Documentary films aren’t usually saddled with a particularly controversial reputation. Their black and white images are backed by the dulcet tones of a narrator who lays bare the generally agreed upon facts of the matter. Afterwards everyone goes home hopefully feeling a wee-bit smarter and, almost always, ready for a nap.
However, Saturday’s screening of “Labor Wars of the Pacific Northwest” at the Chehalis Theater was not like that at all. The locally-produced documentary managed to stir up some members of the crowd and left impassioned and intrigued viewers fighting for ground in a pointed question-and-answer session in the film’s wake.
If history has taught us anything over the previous century since the infamous Centralia Massacre, that’s just the way things go when area residents get to talking about Wobblies.
Labor Wars of the Northwest is a documentary cobbled together by David Jepsen, a writer, historian, and professor at both Tacoma and South Puget Sound community colleges. His film deals with the history of blue collar labor relations throughout the northwest beginning in the late 1800’s and into the 20th century. Though the documentary does not focus explicitly on the case of the Centralia Massacre — which was a deadly conflict between union members and local Legionnaires beginning on Nov. 11, 1919 — the bloody chapter of Lewis County history does feature prominently in the film’s strife-riddled narrative.
Jepsen said he began kicking around the idea for his first flirtation with filmmaking about four year ago and noted that he received funding from at least a dozen members of the Washington State Labor Council.
“It started out as just something for my students. Today’s young students demand visuals. They like pictures. They like movies, and there really wasn’t a good film on labor history in the northwest,” explained Jepsen.
He noted that the film’s debut last February was timed to coincide with the centennial anniversaries of both the Seattle General Strike and the Centralia Massacre, two events that still reverberate shock waves through the region a century later.
Despite the obviously contentious, and deadly, roots of the subject matter, Jepsen says he has been caught off guard by the conflicting responses he’s received at are area screenings in Olympia and Chehalis. At both of those events local wobbly sympathizer Mike Garrison was even on hand in order to distribute his own set of facts via handout.
“As a historian and a writer I’m used to people questioning the work, challenging me. That comes with the job. I get that. But I felt a little ambushed and kind of caught off guard because it was five minutes before I went on so I didn’t have any time to read it or evaluative it,” Jepsen said of Wednesday’s event at the Centralia Timberland Library.
It’s those impassioned beliefs on one side of history or the other that continue to breathe life into the controversial topic almost 100 years to the date after Centralia wound up in the history books for all the wrong reasons. Did the Legionnaires of Centralia and Chehalis conspire to drive the union members from town? Did the members of the International Workers of the World (aka the Wobblies) fire upon their adversaries without provocation? Were local authorities in on the whole tragic endeavor that left at least six people dead? These are questions that no court of law, nor public opinion has ever been able to sort into consensus.
While Jepsen disagrees with the assertions Garrison made in his handout he did come away with a respect for the passion that Twin City history elicits from those who are familiar with its sometimes sordid twists and turns.
“I think he mischaracterizes the film. I don’t agree with his conclusions. His bottom line is that I took a pro-employer point of view on this and leaned against the sympathies of the labor unions. Did you get the sense of that in the film at all?” asked Jepsen incredulously.
He then paused and added, “I wish my students would challenge me. My goal as an educator is to light a spark in history.”
After more than a dozen screenings around the region Jepsen says he’s been pleased with the reception his film has received, even if he has been blindsided by the lingering tensions triggered by the age old saga of workers versus the entrenched power structure.
“Where I’m really getting surprise is about the current controversy. In many ways it’s not settled about who was right and who was wrong. You got a sense of that here today,” said Jepsen.
In recent years there have been (failed) efforts to change the verbiage on the Sentinel statue outside of the Central LIbrary. That monument was erected by the American Legion in the aftermath of the deadly conflict in 1919 in order to honor their fallen members. Jepsen compared the local controversy favorably to those that have cropped up in the American south in recent years regarding the presence of Civil War era statutes that honor members of the Confederate army.
“Here we are arguing, ‘Geeze, how can we reframe this. How can we rewrite it. How can we think about it differently?’ But nobody is trying to tear it down. It’s a community trying to come to grips with itself and to deal with its own past. It’s own controversial past,” said Jepsen.
National attention to the local Wobbly wars is sometimes minimized by the fact that there were at least 100 deadly events across the nation involving workers and the powers that be during those formative union wars. Still, Jepsen insists that there are factors unique to Washington in general, and Lewis County specifically, that make the Centralia Massacre stand out from the rest after all these years.
“What I think is interesting and what separates Centralia from some of the others is that it’s still a controversy,” explained Jepsen. “I don’t see people arguing over who was right or wrong on the Seattle General Strike. I’ve shown this presentation at Everett, Bellingham, Mt. Vernon, and Tacoma, Gig Harbor, all over, and no one has said, ‘Geez, why weren’t the others prosecuted?’ Or, ‘You know, goddamn those people!’ I didn’t hear any of that so there is still a sense of acrimony and hostility for one side or the other in Lewis County.”
Additional information on Labor Wars of the Northwest, including a copy of the documentary, can be found online at http://laborwarsnw.com/.