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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Reluctant realists: the Pacific Northwest lumber industry, federal labor standards and union legislation during the New Deal Knight, Simon A.


The relationship between government and business during the New Deal can best be understood as one based on mutual dependence rather than endemic hostility. This is demonstrated with reference to the Northwest lumber industry and its response to New Deal labor standards and labor union legislation. The Northwest lumber industry during the 1920s and 1930s was beset by the problems of overproduction and cut throat competition which plagued much of American industry during the Great Depression. Industry leaders strove for ways in which to regulate a fiercely competitive marketplace. Attempts to foist higher production standards on marginal competitors through the promotion of voluntary trade associations failed because of the absence of enforcement mechanisms within the associational structure. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) similarly failed to provide a disciplined framework for competition in the region because the federal government failed to fulfill its role as an enforcement agent, although the experience of the NRA did suggest to the industry the potential benefits of stabilizing the marketplace through the regulation of labor costs, which were such a significant and vulnerable item in the business calculations of lumber operations. The problem of enforcement, however, remained. Labor unions had a record under the NRA and in the coal and clothing industries as an effective regulator of labor standards, but the memory of radical unionism in the early lumber industry combined with a concern for managerial prerogatives to forestall any voluntary support on the part of Northwest lumber leaders for unionisation in the region. The elevation of unions under the National Labor Relations Act, however, prompted versatile lumber executives to use the empowered unions for their own regulatory purposes. Never entirely comfortable with the potential costs of strong unions, the Northwest lumber industry turned to the federal regulation offered under the Fair Labor Standards Act as an additional, effective and less risky method of securing much needed stability in the industry.

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