Labor History panel reports on 1905 parallels, contrasts

November is Labor History Month in Oregon, and every year since 1994 the Labor History Committee of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council has presented a program at a council meeting.

This year the theme was “Reporting From 1905: Contrasts and Parallels.”

The committee spent months poring over history books, minutes from union meetings and archives of the Portland Labor Press (now the Northwest Labor Press) with their focus on 1905. They presented their findings as the Solidarity News Network, reporting from a time warp that took reporters back 100 years. Stories, quotes, photos and drawings were taken verbatim from union journals and from pages of the 1905 Labor Press. Photographs and drawings from that year were scanned and — by virtue of a modern-day PowerPoint technology — displayed on the wall to give the audience a sense of what it was like in Portland in 1905.

The time warp took reporters to the Lewis and Clark Exposition centennial celebration and the Sept. 4 Labor Day picnic, and also featured exclusive interviews with a local women’s suffragette, an anti-child labor crusader and Oregon Governor George E. Chamberlain’s views on racial and immigration issues affecting union workers.

Here is a some of what reporters found:

• Portland contractors brought in out-of-state workers to construct the Lewis and Clark Exposition at the fairgrounds. Controversy swirled over a possible labor boycott of the event. Building tradesmen struck the project, as did many of the imported workers who found conditions far less favorable than advertised. “Had the management and contractors been content to deal with the local labor organizations, instead of embarrassing them with an influx of workmen, things would have worked smoothly, instead of unrest,” said Labor Press editor H.G. Kundret.

• A significant number of labor leaders gathered in Chicago to form a “rival” union organization critical of the American Federation of Labor. Calling themselves the Industrial Workers of the World, their intent was to organize One Big Union of women, people of color and unskilled workers, and not spend money or energy on politics.

• AFL President Samuel Gompers met with U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt to discuss a Chinese exclusion order. “We found the president in thorough accord with the views of organized labor on the admission of coolies,” Gompers said, “and in a very little while came to understand that the president is as strong as ever in favor of the existing laws excluding this class of Chinamen from this country.”

• In Portland, the Cooks and Waiters Union asked union members to boycott restaurants employing Chinese cooks. The union waitresses won a summer wage increase of $2 a week (from $8 to $10) during the Lewis and Clark Exposition when they “refused point blank to carry out an order” during the busiest time of day. The proprietor gracefully capitulated.

• At the third annual Labor Day Picnic at Cedar Park in North Portland, 5,000 people listened to politicians, played games and listened to music performed by the Letter Carriers Band.

Many of the speakers advocated support of women’s right to vote. Lucia Additon was on hand crusading on behalf of the Oregon suffragette movement and gathering petition signatures in hope of getting a measure on the ballot in 1906 that would allow women the right to vote. All of the unions endorsed the measure.

James Keller, national president of the Letter Carriers, was in town for his national convention hosted by NALC Branch 82. He and his union supported women’s rights. “Give the women a chance to vote and the great problems that are soon to be settled by the laboring classes will be reinforced by the addition of their wives, mothers and sweethearts, which will greatly increase the power of those who are working to promote a condition that will be of material benefit to labor in general. Let the women vote is the secret of the coming struggle,” he said.

At the Labor Day picnic, Oregon Governor Chamberlain told attendees, “I feel the best interests of the great majority of the people of the United States demand a rigid enforcement of the present law restricting the immigration of Chinese laborers, and if any amendment to the law is made, it should be for even greater restriction.”

He said that the Chamber of Commerce, in cahoots with the Citizens Alliance, wanted to bring in immigrants for cheap labor. “They seem to be concerned with only enriching the pockets of a few,” the governor said.

The Citizens Alliance also was behind the import of workers during construction of the Lewis and Clark Exposition. “It had been stated from reliable sources that the Citizens Alliance gave an ultimatum to the contractors that if they recognized organized labor their supplies would be cut off, and they would be unable to fulfill their contracts,” the Portland Labor Press reported.

At the October 2005 council meeting, Jim Cook, a member of NALC Branch 82 and chair of Labor History Committee, reminded NOLC delegates that “the power is in our hands to create labor history each day by defending our contracts and dignity on the workroom floor, contributing to our various unions’ charities and community services, and defending workers’ rights here and everywhere.”

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