Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging--Wesley Everest

Unlike the previous posts in this serious, almost nobody in the world knows who Wesley Everest is. Everest was an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer working in the Pacific Northwest woods during the late 1910s. A center of IWW work was the town of Centralia, in southwestern Washington. Today, this area (actually its neighboring town of Chehalis) is known for a right-wing billboard that has "graced" a spot along I-5 for as long as I can remember. Originally on a spot between the two towns, the farmer who found it nice to promote his views of foreigners as evil and Hillary Clinton having killed Vince Foster, eventually sold his land to Green Giant. The owners of Green Giant, although they probably agreed with everything he said, particularly the anti-labor propaganda, didn't want the publicity so they announced they were taking the sign down. Chehalis decided to move it into town so the old man could still publicize his insanity to tens of thousands of people every day. So the story I'm about tell about this area probably won't surprise you.

The IWW had a union hall in Centralia, just north of downtown. This was their second hall--the first was destroyed in 1918 by local 100% Americanists. The IWW had organized in the forests throughout the 1910s and by World War I had thrown the region into turmoil. Why? Because timber operators treated their workers like animals. Not even providing bedding (except for vermin-infested hay) and serving often tainted food, these camp operators forced as many workers as possible into truly disgusting bunk houses that were filled with various diseases. Fresh water in the camps was often hard to find and work days were long, hard, and extraordinarily dangerous (I have an excellent story of a man getting impaled on a shovel for instance). So loggers were pretty happy to fight for better conditions, something the IWW took full advantage of.

By 1917, strikes were rampant through the forests. Normally, the federal government probably wouldn't have done anything about it. But airplanes were a new weapon in the war. In particular, the military needed Sitka spruce, a tree that grows only in the temperate rainforests of the northern Pacific Coast to build the planes. So the government went in, forced the camp operators to give the workers decent living conditions, set up a government-sponsored company union called the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, and told the striking loggers that they could work if they renounced the IWW. This was incredibly successful and the IWW died almost immediately. After the war, the companies kept the 4-L going until 1937 and prevented the IWW from making a meaningful return.

But the IWW still hung on among some loggers. So they had a union hall in Centralia in 1919. The newly formed American Legion, containing the pride of the Centralia community, decided to turn their parade on the first anniversary of Armistice Day into an attack on the IWW hall. But the IWW had been warned and instead of letting the good people of Centralia destroy their hall like the year before, they posted sentries on hill above the town, armed everyone, and started firing. 4 Legion members were killed. Wesley Everest, one of the IWW organizers, was lynched that night.

Everest was not particularly exceptional in any way. After his death, the IWW tried to make him into a hyper-masculinized Christ-like figure, which is amusing to the present-day historian (at least this one), but not at all convincing. Why Everest is worth knowing about is that he is representative of radical labor in the 1910s that tried to revolutionize America and as the most famous person involved in the lumber organizing of the period. I am usually quite contempuous of the IWW. I believe that anarchism is a pernicious influence on the left and has been for over 100 years now. It serves the interests of capitalism better than anything the capitalists could possibly invent themselves. Sure the IWW had some big victories during their heyday, but those unions all disappeared within a year of their famous confrontations. They couldn't organize 2 people, never mind thousands.

But the Pacific Northwest was a little different. Because they organized primarily over conditions that affected thousands of people over a large geographical space, they managed to build some real unions over the years. But they only did this by underplaying their own ideological foundations and focusing on the kind of bread and butter goals that the AFL used in these same years. I don't think the IWW got unionism in the Northwest any better than they did anywhere else (though the AFL didn't get it either since they weren't even a presence in the forests. Too many Finns to organize I guess), but they did understand what workers needed and sacrificed everything, including the life of Wesley Everest, to get it for them. Ultimately, they had some success because had they not spent the previous decade causing havoc in the forests, the government never would have gone in there and improved those conditions. Of course, they won at the price of losing but nonetheless, you have to judge their actions a success on one level.

Less admirable is the American Legion, one of the most pernicious organizations in American history. Used as a paramilitary organization in the Imperial Valley during the 1920s and 1930s, and as anti-labor, anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-woman organization throughout the nation, their actions at Centralia were lauded, not denounced by the American public as a whole. This was approximately the same time as the Palmer Raids, which launched the career of J. Edgar Hoover, and the anti-immigration laws that among other things ensured that Jewish children couldn't come to the US to escape Adolf Hitler. Both of these things had the strong support of the Legion. Now that the WWII generation is dying off, I really hope the Legion goes the way of the dodo and passenger pigeon.