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.
[pullquote]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.”
[/pullquote]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 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.