By DON McINTOSH
One hundred and five years ago, a strike began at a paper mill in newly incorporated West Linn—and spread like a match to paper to mills across Oregon and Washington. In Oregon City, Camas, and Lebanon, strikers fought scabs and sometimes police. They also fought company owners in the court of public opinion. It lasted nearly a year, and it didn’t end in union victory, not right away anyway. But in an era before any labor law recognized or protected workers’ right to form a union, amid an atmosphere of terrible repression, their struggle shows what strikers were capable of a century ago.
Spreading through the power of solidarity
This newspaper, then known as Oregon Labor Press, chronicled the struggle at every stage. So did business-owned publications like The Oregonian, which had a direct financial stake in the outcome of the strike. The perspectives are very different, but they share key facts in common.
On Oct. 23, 1917, leaders of unions at paper mills in Oregon City and Camas sent a telegram addressed to the directors of the Crown Willamette Paper Company in San Francisco laying out a long list of demands: a raise of 25 cents per day, time-and-a-half pay for overtime work, a mill shutdown on Sundays to guarantee one day’s rest per week, no discrimination against employees for being union members, reinstatement of workers who were fired for union membership or for refusing to work Sundays, and an agreement by company officials to meet committees of workers to hear and respond to grievances.
Hoping to avert a strike, the labor commissioners of Washington and Oregon also sent a telegram that day, urging Crown Willamette to meet with the union.
An answer came: On Oct. 25, 1917, Crown Willamette manager A.J. Lewthwaite told the Oregon and Washington labor commissioners that he would grant no demands and would not meet any worker committee. That day 1,300 paper mill workers in West Linn and Camas walked out.
Things escalated quickly. To replace production at the struck mill, Crown Willamette immediately placed an order for paper from its rival, the Hawley Pulp and Paper Company mill across the river in Oregon City. But workers there refused to be used in that way, and 600 of them joined the strike on Oct. 26. Next the Camas mill placed an order with Crown Willamette mill in Lebanon, and on Oct. 29, workers there refused to fulfill it. About half of the 100 Lebanon workers joined the strike as well, on Nov. 1. A week after the walkout began, close to 2,000 workers at four paper mills were out on strike.
Battle lines were drawn. On one side were two unions: International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite, and Paper Mill Workers, and the International Brotherhood of Paper Makers. On the other side stood the mill owners and their business allies, all of them fierce proponents of the “open shop” movement, an organized business pledge to refuse to recognize or negotiate with any union.
To understand what was at stake, it’s important to remember just how important paper was then. Before radio, television, and plastic, paper was both the core communications technology, and crucial for packaging, used to wrap products. As one striker put it in a letter to the Oregon Labor Press: “The average American would prefer to skip breakfast than their morning paper.”
Battle of ideas
And on paper, yellowed and brittle, are the only surviving accounts of what happened that winter of 1917. The Oregonian and The Labor Press painted very different pictures.
The Oregonian reported that strikers attacked scabs. The Labor Press reported that scabs attacked strikers.
The Oregonian claimed there were few strikers, that production continued. Within a month it was reporting that the strike was at an end. The Labor Press reported union claims of the opposite: that little or no paper was being made, and that as time wore on, strikers were obtaining other work and could afford to stay out indefinitely.
Both papers had a stake. Henry Pittock, owner of The Oregonian, had a direct financial interest: He had helped start both the Oregon City and Camas paper mills, and he retained a large investment in the latter. C.M. Rynerson, editor of the Labor Press, had a stake too, but it was ideological: He was deeply committed to the success of the strike, and spoke at mass meetings of strikers.
Conflict turns bloody
Portland back then was a bustling city of 250,000, but much older Oregon City, once the capital of Oregon Territory, still had just 5,000 inhabitants, and newly formed West Linn had maybe 1,600. Camas meanwhile, was basically a company town, having been built and developed by Pittock’s company in 1884 on 2,600 acres next to a great stand of cottonwood trees.
The strike turned all three towns upside down.
At the east end of the suspension bridge that still today spans the river between Oregon City and West Linn, as many as 500 picketers gathered each evening to watch scabs come out of the Crown Willamette mill. To get out, scabs would have to walk the gauntlet. Fights broke out. There were beatings, gunfire. And soon, police.
Oregon Governor James Withycombe had just sent the state militia to break a strike in Astoria. Now he appointed as many as 11 special state police officers—to be paid by the mill companies—to keep order. A wave of repression followed. Armed with guns and clubs, special deputies conducted an armed raid on a union hall. They conducted mass arrests, sometimes holding arrestees without bail. One officer of the Paper Makers union was arrested on charges of using obscene language in the street.
And police acted with the full support of civic and legal authorities. Oregon City authorities passed an unconstitutional anti-picketing ordinance, prohibiting the carrying of banners, gatherings, speech. One judge even penalized strikers for calling replacement workers “scabs.”
Meanwhile, at the Camas mill, the company erected a wooden fence topped with barbed wire, and set up a search light atop the highest building.
Strikers and their allies were just as determined to organize in their own defense.
Otto Hartwig, then age 30, was president of the Oregon chapter of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He had personally organized the mill workers into a union. Now he declared it the labor movement’s top priority for them to win their strike. In a special report in the Labor Press, Hartwig called it “one of the most remarkable fights in the history of the labor movement in Oregon.”
To raise money to support the strikers, the AFL passed a special dues assessment on affiliated unions. The Meatcutters union held a dance to raise money for paper mill strikers. F.D. Frampton, a leader of the Camas strike, traveled to the Puget Sound to spread the word. To publicize the strike and build support, striking unions organized frequent mass meetings in Oregon City and elsewhere, attended by up to 1,300 people.
Strike support came in many forms. At The Oregonian newspaper, union pressmen threw away rolls of scab-made paper, and even sabotaged an anti-union ad.
War in the trenches, and war at home
One inescapable fact about the strike: It took place at a time when America was at war. Germany had invaded neutral Belgium to attack France. The opposing armies soon bogged down in unimaginably horrifying trench warfare. In January 1917, the British intercepted a telegram in which Germany proposed a military alliance with Mexico to attack the United States. In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.
By the time the mill strike began in October, patriotic fervor and even hysteria were well advanced. Strike opponents portrayed strikers as traitors harming the war effort. Strikers countered that they were striking a blow against “industrial Kaiserism,” a mill-owner despotism as cruel as the German state. Strikers also appealed repeatedly to a special Mediation Board set up by President Woodrow Wilson to mediate labor disputes.
Who were the scabs?
The paper mill scabs were a rough bunch, and often desperate too, as described in the pages of this newspaper 105 years ago. Convicts were paroled and sent to work in the mills. One scab at the mill in West Linn tried to rob a street car and was shot dead by its motorman. A scab at the Camas mill turned out to be a soldier who had deserted from Camp Lewis. School truant officers fetched a 14- and a 16-year old out of the mill at the struck Oregon City mill. With close to 2,000 employees out, owners were prepared to take any measure to staff the mills.
In Camas, the mill owner brought in Asian and Mexican workers to scab, fanning already existing ethnic hostilities. To house scabs, the company rented old paddlewheel steamships and parked them on the dock next to the Camas mill. Staying in close quarters on the steamer, scabs suffered outbreaks of infectious diseases like measles and small pox.
Several scabs also died in the mills during the strike, crushed by machines. At the Camas mill, a 30-year-old man was caught in a large belt and killed, leaving behind a widow and two children.
Strikers’ only elected ally: The Socialist mayor of Camas
When daily pickets went up in front of the Camas mill at the main road through town, the company and its allies demanded that the mayor and police repress the strike and stop the picketing. But Camas’ mayor was a mill worker named Oliver T. Clark, elected as a member of the Socialist Party in 1916. He refused.
Instead, he appointed union members themselves to the police force, and their wives.
That infuriated business leaders. They got the Clark County sheriff to appoint deputies to clear the streets of Camas and arrest strikers. They also led a mob action against Clark, and in March 1918, they swept him out of office in a recall election.
How it ended
From the beginning of the strike, the unions offered to submit their differences to a government board of arbitration. In November 1917, Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, head of the newly assembled Federal Mediation Board (FMB), arrived in Portland to take testimony from both sides. Workers promised to accept the terms of government arbitration. The company refused. Wilson condemned Crown Willamette for its stance during a time of war. But company owners dug in, and held out.
In August 1918, after striking workers and company officials were called before Congress in Washington D.C., the company finally agreed to meet face to face in San Francisco with representatives of the two unions. Owners agreed not to discriminate against union members if they declared the strike over, but made no other concessions.
In September 1918, almost a year after they had walked out, the paper mill workers returned to work in Camas, Oregon City, and all other locations.
By then exhausted, many having moved on and been replaced, the unions had little to show for their heroic effort. Without employer recognition and without any wins, in the mills the locals functionally ceased to exist.
What became of the striking unions, and the principal antagonists? Hartwig continued to lead the AFL for many years, and lived a long life; he died in 1972, and is buried at Rose City Cemetery in Northeast Portland. Socialist mayor Oliver T. Clark died in 1926 and is buried at Canemah Pioneer Cemetery in Oregon City. Governor Withycombe is memorialized at Withycombe Hall at OSU, and at Camp Withycombe, a National Guard facility.
The mills ended up unionizing in the 1930s, but in recent decades several fell victim to foreign competition and the steep decline of newspaper reading. The Hawley mill in Oregon City continued to operate until 2011, when its owner Blue Heron Paper went defunct and the mill closed. The Lebanon mill is still in operation, and workers are represented by USW. The Camas mill is today owned by Georgia-Pacific, and employs about 140 members of Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers (AWPPW) making paper towels. And the West Linn paper mill where the strike began continues to operate. It was union from the 1930s until it closed in 1996 with the collapse of James River Corporation. Reopened nonunion in 1997, today it’s known as the Willamette Falls Paper Company.
As for the strikers themselves and their movement? They suffered bitter defeats in the 1920s, but in the 1930s, came roaring back—transforming America and winning middle class living standards for working class people for half a century.
Historian Doug Kenck-Crispin also contributed to this story.