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The House of Morgan: Strike?!

Previously, I described how a small sawmill from the Timber Boom Days after World War II operated and my first week on the job at Philo Lumber doing production work. My recollection of the first weeks is that gradually I settled fairly comfortably into the daily routine, including sleeping more restfully at night, arising around 6 AM for some toast and coffee, throwing together a couple of sandwiches and an apple for lunch, and heading out for the mill around 6:45.

In those early hours the day's weather condition was always on my mind as I got ready for work. The ideal day happened about half of the work year. More specifically not too hot, not raining and windy: a spring day around 70 with a little breeze in the afternoon was a good day; a foggy morning in summer was a good thing too. A little drizzle or light rain, because we were always in motion and keeping warm, was not a bad thing. Uncomfortable working conditions were stormy days in winter when the rain was cold and horizontal coming up the hill from Indian Creek in gusts and soaking through whatever light, tight-fitting garments we all wore, or when the mill was running slow with us standing around shivering, praying for a flow of lumber to wrestle us back to warm. 

Equally tough were those days when the heat waves settled over The Valley, anytime from June through September. I knew the minute I headed for the truck in the early morning and the temperature was about sixty, that we were in for a warm one, meaning anything from 85 to 100 degrees by noon. After lunch in particular was no fun at all, no matter how good shape one was in. I remember a debilitating fatigue setting in as I digested my sandwiches, my body soaked in sweat from the groin up to under my work helmet, limbs declining to function at the speed the work required, most dangerous visual and mental concentration required to do the work efficiently and safely in noticeable decline, body and brain overworking to stay even with the lumber flow. A good thing about those kinds of days was that the equipment felt the heat stress too, especially electric motors and all the sprockets and chains moving the boards. There was nothing more satisfying than the smell of a 15 horsepower electric motor beginning to burn up, before it exploded in a flash and shut the power breaker off. The three toots on the mill whistle signaling a breakdown were a relief to us all. The paid break in the workday could last fifteen minutes to half an hour while a new motor was being installed by the millwrights and electricians. And fortunately these heatwave patterns only lasted about three or four days before that weather system blanketing the whole West Coast headed East.

I was pleased to see myself settling into the work regime comfortably enough that within three weeks or a month of starting, I was able to supplement the paying work day with doing chores around the house and the farm, milking the goats, checking on the young vines growth and irrigation needs, looking for deer and other predators inside the deer fence, etc. What happened to the occasional jack rabbits I used to see enjoying the taste of green grape shoots in high summer? I haven't seen a Jack on the property or anywhere in The Valley for a quarter century now. Then early one morning the work routine shattered in a way I still think about almost half a century later...

About an hour into the morning's run, the mill suddenly shut down, chains stopped moving, but no whistle blew. I stood at the point ready for a restart for about ten minutes, making eye contact with my work partner, then got bored and walked around front to the green chain to find what was happening. One of the lumber pullers there said, ”we're on strike, we want a union.” Strike, union, in Anderson Valley? Organized labor action, to my knowledge then and now, was not part of labor activity in the Valley, never mind the rest of Mendocino County. Fort Bragg was the exception, however. Over there was a long history of labor agitation in the mills and the wood going back to World War I and more specifically under the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World, a socialist labor movement that had started back then in western metals mines and spread into cities north of California and their railroads, docklands and mills. The large Finnish population in Fort Bragg was familiar with this tradition, many having migrated down the California for generations, and the Union Lumber Company over there was a union company with a contract and professional labor union reps on site.

By the time I got to the head of the green chain most of the unskilled employees were also gathered there, a knot of maybe thirty people, all talking at once, tossing out thoughts like “sitdown,” ”more money, shorter hours, union, etc,” not a good way to provoke collective action. I had had in my previous life some experience with labor organizing activity in places like coal country Kentucky, New York City and at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, East Bay, all as an outside supporter. At the greenchain that day, the most intelligently agitated employee was a wiry little Mexican named Arnold Martin (don't ask me), so I idled over the Arnold and asked him something to which he replied his brother had had some experience with unions over in Ukiah. So he and I began conspiring about what to do in Philo. I proposed we create a strike committee, put together a demands agenda, and get ready to deal with the management in that format. Sammy Prather was “elected” to the strike committee, as was a fourth person, I don't remember whom.

Meanwhile John Cordray, the on-site mill boss had wandered over from the office and was standing on the edge of our sit-down. He was such a gentle soul, all he did was ask us what the problem was. Arnold picked up the question and said strike and “we want to talk to the real boss, Jack Davies.” Meanwhile, I took off at a trot toward the log deck, then down the bank into Indian Creek park, crossed the stream, got up on Ruddock Road headed for Dot and Martin Becker's home back there. I knew these city folks would be sympathetic to our cause and would like me use their phone to call the local union reps in Fort Bragg.

As a historian interested in America's labor movements, I also knew about the union in Fort Bragg and also who the local reps were by name, a couple of Finnish brothers whose name was well known in Fort Bragg that I've forgotten. Fortunately, I got an answer to my call, and this Rep, much to my relief, took over managing this spontaneous sitdown event I knew was too complicated for my level of experience. In a ten minute lecture he gave me an explicit set of instructions, keep everyone calm and informed of the Committee's activities, no violence of equipment destruction, create a simple list of demands, appoint a spokesman for the committee, and so on. He said he or his brother would make it over to Philo around noon to help out with the next steps, if we really wanted a trade union.

So back I trotted to the mill, over the Creek and through the park, up the bank and back to the green chain, where all was still calm and orderly. Cordray had gone back to his office, we unskilled workers were still assembled up and down the green chain work platform, and the skilled employees were all hunkered down as far away from us as they could, over near the tally shack and log deck. The day was getting warmer; but we were staying calm.

Not for long though. Around 10:30, we heard what sounded like a pick-up truck on steroids coming up the hill from Indian Creek, and sure enough this late model Chevy country club gentleman style pick-up blew into the parking lot by the office, brakes throwing up a little dust cloud, and out of the can jumps the “real” boss, Jack Davies, nostrils flaring, eyes dilated, car door still open, motor still running and strides almost at a trot toward our gathering. ”Alright, you guys, what's the problem, who's in charge here?,” he pretty nastily snarls. About half a dozen fingers point at me and the rest of the committee. Jack's eyes sweep the group in front of him, makes contact with mine with a noticeable look of surprise on his face.

Jack and I had had a previous political encounter at a community meeting concerning the recently passed California Forestry Act of 1971, sponsored by the local Mendocino County Assemblyman Barry Keane, a nice young liberal suburbanite who claimed Elk as his residence. The event was a very orderly orientation of a small gathering of citizens and timber industry representatives sitting around a large table somewhere in town. I had sat next to Jack and did make several inquiries of him about the industry's response to some of the more burdensome restrictions in the Forestry Act, which he handled very cordially. I learned some things about forestry practices from Jack's comments. And he figured out I was a College Kid recently moved from the city, one of those “environmentalists.”

Now back at the mill that spring day, I didn't know whether Jack knew I had been hired at Philo Lumber or whether he was simply acting out his Boss's role. We were standing about thirty feet apart, he on the pavement, I on a slightly raised platform where the greenchain pullers stood. Jack paused a moment for drama, straightened his spine so he appeared taller than I, and in a firmly ironic voice queried me, “Wiley, what are you doing with this mess,” waving his arm at our assembly, ”you don't even know how a saw mill works.” I too stood a little taller, pulled my breath together hoping my voice would be firm and even and replied, “I know what you mean, Jack, it beats me too.”

(Next Week: Union organizing at Philo Mill)

One Comment

  1. Marshall Newman May 2, 2021

    Nice to see Martin and Dot Becker mentioned. Nice people and good neighbors.

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