Vancouver’s reputation as a town for organized labor emerged as organically as Vancouver itself.
“Most of it all happened because this was a logging town, originally. And then the Kaiser shipyard moved in here,” said Ed Barnes, a longtime leader in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 48. “All of those became union organizations. Union businesses.”
Labor disputes also have a longer history in Vancouver than in most West Coast towns, which makes sense — labor itself has such deep roots here.
The area’s earliest mega-employer was the Hudson’s Bay Company, which established the region’s first non-American lumber trading business. In his letters, the company’s chief northwest factor, Dr. John McCloughlin, wrote that the site needed a sawmill in order to enter into the business.
“We must avail ourselves of all the resources of this country if we have to compete for the trade of it with the Americans,” McCloughlin wrote. The company obtained its first sawmill in 1827.
It’s fitting, then, that logging companies saw the first recorded strikes in Vancouver. According to the Vancouver Chronology, a collected timeline of events in the city dating back to the 1700s, twin strikes at two local logging companies saw two different outcomes.
On April 20, 1890, employees at Michigan Lumber Co. halted labor to demand a 10-hour workday. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful — the company replaced the workers and resumed operations with an 11-hour workday. But the Michigan Lumber Co. strike inspired workers at the Lucia Mill, who also elected to strike for a 10-hour workday. The mill yielded, and reopened a day later with shortened hours.
The Milk Wars
Over the last 129 years, various labor disputes and worker strikes have cropped up across Vancouver in many industries; from the Longshoremen and mechanics who halted work in the 1930s, to the Depression-era workers on local Works Progress Administration projects who struck to bargain for 75 cents an hour, to the retail workers who refused to staff grocery stores in the 1980s to the teachers across Clark County who picketed for higher wages just last year.
But no labor dispute was more undeniably hardcore than the Milk Wars.
Donna Sinclair authored a research paper for the National Parks Service, “Riptide on the Columbia: A Military Community Between the Wars,” and it lays out the events in detail:
“In April 1931, as the economy worsened, Clark County dairymen protested a milk grading process connected to a new Portland ordinance. The Portland regulation required a grading classification of A, B, C, or D, according to sanitation processes and equipment,” Sinclair wrote. “The grading problem stemmed from increased mechanization and monitoring. … Most Clark County dairymen worked without refrigeration, using running water in their cooling rooms. Grade A milk required a temperature less than fifty degrees. Thus, many Clark County dairymen were automatically downgraded.”
Meanwhile “bootlegged” milk, which was lower-quality milk fraudulently capped with “A” or “B” labels, was flooding into the market from outside the area and further depressing prices.
That summer, the county’s dairymen banded together to form a Dairy Cooperative, and the situation boiled over.
“On on Aug. 1, 1931, Clark County dairymen dumped thousands of gallons of milk alongside the highway and into the Columbia River from the Interstate Bridge where a blockade prevented transporting milk into Oregon. Hundreds of ‘determined dairymen, clad in overall’ ” guarded the Washington approach to the Interstate Bridge, with ‘railroad ties, cord wood and spiked planks … on hand to be thrown in front of any trucks, the drivers of which were brave enough to attempt to run the gauntlet,’” Sinclair wrote.
“The organizers chased down other blacklisted milkmen on country roads when they tried to carry the liquid out of the county. Most milk scabs stood aside as the warring milkmen seized milk, pouring it onto county roads and into the river.”
For five days, chaos reigned. The cooperative blew up a Woodland milkhouse belonging to a nonunion dairy farmer with dynamite. A cooperative member was put into a coma after being struck in the head with a lead pipe during a struggle for a milk truck en route to Longview. The governor at the time, Roland Hartley, threatened to send in the National Guard.
The community, Sinclair reported, remained largely supportive of the Clark County dairymen, volunteering to stand in the blockade and setting up coffee stands.
On Aug. 6, the Milk Wars came to a close. Portland cracked down on bootleggers, and distributors agreed to a set minimum price on milk purchased exclusively from the Dairy Cooperative.
Today, Vancouver’s union heritage continues to shape its culture and reputation.
Even in the state of Washington — which has the third-highest percentage of unionized employees in the country, according to a report last week from the Washington State Labor Council — Vancouver stands apart.
When U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., kicked of a tour in May to promote her new bill, Protecting the Right to Organize Act, she started here at the Laborers’ International Union hall and cited the city’s rich culture of organized labor.
“It’s always been a pretty good union town,” 85-year-old Barnes said. “A lot of people may not belong to the union, but they support our causes.”
Barnes said some of the strongest labor local unions right now are in the construction business, which continues to boom in Clark County — LiUna Local 335 and IBEW Local 48.
“They seem to set the pattern for the rest of them. Of course, the longshoremen are pretty darn strong, too,” Barnes added.
For anyone who wants to celebrate Labor Day along with the region’s unions, the Northwest Oregon Labor Council is hosting a picnic with music and food expected to draw up to 20,000 attendees at Oak Park in Portland.
The event starts at 10 a.m. and runs until 5 p.m.
On the north side of the river, Vancouver will also participate in its annual Labor Day tradition of Hands Across the Bridge, a walk across the Interstate 5 Bridge to celebrate sobriety. The group gathers at Esther Short Park at 10 a.m.