Return of the Loyal Legion?

By Norm Diamond, Pacific Northwest Labor History Association

Members of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association were astonished last year to discover a new Portland bar named after the notorious Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (4Ls). The bar’s website characterized the 4Ls as a labor union and seemed to identify with its dubious heritage.

The 4Ls was far from a union in any meaningful sense. It was a World War I-era organization specifically created by the U.S. War Department to undermine labor organizing in the woods (Industrial Workers of the World — IWW) and mills (American Federation of Labor — AFL). Its initial leadership consisted of 100 assigned military officers. Its membership included approximately 25,000 soldiers under military discipline as the Army Spruce Production Division. The 4Ls enrolled employers as well as workers.

The loggers called themselves “bindle-stiffs” after the bedding they were forced to carry in the absence of any mattresses or springs. The overcrowded, fetid shacks where they slept were designed to be moved every year or two and had no windows. Bedbugs and lice were rampant.”

It was founded in 1917 in response to a strike wave in the Pacific Northwest. Especially in the timber camps, living and working conditions were abominable: no showers, no latrines, no laundries and no way to dry clothes after 10 to 16 hours of sweaty work.

The loggers called themselves “bindle-stiffs” after the bedding they were forced to carry in the absence of any mattresses or springs. The overcrowded, fetid shacks where they slept were designed to be moved every year or two and had no windows. Bedbugs and lice were rampant.

Wages were paid irregularly and hiring happened through agencies the loggers called “sharks,” located in towns far from the camps. It was common for workers to pay agency fees, then discover days later that the promised jobs didn’t exist.

Key demands in the strike were for an eight-hour day, regular paydays, furnished bedding, access to showers, and hiring to occur through a union hall. Lumber mill workers joined the strike, also demanding an eight-hour workday, making the IWW and AFL de facto allies.

The strike was effective in cutting profits and slowing production. The military needed lumber for building barracks and ships. They especially needed Northwest spruce for the new Army Air Force planes. After meeting with employers, they intervened.

"The world’s largest labor union?" Local labor historians say the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen wasn't a union; it was developed by the U.S. army to BREAK World War I era timber unions. They told the Loyal Legion beer hall that in January 2016, but its web site blurb, above, hadn't changed as of March.
“The world’s largest labor union?” Local labor historians say the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen wasn’t a union; it was developed by the U.S. army to BREAK World War I era timber unions. They told the Loyal Legion beer hall that in January 2016, but its web site blurb, above, hasn’t changed as of March. [UPDATE: AS OF MARCH 23, IT’S NOW BEEN REVISED.] (Click to enlarge)

The Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen broke the strike. They recruited through pressure and intimidation, forcing workers to sign pledges of allegiance both to the war effort and to the duty they owed employers. Their constitution explicitly banned strikes.

To keep their workforce, the 4Ls also introduced reforms. One year after the strike wave, they granted the eight-hour day. Later they mandated that employers in the timber camps would have to provide bedding. The reforms didn’t always last, however, as the organization had no means of enforcing them once the war ended other than by expelling employers who didn’t comply.

The 4Ls pretty much petered out in the 1920s. One of its legacies, though, was a large sign left in its Chinatown offices, the sign the bar owner moved across the river, giving its name to the new Loyal Legion bar.

Hyung Nam, a teacher at Portland’s Wilson High School, initially contacted the bar about mounting a plaque that would set the story straight. After conversations with the author of this article, the owner agreed on specific wording to give a more accurate website account. That was in January, however, and the website has yet to change. Perhaps an accurate version would undermine the bar’s flannel-shirt, Portland Timbers “branding.” [3/23/16 UPDATE: After this article appeared, the site was revised, and now offers more details about the 4Ls – including text authored by Norm Diamond.] 

It is important to hold onto our heritage and not let it be distorted. That history is all around us. As a coincidental example, the building in which the bar is located hosted Ku Klux Klan rallies when the KKK was a Portland political power in the 1920s. Our buildings, parks and streets all have working class stories to tell. For a labor historian, the past never entirely disappears.


Norm Diamond is a former president of Pacific Northwest Labor College and co-author of  The Power In Our Hands: A Curriculum on the History of Work and Workers in the United States. He serves as Oregon trustee to the  Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, which will hold its annual conference at Portland State University May 20-22. Check pnlha.org for more details.

2 Comments on Return of the Loyal Legion?

  1. I enjoyed the article very much. Oddly enough, I’m writing a novel set in the Oregon woods during this time. Been doing a lot of research, and have a few quibbles to make. I’ve been a union member in the past. Proud of it and am pro-labor, so I make my suggestions with all respect and affection.

    Overall, your article’s pretty accurate, but in spots either you have some of the history wrong, or I do. One point is pretty minor, that is, I believe the Division was made of 30,000 men, not 25K. But they weren’t just “under military discipline,” a phrase that leaves the image of civilians workers impressed to do military work, especially when you make the distinction that they were under the orders of military officers. The truth is they were all actual soldiers. Most of them had expected to go to France and fight, rather then working in the woods in the West. Many lied about having previous logging experience when they heard the division was forming so they wouldn’t have to fight.

    You also don’t mention one of the worst faults of the owners — and they had plenty. They were actually holding spruce back deliberately to drive up the price. This alone is much of what led to the military forming the division. The need for spruce was desperate. We were supplying all the Allies with spruce. Without it, none of them could build airplanes. There was fear that a lack of spruce could cause the Allies to lose the war.

    In fact, as the name of the division, the Spruce Production Division, implies, the Army was really interested only in spruce. The owners were under orders, in all of the work associated with the division, to cut only spruce. Drove the owners crazy. A few other trees were allowed to be cut to get better access to the spruce, but that was all. Other logging, not under the supervision of the Division was allowed. I’m not sure if the owners had to make the same concessions to these workers or not.

    Finally, in saying the strikes were broken, it implies that the soldiers were essentially scabs and the workers were forced back into the woods. Well, the workers were more or less forced, but the owners were forced to essentially give in to all their demands. The Army also forced the owners to make up the difference for the soldiers between Army pay and logger pay because the Army specifically didn’t want the soldiers used to undercut the pay of civilian loggers. Army officers routinely inspected camps to make sure the owners were keeping up their end of the bargain.

    After the war was over, the military left the woods. The LLLL lasted a few more years, as you say, but without the strategic need for spruce, the Army was no longer interested in being a party to either the LLLL or any work in the woods. Normal practices, including the organizing of loggers, were left to run their course once the war was over.

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