and now, the vast stretches of yellow pine forests in those regions of the South that weren’t very suited to cash crop production by reason of poor soils. These marginal lands now had a cash crop of their own, once steam and steel made their hilly and remote interiors accessible by rail, especially short spur lines.

Exploitation of yellow pine forests in the South coincided with the explosion of housing construction and the growth of urban areas in the United States during the high point of the Industrial Revolution. And the workers who entered this industry faced a rapid transition from sharecroppers or small farmers, usually renters, to lumberjacks or factory workers.

They differed from urban industrial workers, though, in that they often retained organic ties to the land, and therefore to a somewhat preindustrial life. Many Southern timberworkers and sawmill workers took jobs only in the offseasons of farming, and many of them retained tight ties with families enmeshed in the cotton cycle, whose lives and work habits did not change appreciably.

The other stark difference with Northern, midwestern and eventually the Pacific Northwest lumber fronts was, of course, the significant — in some ways, preeminent — fact that workers in the South were just as often Black as white. Literally one-half of most lumberjacking and sawmill operations’ workforces were African American.

Very few lumber companies attempted to operate on a “whites only” basis, though they certainly protected the very most skilled positions for whites. But trying to segregate workers by race, or trying to hire only one race (whether only white or only Black) for most of the job classifications at a Southern lumber company would have carried a stiff price for the companies. Managers’ letters to each other during and, tellingly, AFTER the Lumber War make it clear that they were convinced that having multiracial workforces meant that workers would never be able to “unite and fight.(1)

Similarly, John H. Kirby, one of the biggest lumber barons in East Texas, and a spearhead of the fight to keep timberworkers unorganized, spoke publicly to orchestrated rallies of workers and their families about how their status as American family men who aimed to own their own homes should make them impervious to IWW socialistic blandishments.(2)

Although Kirby’s fervent belief may have been one obstacle facing labor organizing in the South, the desire for family and home also motivated workers to band together and risk a strike. They had more to lose than the more typical footloose itinerant (and single male) rebel, but they also had a great deal more to gain and to protect, if they won.

Beginnings of the Lumber War

In 1910, a Tennessean timberworker and radical named Arthur Lee Emerson began organizing locals of what he called the Brotherhood of Timber Workers, or BTW. The BTW was an industrial union which organized across crafts and accepted unskilled laborers on an equal basis with skilled. By 1912 it was locked in a grueling war of attrition with the lumber bosses’ organization — the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association (SLOA) — which had been founded in 1906 after an earlier wave of labor agitation.

By the time of the BTW’s strike for recognition, the SLOA had consolidated itself to such a point that it had a membership of eighty-seven companies with mills in seven states: Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida and Mississippi.

The BTW was founded near Fullerton, Louisiana, in June, 1910. A.L. Emerson had worked in logging and sawmilling for years, but in 1910, he had just returned from a long stay in the Pacific Northwest, where he saw that while conditions might be worse, organization of the timberworkers there had led to significantly higher wages. After Emerson’s return to the Piney Woods he got taken on at the Gulf Lumber Company extolled by quasi-company historian Anna Burns as an earthly paradise, and began to sound out workers about a union.

Almost all the Southern lumber companies founded and wholly owned their own company towns, located wherever it was convenient to set up the sawmill’s plant and pen the logs in a mill pond. Their cutting fronts were as mobile as railroad spur lines could make them, and whole small towns traveled out to the logging sites in boxcars that could be set down as temporary villages, complete with company store, church, school and family houses.

Both company towns and the mobile logging front villages were focused around the support network of the loggers’ families — the social reproduction of workers’ labor power was taken care of by their own wives and children. It was a completely different world than the all-male logging camps of the rough-and-tumble lumberjacks made so famous by Wobbly propaganda and popular culture, from Paul Bunyan through Looney Tunes cartoons.

The Wobblies eventually even coined a term for these kinds of workers, inextricable as they were from their families. They called them — sometimes disparagingly, sometimes almost longingly — “homeguards.” In any case, the lumber company owners were not blind and deaf to the realities of their workforces: their “benevolent paternalism” was calculated precisely to prevent workers’ immiseration from reaching such proportions as to make the danger of organizing seem preferable to the daily repression of the Quarterboss, the pathetic wages, and the prying of each company’s informal “social department.(3)

This was the situation A. L. Emerson and the fledgling BTW faced. The first local was organized at Carson, Louisiana, in December, 1910, and although no real activities had been reported, the SLOA began to institute yellow-dog contracts and a blacklist on April 6, 1911.(4)

By late May of 1911, the BTW was becoming active in different parts of western Louisiana and East Texas. More strikes were reported, and mills began to close in order to lock out union workers. In July, the SLOA began to order its member mills to lock workers out and close down production if they even suspected union activity. SLOA members had paid dues into a war chest since 1906, and this money was disbursed in many ways to defray the costs to the owners.

In order to firm up the SLOA ranks after one key owner-member tried to resist orders to lock out workers (Sam Park — he was made an honorary member of the BTW, although later struggles made his resistance relatively futile), Kirby and other leaders hired M.L. Alexander as the full time executive secretary, who immediately set out to rationalize and streamline the SLOA’s most powerful weapon, its massive blacklist.(5)

By January 1912, the SLOA reported that the BTW had been crushed, and most of the major mills were reopening. Partly as a result of what the union viewed as its own weakness, the BTW affiliated itself with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) at the BTW’s second convention in Alexandria, Louisiana, in May, 1912.

With its affiliation to the IWW, the BTW again began to mobilize. By early July 1912, national leaders of the IWW like Big Bill Haywood were touring the region, along with local orators and Wobbly Covington Hall and socialist H. G. Creel. On July 7th, a protest march led by Emerson stopped at the Galloway Lumber Company and guards hired by the owners fired on the crowd, sparking what became known as the Grabow “riot.”

Two union members were killed, as well as one company guard or “thug,” in BTW accounts, and one bystander. A grand jury indicted Emerson and over 40 other union members for murder, but the sensational trial in Lake Charles vindicated all of them in November, proving that the company guards had been drinking all afternoon at the urging of the Galloway brothers, and had been incited to attack the strikers.

The verdict was a pyrrhic victory for the Brotherhood, as it virtually bankrupted them, and the union’s last concerted campaign centered around Merryville, where Sam Park’s American Lumber Company had been taken over by the Santa Fe Railroad.

On November 10th, the new management discharged fifteen employees who had testified for the union at the Grabow trial. The BTW struck in response — led out by a Black member named P.L. Smith — and in December 1912, the American Lumber Company brought in both Black and white scabs.

Almost the last weapon in the union’s depleted arsenal — a strike newspaper appealing for unity across racial lines — ended by becoming its most powerful, at least in terms of establishing the place of the Lumber War in subsequent labor and radical history.

Covington Hall — Southern Wobbly

Covington Hall is a character who is bigger than life, as many Wobbly leaders were. He was born in Mississippi in 1871 and grew up on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, where his first knowledge of radicalism was his uncle’s settling a strike of cane workers by recognizing the Knights of Labor cane cutters’ union, and then being ruined socially and economically as a result.

Hall was a paradoxical mixture of traditions and creeds. He romanticized “The Lost Cause” of the Confederates — his father apparently had been a chaplain in the Confederate Army — and joined the Sons of the Confederacy, yet he also flirted with the Populists, was best friends with the premier radical and labor journalist working in New Orleans around the turn of the century, Oscar Ameringer, and joined the Industrial Workers of the World.

Hall rationalized his Southern sympathies by viewing the defeated Confederate soldiers as underdogs, and by romanticizing the non-slaveholding small yeoman farmers of the South as the heirs of the Jeffersonian tradition — that radical Jeffersonian preindustrial tradition that declared Americans’ right and responsibility to “water the roots of the tree of liberty with blood” every few generations. He contrasted this agrarian and precapitalist ideal with the thrusting industrial capitalism nascent in Alexander Hamilton.

Clearly, Hall was an iconoclast in an organization of iconoclasts. He struggled with the IWW, trying to find a place to fit his personal theories in by writing articles on southern nationalism and anticapitalism for the IWW press. He romanticized armed struggle of all kinds, and even tried to recuperate the Klan, by creating (at least verbally) a “Clan of Toil” and recovering some of the “history” of the Klan’s tactics — a burning cross on a hill, wrote Hall, was an ancient Irish signal for the clans to rise against oppression.

Bizarre as his efforts to reconcile racist practices with revolutionary ones were, he came closest to transcending this struggle with his organizational efforts around the Lumber War. Here, Hall found a mission to which he could apply his talents fully, and one that demanded he find a way to bring together workers who, though they labored together in the woods and on the sawmill factory floor, were socially segregated.

Covington Hall was present at the BTW convention which decided to throw in its lot with the Wobblies. He was familiar with the South and its mores — though obviously quite deluded about some of them — and a writer and organizer. He was charged with propaganda for the strike.

On January 9, 1913, Covington Hall put out the first issue of The Lumberjack, a labor sheet sponsored by the BTW, and located in Alexandria. The paper lasted for almost two years, though it moved from Alexandria to New Orleans, and then changed its name to Voice of the People in order to reach out to workers other than lumberjacks and sawmill hands.

This small labor sheet — only four pages, but full newspaper stock size — had a short but very visible and audible life. Its existence shows the unique and creative nature of the IWW in the American South.

Although there is no direct evidence for this, from the writing style and unity of theme evident in the paper, it is clear that Hall wrote not only the editorials and the articles he signed, but much of the filler, as well. He clearly was the deciding force behind the paper, soliciting advertisements from sympathetic local and regional small businesses, and culling other radical papers — not only the related Wobbly press — for items to reprint.

I would argue, in fact, that Hall wrote some of the letters from “Fellow Workers,” the term most Wobblies used in addressing each other. It seems fairly clear that Hall composed a few letters to The Lumberjack which were written in what was supposed to sound like Afro-Southern dialect. Each of these letters, moreover, supported Hall’s main theoretical contention about how to organize workers and ensure class solidarity across racial lines.

Hall’s main idea was the quite usual Left hope: “Black and White, Unite and Fight.” However, as he was in the Jim Crow South, he chose to amend this notion by terming class equality (all workers are equal to other workers) as “stomach equality,” which had the advantage of implying that all the BTW was demanding was that workers stand together for material equality based on filling their stomachs.

This was a quite common trope among Wobblies, who mostly tried to stay clear of highfalutin theory in their mass work: think of Joe Hill’s songs and T-Bone Slim’s poetry featuring pie in the sky and beefsteaks on earth — and emphatically NOT “social equality,” the racial fear that so terrified Southern whites.

He further tried to differentiate between “black fellow workers” who were BTW members or strike sympathizers in the community, and “N——,” who were scabs on the strike. Of course this was pandering to the racism endemic in the white working class and small farmers. It seems he chose that route in order to try to make a biracial union acceptable to white workers — because miraculously, a biracial union was what the BTW was.

African-American Workers and the BTW

At the 1912 BTW convention, where Black and white members had been meeting in separate buildings due to Jim Crow segregation and its legal restrictions, Big Bill Haywood had denounced this practice — largely because it was practically ridiculous, to have the minutes being run from building to building to keep each half of the union in sync with the other. Hall told everyone that the law only said Blacks and whites had to sit in separate sections IN any building where both were present. So the meetings consolidated, and general meetings from that point on were integrated.

Although Black workers were usually much less secure in their jobs and lived, while in company towns, much more under the direct oversight of the local marshall, often called the “Quarterboss,” they did join the BTW. In fact, the case I know the most about, which took place in one of the company towns that was barely touched by the Lumber War, featured a Black community leader and worker named Ed Cole.

Cole worked for the Louisiana Central Lumber Company (LCLC), owned by a Kansas City lumber baron named J.B. White. The local Superintendent of the Clarks, Louisiana sawmill company town was Clarence Edward Slagle, and he and his various counterparts in other affiliated lumber companies were well aware of the threat posed by the BTW’s organizing drive.

Workers at the Fisher, Louisiana plant — the Louisiana Long Leaf Lumber Company, an affiliate of the LCLC — had already been forced to sign yellow dog contracts promising not to join any union, but White felt that his flagship company town was in no danger. It was further north and east of the hottest union spots, and he felt, moreover, that his workers understood what a wonderful deal they got from his enlightened employer benevolence.

Clarks had a medical dispensary and two company doctors. It had a library. It had a company store. It had churches, including the Morning Star Baptist Church, a Black community church built of brick with a stone foundation and concrete baptismal pool. It had company built housing, segregated of course, and a hotel as well as boarding houses.

Somehow, though, Ed Cole, one of the trustees of the local Black school and a church deacon, met one of the Burns Agency detectives pretending to be a traveling BTW organizer. They met out of town at night, in the woods, and Ed Cole convinced several other Black workers, and then three white workers, to join what he thought was the union.

The labor spy, his work done, reported to the Assistant Superintendent, Alex Hamilton, and Hamilton called all of the workers in and fired them. Cole desperately tried to convince Hamilton that he’d been playing a double game, but Hamilton was not persuaded.

Cole had a family to support, five children and a wife. They lived in company housing. He risked all of that for the mere possibility of joining the Brotherhood of Timberworkers, and boasted to the false organizer that “he could get every negro in the plant to join.” This, from the group who were supposedly the least susceptible to organizing, because the most vulnerable to the bosses.

It isn’t clear what happened in the immediate aftermath, except that how the blacklist functioned in practice can be seen by how Hamilton and Slagle pursued the men who’d tried to join the BTW. Martin Parker, who was white, was a skilled worker — an edgerman on the bandsaw — and he and two of the Black workers, Ed Cole and Henry Smith left Clarks to go up the road to another sawmill, which took them on, once they swore that they wouldn’t try to join the union again, that they’d been duped.

But Alex Hamilton got word of their new employment and a long, nasty correspondence ensued between his office and the other lumber company manager’s. Hamilton threatened to have that lumber company kicked out of the SLOA, and to brand that manager, personally, as a union sympathizer like Sam Park.

Nicholas Greener fired Henry Smith and Ed Cole immediately — they were unskilled labor, a car loader and a night watchman and hostler, respectively, as well as African-American. But he tried to defend Martin Parker for several weeks before giving into Hamilton’s escalating threats.

For the end of this story, I can say that Ed Cole shows up again in the historical record as employed with the Louisiana Central Lumber Company. He is listed as a delinquent account with the company doctor in 1913; he’s listed as a signatory of a petition for more funds for the Black school; he’s listed as paying rent on a company house in 1914, which could not be true if he weren’t an employee. Eventually, then, he was taken back by his bosses, after the Lumber War was finally over.

Why would Ed Cole risk so much? It is doubtful (at least to me) that the ringing rhetoric of “stomach equality” was the motivating factor.

Although Covington Hall explicitly cited class solidarity as the way to overcome racial division, the articles he wrote in The Lumberjack and the stories he told and speeches he quoted in his memoir, Labor Struggles in the Deep South, tend to rely more on what I would term gendered messages.(6) Specifically, Hall seems to have used a doubled message which both reassured white workers, while attracting Black workers. I do not think this message was intentional, but it is hard to avoid reading.

BTW stump speakers like Ed Lehman and Covington Hall often criticized white workers, who were ambivalent about the risks associated with joining the union, by criticizing them as being less than the brave fellow Black workers who joined. This was a message laying heavy emphasis on how Black union members are “FELLOW MEN,” and conversely how white scabs are white trash and “company suckers” rather than men. There is also a clear implication of a lack of masculinity in scabs who “suck” and are, perhaps, themselves homosexual, though that is never openly stated.

At the same time, stories in The Lumberjack often recount heroic self-sacrifice of Black fellow workers in ways which seem calculated to bring to mind associations not with virile manhood, but nurturing, almost feminine traits — not emasculated so much as motherly.

Black workers, in The Lumberjack, avert riots by standing quietly and in dignity like precursors of Mohandas Gandhi or Christ figures.(7) They protect their children (in the significant absence of a mother, in one particular story, where a father cares for his child who has meningitis, segregated in a cattle car on a train, and denied entrance to the towns where the train stopped). A clearer parallel to the Nativity is hard to find, as long as Mary’s role is suppressed.(8)

Whether or not this gendered language is what convinced Black workers to risk their families’ security by joining a union that was clearly on the losing side of a titanic labor struggle is not clear, perhaps not susceptible to proof.

What is clear is that “Black and white, unite and fight” has almost never succeeded as a strategy in the American labor movement, at least before the Civil Rights struggle. Its simple appeal to class solidarity and the materiality of class is probably too economically reductionist to function today, either.

The Wobblies faced that harsh reality in the South in the ‘teens. Their attempt to grapple with racism and class solidarity — in the person of Covington Hall, with all of his quirks and contradictions — is one of the more glorious but at the same time lesser known of their many legacies for revolutionaries today.

Notes

  1. Luisiana Central Lumber Company (LCLC) Papers, Western Historical Manuscripts Collection (WHMC) at the University of Missouri, letter from C. E. Slagle to J. P. Collins, February 18, 1914.
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  2. Quote by J. H. Kirby, cited in Ruth Allen’s excellent early study of the Piney Woods: East Texas Lumber Workers: An Economic and Social Picture, 1870-1950, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961, 145-6.
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  3. The lumber companies did not formally constitute a department like Henry Ford’s, but their bosses and managers were just as interested in the minutiae of workers’ personal lives, as it inevitably related to their performance on the job, and to their docility or the lack thereof. For discussions of how paternalism was used to corral and confine workers both Black and white — though in very different ways — see my master’s thesis from the University of Missouri: Uncommon Manhood: Gendering Race in Order to Consolidate Class in the Louisiana Piney Woods, 1902-1920.
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  4. All of these dates are taken from Jeff Ferrell, The Brotherhood of Timber Workers and the Southern Lumber Trust, 1910-1914, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin 1982, 94-122.
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  5. This Blacklist, compiled, edited, and updated weekly by Alexander and the SLOA, eventually reached into the tens of thousands of names. Labor spies, undercover agents employed by the SLOA to masquerade as itinerant workers and union agitators entrapped workers into joining a fake local of the union so that the bosses could identify local troublemakers and fire them before the actual union got there. Such labor spies also reported daily to the SLOA’s offices, where their detailed reports on conditions in each affected company town were collated, typed up, copied and sent to the SLOA company in question. The result is a rich and conflictual historical source for the labor and social historian. Such spies might be white or Black, and their actions were crucial for the bosses’ victory.
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  6. An excellent and recently published original memoir by Hall is Labor Struggles in the Deep South, edited by David Roediger, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Press, 1999.
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  7. In The Lumberjack, Vol. 1, Number 8 (February 27, 1913):1, LCLC Papers, WHMC.
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  8. LJ, Vol. 1, Number 3, (January 23, 1913): 2, LCLC Papers, WHMC.
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ATC 116, May-June 2005