Subtopic : The Mature Distribution Center: Organizing Portland's Labor Force
Themes: Social Relations, Politics and Government, Economics, Towns and Cities, Industrialization
In the 1880s, workingmen with more specialized skills — printers, typesetters, bricklayers, longshoremen, and carpenters — organized themselves into craft unions. The largest union, Portland Local No.50 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, was organized in September 1883, just after the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived. Most craft union members had different social characteristics from those on the wageworker’s frontier, and tried to differentiate themselves from the transients. Union members were usually married with families, and as east Portland expanded after 1900, they bought small homes near the many machine shops and railroad yards. As Craig Wollner observed for the carpenters unions, the men organized to insure the life and health of their members and to improve working conditions and wages. To protect their interests, the unions in 1885 led the agitation to exclude the Chinese. Perhaps symbolic of their sense of labor as a fellowship was the inclusion of eight craft unions in the 1891 city directory’s list of “Societies and Clubs.” The carpenters and printers were listed with the Turnverein, the Portland Humane Society, the YMCA, and the elite Arlington and Concordia clubs.
Craft unions, which had no legal standing and whose membership fluctuated, had to select crucial moments to make demands on their employers. As the economy expanded in 1890 after several years of recession, the two carpenters unions in Portland joined a national strike for an eight-hour workday and a “closed shop.” The Portland Builders Exchange, a coalition of their employers, rejected these demands. But by May 1 other unions joined the strike, held a huge May Day rally, and forced concessions from the builders.
Union membership declined during the depression of the mid-1890s. But in 1894 the Central Labor Council helped enroll the unemployed in a troop affiliated with the “army” of Jacob S. Coxey, who wanted men to come to Washington, D.C., to petition Congress to put men to work. The leader in Portland was J.M. Schier, a stonemason, who had the continual support of the longshoremen, carpenters and other. The unions held public rallies urging men to sign up at a stand at Third and Burnside streets. By April the organizers had enrolled over 400 men, most of whom were craftsmen temporarily out of work and desperate to care for their families. On April 27, about 500 men marched to Troutdale, and the next day seized a train to take them east. Since they had now broken the law, they were intercepted by federal troops just beyond The Dalles. They surrendered peacefully, and were returned to Portland. A trial, accompanied by downtown rallies with over 1,000 supporters, led to their apologies for breaking the law and to their release. While the exit of Coxeyites from Portland has not been traced, most apparently left in groups of from ten to twenty-five on eastbound freights.
Politically Portland’s unions reflected the philosophy of Samuel Gompers, the national president of the American Federation of Labor, who visited Portland several times to help reorganize the unions into a central labor council. Skilled workers clung to a mentality that emphasized the tangible brotherhood of the craft over the more abstract view that workers might have a common class interest, such as that expressed by Socialists or the Industrial Workers of the World. The craft unions had no radical political goals that might require a separate labor party or a Socialist state. But by 1908 they had sufficient political influence to require that the city hire only union labor for the construction of its bridges, water mains, and buildings. In Oregon organized labor joined the middle class by supporting reforms in the political culture rather than in the economy. The new State Federation of Labor made no unique demands, but supported the reforms of the electoral process proposed by William U’Ren, Jonathan Bourne, Will Hayes, and Harry Lane: the initiative, referendum, direct primary to nominate candidates, the direct election of United States senators, and regulation of utilities so the costs to consumers would remain low.
© William Toll, 2003
Themes: Social Relations,Politics and Government,Economics,Towns and Cities,Industrialization
Regions: Portland Metropolitan Area
Date: 1880 - 1914
Author: William Toll
Craft unions organized among themselves and, by the early twentieth century, were a powerful enough presence to negotiate with city officials on its building projects.
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