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Labor strife sparked by Great Depression, stopped by war

Labor Day doesn’t resonate in western Washington County quite the way it does in industrial cities such as Detroit or Pittsburgh, but that’s not an entirely bad thing, because with a few notable exceptions, labor relations in the Forest Grove and Hillsboro area have been fairly harmonious.

Not surprisingly, most of the strife occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Until that time, Washington County had been almost entirely agricultural. People grew their own food and built their own houses or worked for small, local businesses.

In the early 1930s, however, all that changed. Corporate lumber barons built mills and bought up timber land. Farmers and loggers lost their land and equipment to foreclosure and had to seek employment with corporations. The conditions those proud workers found often were nearly barbaric.

Wages were low and safety conditions were lax. If a worker lost an arm to the saws, for example, he found himself out of work and unemployable. The bosses who controlled the working conditions no longer lived down the street, but rather in Seattle, California or New York — far from the worker seeking reparations.

Unions stepped in to address the issues. In 1934, longshoremen went on strike in Astoria, Longview and Portland. A four-part investigative series by Herbert Lundy of The Oregonian in August 1938 recounted threats, vandalism and beatings among strikers, company security and replacement workers.

At first the strikers enjoyed much public support because of their dismal wages and working conditions, Lundy wrote. But sentiment changed after an Oregon State University student, working as a strikebreaker for tuition money, was killed when a large rock thrown by a striker hit him in the head during a riot in North Portland.

The longshoremen soon were joined by lumber mill workers, demanding safer working conditions and higher wages. Oregon’s governor at the time, Charles Martin, ordered sheriffs to adopt the anti-union policies of Adolf Hitler in Germany.

“Beat the hell out of them,” he wrote in a letter to The Oregonian. “Crack their damned heads.”

Most sheriffs refused, but Washington County Sheriff John Connell obliged in May 1935, when strikers tried to shut down the new Stimson Mill in Scoggins Valley, the Northwest’s most modern mill. After Connell assembled a posse, the strikers were beaten and forced to march to jail in Forest Grove.

Although most of the violence was concentrated in the Northwest’s bigger cities, just a month after the Stimson Mill incident, a dispute between truck drivers and Portland breweries brought violence once again to rural Washington County, when a bomb exploded at the small store of William Fuegy in the Rock Creek area near Hillsboro. Although the bombing went unsolved for several years, police immediately suspected that it had been carried out by union members.

Labor strife continued for several years, but violence eased as employers slowly raised wages and federal laws were passed to protect worker safety. Then in 1938, federal, state and local authorities staged dozens of raids to arrest union leaders, accused of hundreds of crimes, including the bombing at the Fuegy store.

The last remaining strikes were called off when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Portland shipyards and docks needed every able-bodied worker they could find, including — for the first time — women.

The shipyards required enormous amounts of lumber. By 1943, supplies of lumber were running so short that the military started a campaign of brochures and newspaper and radio ads, urging anyone with logging experience to quit any job not related to timber and go back into the forests and sawmills.

“Every skilled job in the woods and mills,” the ads said, “is, in every sense, a battle station. Every tree ‘of fighting age and size’ is wanted in the Battle of Freedom.” Eight years after being attacked by Martin and others as treasonous Bolsheviks, local millworkers were being hailed as “front-line fighters in this conflict.”

When the war ended, western Washington County returned to periodic strikes by mill workers, drivers and others, but the strife never returned to anywhere near the levels it reached in the Great Depression.

Parts of this story are taken from two of the Bilderbacks’ books, “Creek With No Name” and “Walking to Forest Grove.”



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