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The Brotherhood of Timber Workers

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The Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW) was a union of sawmill workers from East Texas and West Louisiana that organized by Arthur Lee Emerson and Jay Smith in 1910. The BTW was most famous for the Grawbow Riot, where they started strikes against the Galloway Lumber Company in Grabow, Louisiana. The Brotherhood of Timber Workers were also known for being interracial during a time of segregation and located in the deep south where racial tensions were high, and included males and females.



The BTW was created on the behalf of the terrible working conditions of the sawmills in the southern pine region. The labors for these mills were often dangerous and routine actions that relied on the endurance of the worker to keep the pace with the machines. This proved to be very dangerous working conditions for the sawmill workers. In 1919 there was a reported 125 deaths and 16,950 accidents that occurred in the southern lumber industry. The poor working and living conditions on top of the unannounced pay cuts angered the sawmill workers.

In 1910, lumberjacks Arthur Lee Emerson and Jay Smith began to recruit members for the Brotherhood of Timber Workers. They moved from camp to camp to recruit hundreds of black and white workers they quickly grew and the word spread rapidly. By the time they felt strong enough to come public they held their first convention in Alexandria, Louisiana. It was here where they drafted their constitution that extended membership to all races and sexes. The creation of the BTW sparked the interest of the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association (SLOA). Their purpose was to prevent unions from rising in the lumber camps. Under a strict watch by John Henry Kirby the BTW’s formation was known.

The clash began in 1911 when SLOA shut down 11 mills in De Ridder, Louisiana, locking out the workers in an attempt to defeat the BTW before it could gain momentum. This continued and mills were being shut down in the South and members of the BTW were being blacklisted. In order for workers to work again, the SLOA came up with a solution - they had to disown the union on paper called “yellow card” contracts or anti-union cards. Although this was one of the only ways for workers to gain their jobs back, most members refused and this made the union stronger.

The attempts by the SOLA to crush the rising union had failed and mills were reopened. The clash was not over but mill workers had won a small battle receiving a slightly higher wage.

Uniting with the Industrial Workers of the World

At the BTW’s second annual convention held in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1912 Bill Haywood also known as “Big Bill" Haywood attended the convention with leaders A.L. Emerson and Covington Hall. It was here that they noticed two separate conventions being held, one for blacks and one for whites. Haywood addressed this problem in an attempt to unite the union calling for black and white to join in one convention hall. It was at this convention where the BTW made a step towards equality for their colored members. The affiliation with the IWW was voted in favor by a vote of 71 ½ to 26 ½. It was also here where a “Board of Colored Executive Officers” was established and they would work in conjunction with the White Executive Officers. The Lumber Operators' Association criticized the BTW as an anarchistic, race-mixing organization in an attempt to diminish support among white workers. After affiliation with the IWW the BTW had presented the Lumber operators with a list of demands that led to more lockouts and the importation of scab labor. The mills also employed operatives to expose workers who were apart of the union. They also employed armed guards to keep organizers out. Many of these guards, were deputized by the local sheriff, provided the impression of legal sanction and creating a militarized environment. This set the stage for the incident at the Grabow mill.

Grabow Riot

On July 7, 1912 A.L. Emerson lead a group of strikers towards the King-Ryder mill. Upon hearing the news that a socialist agitator H.G. Creel was almost assassinated they changed course toward the Galloway mill in Grabow, LA. After arriving Emerson began to talk to the crowd, when gunshots were fired from the company office. This sparked a gun battle between the company gunmen and the armed union participants. According to a news article in the Dawson Daily News, four men were killed and four other men were seriously wounded as a result of the battle. There were also 37 men who were wounded. Following the incident 49 union men and officials who were arrested and facing charges. After two months all 49 men one of those included A.L. Emerson were acquitted of all charges and were set free. This victory was a key point in the history of the BTW but the trial had drained most of the BTW’s resources.

Merryville, Louisiana

In Merryville, Louisiana was an American sawmill that was owned and managed by Sam Park. What set Merryville apart from the rest of the mills operating during that time, was that the owner Sam Park “tolerated” the BTW. Most of his workforce was composed of union members. This made Merryville an important piece in the Brotherhood’s financial plans. With other mills locking out workers and blacklisting union members, and the Grabow Trial draining the BTW’s funds, Merryville became a source or income for the BTW.

Park was strongly disliked by SLOA and they criticized Park for “treachery” for his refusal to shut down his mills during lockouts and tolerating the BTW. Park became a target for SLOA in their attempts to crush the BTW. They were successful and Park was removed from Merryville.

The new management made clear their feelings towards the BTW by firing 15 employees that played a part in the Grabow Trial. This instigated a strike that the BTW knew that they didn’t have the funds to support following the Grabow Trial. Although funds were depleted the BTW started a strike against the Merryville Mill with 1,200 men. This strike although was partially successful in the beginning, but the BTW in shutting down the mill began to lose its strength as the mill began to fully operate with nonunion workers. The end of the strike was signaled when a group of people called “The Good Citizens League” attacked the headquarters of the strike and essentially ran the BTW out of Merryville.

The loss of the Merryville strike led to the fall of the BTW, their resources had been depleted and membership had fallen since the Grabow Trial. SLOA has successfully defeated the BTW and crushed the union following the loss of the Merryville Strikes.


The Brotherhood of Timber Workers Wikipedia

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