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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Labor Trouble at Red River Lumber Part One

Westwood from the air in 1937 from a negative at the UC Davis Eastman Collection.

by Susan Couso

It was a company town, run by the company, and owned by the company. The head of the company made all of the decisions. By 1914, everything was thriving. The company mill was in full swing, and the streets had been laid out as the company had planned. The railroad reached the small, isolated area and brought supplies, then carried the mill products away to sell.

The company owned the land, the houses, the utilities, and everything else. Unity was important, and they dominated every aspect of social and economic life.

The company owned the schools, the hospital, the opera house, and the bowling alley. They hired the doctors and the law enforcement. They owned the stores and shops. They decided just what was to be sold and what entertainment was permitted and what was to be taught.

The head of the company had a dream. A utopia where everything worked smoothly, and everyone worked together. A place where ‘outsiders’ were a rarity and looked upon with suspicion.

But this was not some science-fiction story of a mad ruler who controlled everyone. The town was Westwood, and the company was the Red River Lumber Company. The head of the company was Thomas Barlow Walker.

The company’s Red River Department Store was considered the best around with everything from furniture to automobiles to clothing to groceries. They even had a soda fountain. But if workers decided to venture to Susanville and shop there, they would find a small note included with their paycheck admonishing them to spend their money in Westwood.

Peddlers were not allowed on company property either and even purchases from the Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward’s catalogs were frowned upon. Walker ran a ‘tight ship’.

The evils of alcoholism were apparent, and all alcohol use was forbidden. This created a new industry as the road between Westwood and Susanville was ‘dotted’ with small taverns attempting to entice the thirsty lumbermen to stop, drink, and be entertained by the gambling and ‘friendly’ women. But T. B. Walker could do nothing about this new industry, for it was not company property.

The lumbermen in the woods had the worst conditions. In 1916, they were being paid $3.75 per day. That’s equal to just over $106 in today’s economy. Not too bad. But the workers were stuck out in the woods for up to eight months.

Their living conditions were degrading. The small shacks were made to be transported as the workers moved to new locations in the woods, and they lacked the basic necessities. Some loggers complained that they didn’t even have a blanket. Working conditions were dangerous and difficult, with very long hours.

An undated photo of logging operations near Westwood

Around the country, labor unions were making ‘footholds’. The American Federation of Labor (A. F. of L.), the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.,) and the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), were in a war to represent workers, and the lumber workers were a basically unrepresented group. Each of these unions were vying for the lumbermen.

At the same time, the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (4L’s) was formed. Its stated purpose was to represent the workers, but, in essence, it supported the employers. It didn’t take long for the 4L’s to be considered an enemy of the worker, but still, it did help with labor relations.

In Westwood, Thomas B. Walker had died in 1928 and his sons took over the family business. The Walker boys invited 4L to become part of the Red River Lumber Company, and Ted Walker, Vice-President of the company sat on the 4L board. Employees of Red River Lumber Company automatically became members and dues were deducted from their salaries.

With the Red River Company ‘represented’ by 4L, the company felt safe from any assault by other unions. Besides, the property was owned by the Walkers. If any union representative approached the small town, they were told to leave.

But on April 12, 1937, the United States Supreme Court ruled against the 4L’s, and they were no longer accepted as a labor union. This caused very few problems, as the 4L’s simply reorganized as the Industrial Employees Union (I.E.U.). The Westwood Local No. 1 of the I.E.U. was formed and workers were automatically transferred over to the new ‘union’.

The fight between the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O. continued, each wanting control of the lumber workers. By 1936, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (U.B.C & J.) had representation of most lumber workers in the Northwest, but soon workers began to defect to the C.I.O. under the designation as the International Woodworkers of America (I.W.A.).

All of these unions fought a ‘dirty fight’ and as the CIO/I.W.A. gained popularity, it was labeled a Communist organization by its rivals.

In May 1937, a C.I.O. organizer showed up in Westwood with the purpose of establishing a local I.W.A. The Lumber and Sawmill Workers, Local No. 53 was affiliated with the C.I.O. by the fall of the year. Now, the 4L/I.E.U. had been challenged and was in trouble.

Workers wanted more and voiced their dissatisfaction with the I.E.U. representation. A secret vote was held on May 12th, and the outcome startled the I.E.U. Those hoping for representation by the C.I.O./I.W.A. amounted to 532, and only 511 supported the I.E.U.

The remaining 112 votes were split between lesser organizations.

The C.I.O/I.W.A. immediately stepped in to take control, but the Red River Company refused, saying that the I.E.U. had membership rolls with over 50% of the employees. But the I.E.U. did agree to relinquish control to the C.I.O./I.W.A. if a secret ballot showed that to be the worker’s desire.

The only thing that prevented a mass exodus of workers to the C.I.O/I.W.A. was the fear of reprisals from the Red River Company. The Walkers were reported to have “made it their business to find out who belonged”.

Workers were fearful of losing not only their jobs, but their housing, light, heat, water, and their ability to purchase goods at the company store.

The C.I.O./I.W.A. was confident of a victory, but when the election was held in March 1938, the I.E.U. won by an almost two-to-one majority.

Near the end of June, the Red River Company, showing its power over the workers, ordered a 17.5% wage cut, which was to go into effect on July 8th.

This news ‘sent shock waves’ through the town, and the C.I.O./I.W.A. was ready to respond. They held an open meeting where roughly 800 people turned out. Cliff Willet, president of the I.W.A. Local addressed the crowd. He asked those opposed to the wage cut to stand, and nearly everyone stood.

The next evening the C.I.O./I.W.A. voted to strike. On the morning of July 8th, a picket line was formed, including women and children. They were instructed to keep the line moving and not to touch any workers showing up for their shift. By 11:30 a.m., the Walkers ordered the mill closed, ostensibly to prevent bloodshed, though the strikers had been peaceful.

Next Week: Part Two – Things Turn Violent in the Town Paul Bunyan Built

Armed guards of the Red River Lumber Company patrol the streets of Westwood in this photo from 1938. ~photo from the Westwood Museum~

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

Through your membership you help preserve local history. You can download a membership application by clicking here.

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso
SusanvilleStuff.com Publisher/Editor
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