Tales from Pauling’s Boyhood: The 1917 Shipbuilders’ Strike

Linus Pauling, 1917.

Linus Pauling, 1917.

In 1917, Pauling began a diary, (known simply as the “OAC Diary” among Special Collections staff) in which he described his activities, thoughts and feelings, many of which are both enlightening and entertaining. Just as interesting though, are some of the entries about life in the early 20th century. The diary contains a number of historical gems dating from Pauling’s time in Portland and Corvallis, including the following excerpt; an entry dating from either late September or early October 1917 and describing a strike among shipbuilders along the Oregon coast.

About 10,000 iron and wooden shipbuilders are striking in Portland, with corresponding amounts in other Pacific coast cities. Accordingly I will not get to see the Mt. Hood, the largest motorship in the world, launched. This is the second week that Supple and Ballin, across the river, has been idle. About 60 wooden ship and 12 steel ship ways are near Portland. The Mt. Hood and three sister ships of wood with Ballin’s patent steel reinforcements. The War Monarch, War Baron, War Viceroy, Landoas, and other ships now building on the Northwest Steel Co’s four ways, are of 8,800 tons. The three ships being built at the Coast Ship Building Co.’s place are about 10,000 tons.

After a little digging, the OSU Special Collections staff was able to turn up the fascinating history behind this little-known strike. In honor of Oregon’s 150th year in the Union, we would like to share that history today.

By early 1917, World War I was raging through Europe. Woodrow Wilson, U.S. president from 1913-1921, had maintained a policy of isolationism and neutrality throughout the war, leaving the U.S. relatively unaffected by the massive conflict. In January 1917, however, the situation changed drastically. British intelligence intercepted and decoded the Zimmerman Telegram, an order for the German delegate in Mexico to broker a treaty with the Mexican government. This treaty, if enacted, would require Mexico to go to war against the United States.

Furthermore, in February 1917, the German navy resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, a practice that had previously resulted in the sinking of the Lusitania and the deaths of nearly 2,000 civilian passengers, including hundreds of Americans. The U.S. could no longer remain neutral and, on April 6, 1917, the United States formally declared war on Germany and its allies.

The fall of 1917 saw the U.S. war movement in full swing with troop deployment and military buildup well underway. bio10011-45-shipbuilders-strike-entryWith this boom in military-minded production, underpaid laborers saw opportunity. In early September, wooden shipbuilders up and down the coast of Oregon began plotting a walkout. They knew that, with the need for ships and at an all-time high, plant management would be forced to meet their demands in order to get production back on schedule. Unfortunately for the would-be strikers, word of the plan got out. On September 14, the day before the walkout, E. W. Wright, manager of McEachern Shipbuilding in Astoria, closed his plant for the weekend, effectively superseding the workers’ strike.

Outraged by Wright’s actions, the McEachern workers accused Wright of locking out pro-union workers. The workers struck, citing their rights as union laborers rather than their initial demands for increased wages. On September 16, the Carpenter’s Union and other unions associated with the Metal Trades Council declared a strike as well. The following day, one hundred National Guard troops were sent to Hammond Lumber Co. in Astoria to protect non-union workers from the picketers. Many decried the Governor’s use of the National Guard, noting that no violence had occurred during the strike. This was the first time that National Guard troops had been mobilized during a strike in Oregon since 1898.

Following several unsuccessful meetings between union representatives and shipyard management, metal workers in Portland and Seattle struck in late September, expressing their solidarity with their fellow laborers. The following day, it was announced that Northwest timber companies had lost a series of large Federal lumber orders as a consequence of “uncertainty in the labor market.” Because wooden shipbuilding was on hold in the Northwest, the U.S. government had no reason to purchase timber there. Instead, the government was forced to move many of its contracts to California, where shipyards were still operating.

In early October, three weeks after the strike had begun, the halt in shipbuilding was becoming a danger to the U.S. war effort. The federal government approached shipyard owners, demanding that a solution be found immediately so that production might continue. After another week of fruitless negotiations, the U.S. government stepped in and the Federal Labor Adjustment Board began a series of hearings meant to force negotiations between the owners and laborers. As the hearings continued, the strikers increased their picketing, hoping to gain public support and cow the shipyard management. On October 17, 140 picketers were arrested in front of the Northwest Steel Company compound. As a result, union leaders agreed to stop all picketing until an agreement was reached.

On October 21, a deal was finally brokered between the two parties, with the shipyard owners conceding a small pay raise to the workers. The following day, the U.S. government announced the end of its wooden shipbuilding programs for the duration of World War I, unofficially discontinuing the use of wooden ships in the U.S. military. The shipbuilders returned to work on October 23 with orders to complete all commissioned ships, aware that the strike in which they had engaged had contributed to the demise of an entire industry.

Almost undoubtedly, the shipbuilders’ strike had far-reaching consequences that have greatly impacted the history of the Pacific Northwest. With the loss of government funds originally earmarked for Oregon timber and coastal shipbuilders, and unemployment rising in the wake of the demise of the wooden ship era, Oregon’s economy was altered drastically. It is difficult to imagine what the state’s industry, economy and population might look like today had this important event played out differently.

(And it is unknown whether Pauling ever saw the launching of the Mt. Hood.)

To learn more about Linus Pauling, visit the Linus Pauling Online portal.

Oregon 150