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Crossett Strike of 1940

The Crossett Strike of 1940 was a fifty-eight-day work stoppage in the lumber and manufacturing town of Crossett (Ashley County). The strike followed a contract dispute between the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (Local No. 2590) and the Crossett Lumber Company. (The Crossett Lumber Company owned all the land, mills, and residential real estate comprising the town of Crossett in the early 1900s.) Picketing and protests were initially peaceful before altercations became more tense and violent as community support for the union waned. The final settlement increased wages for workers but did not address the root causes of the strike—namely, management’s unwillingness to provide preferential treatment to union members or permit a union shop.

On June 4, 1940, a yearly contract negotiation between the local United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and Crossett Lumber Company came to an impasse. At the time, the labor movement in Crossett was newly emboldened. Six years prior, in 1934, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor organized workers at the local sawmill and became the first recognized Crossett union. In 1938, the United Paperworkers International Union garnered recognition for the town paper mill. Thus, in the summer of 1940, leaders of Local 2590 had momentum entering their battle over contract agreements with Crossett management. However, the company was unwilling to meet union demands. Management and Local 2590 publically disagreed over the nature of the dispute. The company asserted that the union demanded a union shop, which it was unwilling to permit, while union leaders maintained that they were merely looking to uphold a preferential clause for union members that had been a part of their previous agreement with the company.

The strike brought gridlock to the local integrated economy. Much of Crossett’s economy consisted of coordinated industries, including lumber, paper, and saw mills, a wood-treating factory, a box factory, and an oak flooring plant. A work stoppage at the lumber mill had a domino effect that left 2,425 workers unemployed, either as strikers or as unaffiliated workers unable to operate their industries without wood. The far-reaching strike garnered attention from community members, particularly local Baptist minister Aubrey C. Halsell, whose mediation, speeches, and public forums were often credited with helping negotiate a timely end to the strike.

According to the Ashley County Leader, strikers had a carefree demeanor in the beginning of the work stoppage. There was initially an affable relationship between strikers and company management, with the company still providing store credit. However, during the fourth week, tensions began to rise. More workers, such as maintenance staff at nearby plants, were laid off as the lumber industry stalled. At the same time, community morale waned when local events, such as the town’s Fourth of July picnic, were canceled due to “strike conditions,” and when the company rescinded store credit to strikers. Union leaders were also concerned that the Ashley County sheriff and deputies had grown overbearing. In one instance, deputies preemptively manned the pickets to stop possible conflicts between Local 2590 and paper mill employees, which the union saw as an unnecessary overreaction.

In mid-July, a series of events led to more violent and heated altercations. By July 19, 400 black and at least seventy-nine white lumber workers crossed the picket line in exchange for a two-cent-per-hour wage increase. (The union in weeks prior had formally rejected this increase.) This heightened racial tensions because of the large number of black “scabs.” It also occurred at a time when workers in other industries, such as papermakers and non-union drivers, had likewise returned to work.

Strikers soon began barricading rail tracks, bridges, and roads to hinder deliveries and stop industrial operations. In the most violent episode, two black workers were shot the day after returning to work (both survived). Strikers then bolstered the barricades to block entrance to shift workers and armed themselves with clubs. Violent threats and fights soon followed. In the midst of these events, the county sheriff armed twenty-five police officers with tear gas and machine guns; Governor Carl Bailey agreed to send the National Guard if necessary; and the company secured a restraining order against Local 2590.

At the end of this most violent week, on Friday, July 26, union and management agreed to resume negotiations that had been suspended on June 12. On August 1, they reached an agreement for a one-year contract with four-cent-per-hour wage increases for night-shift employees and two-cent-per-hour wage increases for day employees. Local 2590 admitted to dropping the preferential treatment provision in order to reach an agreement. In their vote, union members supported the negotiation almost unanimously and returned to work on August 2, 1940.

For additional information:
Balogh, George Walter. “Crossett: The Community, the Company, and Change.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 44 (Summer 1985): 156–174.

Buckner, John W. Wilderness Lady: A History of Crossett, Arkansas. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1979.

Moyers, David B. “Trouble in a Company Town: The Crossett Strike of 1940.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 48 (Spring 1989): 34–56.

Ryan Driskell Tate
St. Paul, Minnesota

Last Updated 4/2/2013

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