Review: “One Union in Wood: A Political History of the International Woodworkers of America” – Jerry Lembcke and William M. Tattam

“One Union in Wood: A Political History of the International Woodworkers of America” by Jerry Lembcke and William M. Tattam is one of the BEST labour studies books I have ever read.

The authors don’t just examine the history of the IWA chronologically, such as the various strike battles and other struggles of Canadian and American lumber workers, like what most union histories do. This book instead offers much more than that, as indicated in the book’s subtitle: a political history of the IWA.

By examining the political history of the IWA the authors aim to refute the conclusions of other writers about the IWA. For example, the authors dispute Vernon Jensen’s history of the IWA, in which Jansen concludes that the union’s communist leadership was ousted by democratic means due to the rank-and-file membership’s anti-communism. They also dispute Irving Abella’s conclusion that the defeat of the communists in the union was due to the communists themselves. As Lembcke and Tattam write, “The Jensen and Abella theses both assume that political processes, internal to the unions, are the decisive factors in the resolutions of factional differences in those unions” (p. 175). Lembcke and Tattam argue instead “that the political make-up of union leadership at any historical moment is determined by the intersection of struggles internal to the working class with the political and economic struggles external to it. What appeared to be personal and ideological differences between union leaders and factions within the CIO-CCL unions were in reality struggles between strata of the working class whose historic roots were deeply embedded in the uneven development of North American capitalism” (p. viii). Lembcke and Tattam throughout the book connect the factional struggles within the IWA, as well as with and within the AFL and CIO, with the uneven development of capitalism and its affect on industrial regions and workers. According to Lembcke and Tattam, the support for anti-communism and business unionism by lumber workers in Oregon was due to historic conditions: most operators in Oregon were small, and many of the lumber workers were originally, if not necessarily at the time, part-time farmers with a desire to “make it”. In contrast, lumber workers in Washington state and British Columbia were more radical: operators were much larger and more capital intensive than in Oregon, most workers lived in company camps or towns and not their own properties, and many of the workers were immigrants from Scandinavia with experience in socialist and labour activism. These historic conditions, and not the personalities of individual labour leaders, were the source of the disputes within the IWA.

Lembcke and Tattam thus reject the Jensen/Abella positions on empirical and analytical grounds. “For example, if the rank-and-file were predisposed against communism, why then did the anti-communist blocks in nearly all CIO-CCL unions have to fight pitched battles to put communist exclusion clauses in their constitutions? Why was it necessary for the CIO-CCL to expel the Communist-led unions in the late 1940s rather than simply letting the members of those unions determine who their leaders were going to be? Why was it necessary for the U.S. to spend thousands of dollars on Harold Pritchett’s deportation case when a vote of the member of the IWA could have sent him back to Canada? And was it necessary to ban Communists through the anti-communist clauses of the Taft-Hartley Act if the members of the unions were not electing them? The answer, of course, is that the rank and file did continue to elect Communists to leadership positions. In the IWA case, many Communists were elected to office by referendum election as late as the post-World War II years; few were ever defeated by the [Anti-Communist] Bloc opponents; all eventually were purged” (pp. 175-76). The source of the Communists’ strength, Lembcke and Tattam write, “was that they were indigenous members of the mill towns and logging camps in which they worked and organized” (p. 176). They “not only out-performed their opponents as organizers, but they offered a superior concept of what industrial unionism should be” (p. 177).

As always when reading these kinds of books, I was thoroughly disgusted with the dictatorial, anti-working class activities of the top labour leadership. Lembcke and Tattam describe incidents such as armed workers of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (AFL), in collusion with Teamsters, attacking IWA workers (CIO) on strike in 1937 (pp. 54-56), the IWA’s leadership bootlicking of the U.S. government and enthusiastic support of the Taft-Hartley Act (p. 118-119), the forced separation of the more radical B.C. locals of the IWA, which then formed the Woodworkers Industrial Union of Canada (WIUC), from the IWA, and then when WIUC workers went on strike for better wages and working conditions, the IWA leadership themselves shepherded strike-breakers into the mills and camps, described as “one of the most outstanding and shameful incidents in Canadian labour history” (p. 130).

Overall: FANTASTIC and BRILLIANT book!

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