Brotherhood of Timber Workers

By: James C. Maroney

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: September 8, 2020

The Brotherhood of Timber Workers was an industrial union of sawmill workers in East Texas and western Louisiana organized by Arthur Lee Emerson and Jay Smith in December 1910. The union grew out of discontent on the part of sawmill workers and poor farmers— sharecroppers and tenant farmers—who worked in the mills on a seasonal basis. The demands of the "timber barons" in the southern pine region imposed an unwanted regimentation that disrupted the way of life of these workers. Deplorable housing and working conditions, as well as complaints typical of company towns dominated the workers' everyday lives. These conditions intensified with the rapid depletion of the yellow pine stands after 1900. Worker reactions to sudden and sometimes unannounced pay cuts and irregular paydays led to sporadic work stoppages in the Texas-Louisiana pine region from 1902 to 1907. These labor disorders led to the formation in 1906 of the Southern Lumber Operators' Association, whose primary concern was to prevent organized labor from gaining any foothold in area lumber mills. The labor efforts suffered from a lack of effective leadership, and the Operators' Association achieved relatively easy victories which led to complacency and inactivity. In the years after 1907 corporate abuse continued to result in worker frustration and occasional resistance. By the winter of 1910 sawmill workers responded to a call to address employer regimentation of their lives in what one historian described as "a radical, collective response to industrial capitalism."

Emerson and Smith organized the first local of the BTW at Carson, Louisiana, in December 1910; others in eastern Texas and western Louisiana soon followed, and delegates from these locals met in Alexandria, Louisiana, in June 1911 and formally established the Brotherhood of Timber Workers. The BTW's constitution espoused moderation, listed employer abuses, and stated willingness to meet with employers to discuss employee concerns at any time. In addition the constitution welcomed women and Black members as well as those performing any sawmill job, earmarks of a true industrial union. The document also demanded union recognition, a just consideration of workers' grievances, and a living wage. In response the Operators' Association characterized the BTW as "socialistic" and "anarchistic" and imposed a lockout of "infected" mills with the purpose of destroying the union.

C. B. Sweet, of the Long-Bell Mills, declared his workers to be "loyal" and threatened to ignore the lockout. This lack of solidarity among operators resulted in a meeting in which the Operators' Association agreed to require "yellow dog" contracts of existing and new employees in order to determine their status. These contracts required employees to sign documents stating that they were not and would not become members of the BTW. Nonsigners were dismissed and blacklisted. "Infected" mills would close indefinitely on August 7, 1911. John Henry Kirby, head of the Kirby Lumber Company, which operated a number of mills in East Texas, held antiunion rallies and barbecues in Kirbyville, Texas, and De Ridder, Louisiana, the latter a BTW stronghold. The union's influence, however, continued to grow, and the Operators' Association suffered a severe setback when Sam Park of the American Lumber Company at Merryville, Louisiana, broke ranks by signing a contract with the BTW, thereby keeping his mill open. Battle lines were drawn.

Subsequently an intensified antiunion campaign by the Operators' Association which featured the use of lockouts, strikebreakers protected by Burns and Pinkerton detectives, and labor spies throughout the remainder of 1911 failed to break the Brotherhood. These tactics caused Emerson and Smith to integrate Blacks and Whites in the BTW; they understood that the operators would seek to utilize any nonunionized Blacks as scab labor. Gradually, however, the cumulative effects of the lockouts and blacklists, followed by a hard winter in 1911–12, began to take their toll.

Rumors circulated after a trip by Emerson to Chicago in early 1912 that the Brotherhood might affiliate with the militant Industrial Workers of the World. In May at their second annual convention BTW delegates did vote to affiliate with the IWW, and in September the seventh annual convention of the IWW consummated the merger. The BTW, now officially the Southern District of the National Industrial Union of Forest and Lumber Workers and reenergized by the merger with the IWW, called another strike; the Operators' Association answered with new lockouts and a lengthened blacklist. Additional strikebreakers, protected by gunmen, were imported, and on July 7, 1912, at Graybow, Louisiana, as Emerson prepared to speak to nonunion workers of the Galloway Lumber Company, a ten-minute gun battle during which an estimated 300 shots were fired, left three men dead, another dying, and over forty wounded. Emerson and sixty-four BTW men were arrested, along with the mill owner and three guards; a subsequent grand jury indicted all of the union men, but none of the company men. Expenses for the defense of Emerson and eight other union men depleted union resources. The murder trial, held in Lake Charles, finally resulted in acquittal of the union men, but the operators, after forcing out Sam Park from the leadership of the American Lumber Company at Merryville, imposed a new lockout. Operations resumed with the aid of imported strikebreakers. The BTW's effectiveness was over by the spring of 1913 although a few holdouts remained until early 1916.

Although some historians have argued that the merger with the militant IWW led to the Brotherhood's downfall, most contend that the operators had already determined to destroy the BTW before its affiliation with the IWW because of its success in achieving union solidarity among the sawmill workers. The BTW demonstrated that downtrodden, unskilled, and racially mixed rural sawmill workers could be effectively unionized. Their history also demonstrates that the lumber barons, like other industrialists, polarized communities in the pine belt and isolated and repressed the workers, especially the Blacks, thereby smashing the union. See also LUMBER INDUSTRY.

James R. Green, "The Brotherhood of Timber Workers, 1900–1913: A Radical Response to Industrial Capitalism in the Southern U.S.A., " Past and Present 60 (August 1973). Charles R. McCord, A Brief History of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1959). George T. Morgan, "The Gospel of Wealth Goes South: John Henry Kirby and Labor's Struggle for Self-Determination," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 75 (October 1971). George T. Morgan, "No Compromise—No Recognition: John Henry Kirby, the Southern Lumber Operators' Association, and Unionism in the Piney Woods, 1906–1916," Labor History 10 (Spring 1969).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James C. Maroney, “Brotherhood of Timber Workers,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994
September 8, 2020