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Union Organizing in Anderson Valley

Last week's Philo Mill story left off at the encounter between the  mill Boss, Jack Davies and the sitdown strike participants gathered  sheepishly on the greenchain.  This week's rest of the story begins where I left off: the “elected” strike leader college kid wrestling with the boss's question what did I know about mill work conditions, never mind union organizing in Mendocino County.  ”Beats me, Jack,” was my honest and proper reply.

Last week I reported how promptly the union representatives from Union Lumber in Fort Bragg appeared in Philo to support our strike.  More important though was the instruction in strike discipline they provided us with right from the first day of the sitdown, without which the whole affair would have collapsed into a  circus of post-adolescent male joyous anarchy, Anderson Valley style.  What they proposed on day one and offered regularly thereafter was 1) have a contract plan, 2) stick to the plan, 3) be disciplined, no open conflict or sabotage.  A simple song in principle.

And once the Fort Bragg Mine, Mill Reps appeared at Philo, ascertained there was enough worker interest in organizing a union and formally requested an election, the whole transaction then fell under the jurisdiction and procedural formalities of federal labor laws of long standing.  More specifically, about a month after the sitdown, the results of an employee vote was filed with the US Labor Department, after which three months were to pass before the formal vote to decide whether, after considering the pros and cons of a formal contract and union membership terms were digested, workers would then formally vote to decide if they really wanted a union or not.  The first vote, in early June, I think, was 49 YES, 4 NO for the union.

How did the voting break down?  I can't say I actually did any formal polling, but obviously we talked about our organizing adventure all summer during the run-up  to the formal election.  I know the older skilled staff weren't interested in unionization. Bill Witherell I know, and also suspect Curtis and Reis Berry did too, voted against the union.  But some of the “skilleds” must have supported the idea, as the numbers tell us.  The majority of supporters were the younger guys, the Ornbauns, Tituses, Roger Gist, the Clows, Hank Huron, all the greenchain, and so on.  None of them, of course, had ever worked under union contract and membership conditions.  So everyone's commitment, one way or the other, was based on instinct rather than previous experience.  Bill Witherell's son Don, living down in Napa, was a longtime loyal member of the Teamster's Union, which back then provided its members with good wages and benefits famous all over the United States, never mind the leadership corruption (Hello, Jimmy Hoffa).  Bill told me after the event and kind of embarrassed he'd voted against the union at Philo Lumber, despite Don's urging him support it.  I was flattered he trusted me enough to tell me and we stayed friends.

Well, the summer drifted by and sometime in September, I believe, it came down to a formal vote on unionization only, a formal contract negotiation to follow the election.  I don't really remember the details, but believe we all, under the supervision of the Fort Bragg union leaders, marked and signed our ballots during a work day.  The union leaders did the formal ballot filing with the Labor Department.  Another month went by with no notice about when the results would be made available to us.  Then one day one of the two Union Rep brothers showed up at noon break, gathered us all together around the green chain and announced the results.  The vote to have a union had lost, 24 votes to 23.  He was kind enough to us all to stick around and commiserate with us in a fatherly way, which some of us, anyway, needed.  They congratulated us on our discipline in pursuing the campaign over the four months and said they were available on notice if we wanted to pursue the matter further.

By the end of the failed campaign I had graduated to working on the green chain, was now making good wages, and so was wondering how a union contract would have dealt with the very good pay I was getting for doing piecework.  Nevertheless, I and some of the other employees were bitter in our disappointment we didn't get the union and the contract we all hoped for.  And I of the political mindset spent endless hours, on the job or in bed at night wondering what had happened between the day of the sitdown and the actual September vote; how did 49-4 migrate to 24-23?  Who had chickened out, who had dropped out and not even voted?  We didn't speculate  much about our defeat after the election, and to this day I am not sure what happened to people's politics during that summer.

(NEXT WEEK:  The Fabled Greenchain and its “contract” at Philo Mill.)

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