The Director’s Desk

In conducting some research about the logging industry I was amazed to discover how some things never change.

“In 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, Minnesota’s timber workers triumphed over daunting odds to launch two successful strikes, achieve union recognition, and negotiate unprecedented improvements in wages and living conditions. Their success arose from a collective resolve to gain control over their lives.”

Up until then, loggers were always kept in check by the threat of termination and that another logger was waiting for the job as well as substandard wages that kept men in debt to the company.

“We are the Minnesota Lumberjacks … the most exploited group of workers in the state,” wrote Fred Lequier of the newly formed Minnesota Timber Workers Union in January 1937. “The lumber barons of the Northwest have dealt with us as ruthlessly as they laid waste our great natural resource, the Minnesota forests. Never receiving a living wage from the lumber industry, never earning enough to maintain a home and raise a family which is the right of every man … neglected and unorganized, [we] have been forced to migrate, `following the woods’ in abject pauperism, homeless and disinherited.” Concluding his appeal for aid in the Minneapolis Labor Review , he announced a surprising turn of events: “Un – able to endure these conditions any longer, we have gone out on strike.”

Timing was everything. The lumber barons did not take the loggers seriously and their demands were met with ridicule, but they were caught off guard when the timber industry drew to a halt. In the midst of winter and concerned about getting the wood moved before breakup, the lumber companies agreed to the demands of the loggers which included an eight hour day and increased piece rates.

The agreement was only for nine months and as the expiration approached the loggers became more organized and the lumber companies also organized, forming the Minnesota Timber Producers Association (MTPA), which represented 85 percent of the state’s lumber production.

The two sides came to the bargaining table and after seven weeks of negotiating, the lumber companies offered a proposal that withdrew many gains won in the first strike. In response, representatives of the loggers traveled from camp to camp to take a strike vote. The tally was nearly unanimously in favor, and within a few days 4,000 Minnesota woods workers again walked off the job.

Lumber companies launched a campaign to convince the public that their proposal was reasonable.  Fred Bessette, secretary of the MTPA, and former state legislator from St. Louis County, told the Duluth News Tribune that workers were offered “a general increase of 33 percent over wages a year ago.” He failed to mention that the increase wouldn’t apply to the majority of workers, who were paid by piece rate.

“Such an arrangement would make it possible for an employer to exploit hundreds of men to clear poor strips of timber at little cost to himself,”

The MTPA also attempted to split the farmer-labor alliance that had strengthened the workers’ cause. Farmers, who had been drawn into purchasing deforested land from lumber companies only to discover that the soil produced meager crops, identified with the timber workers’ struggle.

The MTPA tried to convince the farmers that the organized loggers threatened their livelihood. Leading the timber industry’s efforts was Frank T. Ronkainen, who presented himself as a humble farmer, but was actually a contractor for International Lumber.

The loggers won a longsought clause granting a 10-day guarantee for piece workers, and an 18 percent increase in piece rates. Regular workers settled for a raise of $75 a month. The eight-hour day and 48-hour workweek were retained, and workers would no longer have to pay their own employment fees. The agreement, scheduled to remain in effect until Sept. 1, 1938, also forbade discrimination against strike participants.

Minnesota’s timber workers accomplished what seemed impossible: They organized a poor, unskilled, and widely scattered workforce in an industry that for decades had dominated its workers. The strong commitment to collective action, support from the people of northern Minnesota, and Gov. Benson’s unwavering support proved essential to their success.

It seems like today’s loggers are experiencing some of the same issues as the loggers of 1937. It comes to a point where a man’s pride and dignity have just had enough. Then he has to decide if he are going to stand up and demand a fair wage for his work and investment or just continue to keep shipping wood at a rate that fails to allow him to provide a competitive wage, reinvest in equipment, show a profit, and have something to pass on to his children.

Most loggers haven’t seen an 18% increase in pay ever, in fact most loggers are being paid the same rate as they were 10 years ago (although the price of equipment has doubled, fuel has tripled, and stumpage is more). Most work more than an eight hour day and a forty-eight hour workweek. They fear retaliation or blacklisting if they attempt to push for better pay and benefits. However don’t underestimate the ability of a grassroots group of determined loggers and truckers willing to collectively stand up for themselves, just like Minnesota loggers and truckers did over 75 years ago.

Reference Info: Minnesota Historical Society website