THE ARMS of the employees were covered in sores from being elbow-deep in mashed berries for 10 hours a day. Jam was made from juice mopped off the filthy floor. And if these conditions weren't bad enough, the employees of this Portland fruit company were paid so little, at least a few of them turned to prostitution to earn a livable wage.
On Friday, June 27, 1913, 50 women walked off the job at Oregon Packing Company at SE 8th and Belmont. Within a few days, as many as 200 of them didn't come to work. And within weeks, dozens of strikers had been brutally beaten and arrested by Portland police. That's when one woman in particular decided something needed to be done. So she pulled out a hatpin and stabbed a cop.
Portland was an interesting place in 1913. Sure, women had just gotten the vote (thanks for that, Abby Duniway), but many well-intentioned Progressives were actually undermining the empowerment of women without even realizing it. While these do-gooders fought to end child labor and create a 10-hour workday for female workers, their reasoning was that it would make these women better wives and mothers.
Regardless, the cannery women certainly did need safer, more sanitary working conditions as well as restrictions on the number of hours in a workday. Along with better pay and shorter hours, the workers demanded basic accommodations such as sanitary work conditions and rooms for dressing, resting, eating, and recovery from illness or injury. The strikers' press committee claimed the level of sanitation at the plant was unsafe, not just for workers, but for consumers as well. An article in the International Socialist Review summarized the conditions at Oregon Packing Company.
"The company handled fruit so rotten and filthy that it was nothing but a slime and mush, and the girls had to dig their arms into the mess as they worked. The girls testify also that the fruit juice that falls to the floor to a depth of a half or one inch, is mopped up, wrung out into a bucket and used for jam. A woman of 61 said the report was true and that she had refused to use this refuse for preserves."
The claims were shocking, but women also simply wanted better pay—an issue either overlooked or ignored by Progressives and employers. The cost of living in Portland had risen considerably between the 1890s and 1910s, and not only did single women need to earn money, but a married woman couldn't always depend on her husband's income alone to support her family.
Workers in the canneries were typically paid a "piece rate" depending on how much fruit they processed. In the beginning of the season, women could earn about a dollar a day hulling strawberries, but when the plant switched over to cherries later in the summer, the fragile fruit's quality was often so poor that it was impossible for workers to earn a decent living. A woman might spend three hours trimming away rotten bits and end up with only 10 cents' worth of usable fruit by weight. To achieve their base pay, some workers put uncleaned fruit or leaves into cans and then topped them off with finished fruit to cover their tracks.
At this pace, the fastest worker could only earn 40 cents a day, which was only a fraction of a livable wage in Portland at the time. Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, quitting was cannery workers' only response to low pay—but in Portland the women took matters into their own hands. They went on strike.
"WORK IS HAMPERED"
While the women weren't unionized, Portland was home to the "One Big Union"—the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies). As described by labor historian Heather Mayer, the stakes were high for the striking workers. "[T]he women held signs declaring that '40¢ a day is what makes prostitutes;' blaming low wages-rather than loose morals-for pushing women into selling their bodies for a living. The [IWW] shared this view." The IWW had already been at odds with some members of Portland's business community, but as Mayer explains, this event went even further than that. "Their support of the female strikers led to a showdown between radical and progressive forces in the city, each battling to define what was respectable and acceptable behavior for young females."
[Editor’s Note: The above paragraph has been substantially rewritten since its initial publication, adding a citation to the work of historian Heather Mayer. The author and the Mercury sincerely apologize for its original omission.]
The Oregonian downplayed the event at first, assuming innocence on the part of the cannery owners and sticking to vague headlines like this understatement published following the walkout: "Work Is Hampered." Liberal papers were more supportive; "Girls Make Good Fight," cheered the Portland News headline at the outset of the strike.
The cannery superintendent was adamant that the company couldn't afford to raise wages because of its small profit margin. He claimed that the cannery had to compete with California plants, adding, "Virtually every woman working as a picker does not have to work for her support. Many of them are girls who want to make some extra pin money."
Ironically, the workers that did not join the strike were the women who should have been most offended by their employer's ignorant assumptions—those who really did need the wages for something besides dresses and gewgaws. These were the helpless victims of the strike that the Oregonian was writing about—the poor old widows and the mothers of three with laid-up husbands.
The strikers weren't backing down, so the Oregon Industrial Welfare Commission (OIWC) came to investigate. The OIWC negotiated with Oregon Packing Company and won a one-dollar minimum daily wage for the women. Workers could potentially earn a little more because the piece-rate system would still be in effect. The company also agreed to make some improvements to the washroom facilities. However, most strikers rejected the offer and volleyed back demands for $1.50 a day plus overtime, a nine-hour workday, and workplace improvements such as a lunchroom, a sickroom, and a dressing room with lockers, towels, and aprons.
What're We Gonna Do About the Man in Blue
As momentum gathered over the coming weeks, more than 1,000 protesters and agitators joined in the fray. Unsurprisingly, the situation quickly went sideways when the police arrived. Intimidation flew in both directions; protesters threatened to burn the cannery down and accosted scabs leaving the plant. Police promised to clear the streets, even if it meant the use of force, which they implemented with wild abandon. The mounted police drove their horses onto the women, hospitalizing several protesters, sympathizers, and even innocent onlookers. Arrests were made on a variety of charges, ranging from loitering to cussing in front of girls. One man was charged with "sitting on the curb... and singing ribald songs" and fined $20.
Mayor H. Russell Albee shrugged off the horse attacks as "an accident." The Oregonian portrayed the police actions as not only justified, but insisted that the "crowd's sympathies [were] plainly with arresting officers." Public actions spoke to the contrary, however, as many came out in support of the striking workers, providing donations and free lunches.
Governor Oswald West was called, and upon arrival, the city council office was a roiling sea of outcry. Tom Burns, a Socialist and IWW member, described the atrocities that were being committed against strikers and implied the OIWC hadn't been acting in the best interests of the workers.
According to Oregonian reports, Governor West "leaped nimbly on the table, galloped its full length, and leaning over Burns with shaking finger, shouted, in an effort to make himself heard over the bedlam." He told the strikers that he was on their side, but that they'd better stop picketing if they wanted his support.
The strikers weren't impressed and the picketing resumed. West left the police in charge of handling the strikers, but was able to secure all of the demands with the packing plant managers but one—the plant boss said he could only give them a dollar a day instead of $1.50. The strikers again rejected the offer.
The Oregonian reported the protesters used violent speech warranting the use of force. Sheriff Tom Word drew the line when someone threatened to fly Socialist flags over his house.
"'That settles it!' he ejaculated crisply... 'Now go in, boys, and get them!'"
The O faithfully portrayed Word as a tough leader who refused to take any guff when he sicced his club-swinging deputies on the crowd. After the police had sufficiently kicked ass and taken names, a smug Mayor Albee audaciously declared an abrogation of the First Amendment, announcing that "this puts an end to all speaking in the streets." (Interestingly, beating people and robbing them of their right to public assembly did not yield the mayor's desired results.)
Dozens of cannery workers and agitators were arrested, causing a fight for free speech to move from the street to behind bars. Burns was arrested and sentenced to 40 days on the city rockpile for calling Mayor Albee and Governor West "mental prostitutes and cockroaches." That's when Dr. Marie Equi stepped in.
The Stormy Petrel of the Northwest
Dr. Marie Equi was a respected pediatrician and OB/GYN, largely serving the family-planning needs of troubled young women (and the secret mistresses of prominent Portland men) by offering safe abortions, no questions asked. She was also a Socialist, an IWW member, and an open lesbian. During her first few years in Portland, Equi had been a model Progressive; she had allied herself with suffragists and was a loyal friend to Oregon's "Mother of Equal Suffrage," Abigail Scott Duniway. She had given talks on topics ranging from how to treat nervousness in children to writing papers titled "The Citizen's Part in Snow Removal." She also had a history of being a bit of a firebrand, earning her the nickname "the stormy petrel of the Northwest" by fellow Wobbly Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Equi had already been tending to those injured by the police, but when Tom Burns was arrested, she came to the jail and, according to the O, "applied picturesque epithets" to the arresting officer. When the deputy sheriff attempted to restrain her, she socked him with a right hook and had to be bodily thrown out of the jailhouse. Undeterred, she marched back in, and "raked them fore and aft," spraying the jailhouse with colorful fury.
Two days later, a riot began with what the papers called "a startling suddenness" when 17 women marched down SW 6th toward Pioneer Courthouse. A frantic cry was heard: "The girls are coming!" The shouting rabble quickly took up several blocks, and as usual, the cops came to bash them into submission. The Oregonian wrote, "More than a score were hit with clubs. At least 50 others were struck by fists in the melee." Dr. Equi brandished a "wicked-looking" section of gas pipe and bellowed that she'd kill anyone that tried to stop her from talking. The sheriff's deputy grabbed the pipe from her and placed her under arrest.
As Equi was being led from the police station to the jail, she pulled a hatpin from her hat and stabbed the accompanying police officer in the wrist. The pin, she told the papers, had been dipped in a virus, which, upon stabbing, would inflict miserable suffering and eventual death. She was then quoted as saying, "I started in this fight a Socialist, but now I am an anarchist. I'm going to speak when and where I wish. No man will stop me. The first man who touches me will die a slow, lingering death." Officer Larry Evans didn't take any chances and had his wound cauterized with acid.
With Equi and other IWW agitators in jail, the fight simmered down. Equi's doctor friends tried to get her off on an insanity plea—but she nonetheless spent a few days in the pokey.
Although Oregon Packing Company did finally agree to make improvements and raise wages, two years later the company moved its operations to Vancouver, Washington. Portland was the only place in the West where cannery workers stood up for their rights, and the protests marked a turning point in Marie Equi's long activist career. The women's fruit cannery strike of 1913 radicalized her.
Emboldened by the new fire beneath her wings, Equi would prove a formidable ally in the fight for women's rights. Three years after the cannery strike, she was arrested downtown with her close friend Margaret Sanger, for passing out pamphlets about birth control. She spent 10 years living in Southwest Portland with her girlfriend and American Civil Liberties Union founding member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Women of Progressive Era Portland were a driving force in social change, bringing about reforms in education, labor, reproduction rights, and politics. And in 1913, it was a battle that started on a fruit-covered cannery floor—and spilled into the streets.