- Historic Sites
Here Come The Wobblies!
To the hard-bitten laborers of the I.W.W., the union was a home, a church, and a holy crusade.
June 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 4
On a hot June clay in 1905 William D. Haywood, a thirty-six-year-old miner, homesteader, horsebreaker, surveyor, union organizer, and Socialist, out of Salt Lake City, stood up before a large crowd in a Chicago auditorium. He gazed down at the audience with his one good eye and, taking up a loose board from the platform, impatiently banged for silence.
“Fellow workers,” he shouted, “this is the continental congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.”
Thus, in manifesto, the working-class crusade known as Industrial Workers of the World came to birth. It grew amid storms of dissent, lived always in the blast furnace of conflict, and was battered into helplessness over forty years ago. It is still alive, but as a “church of old men” in one author’s words, old men still muttering “No” to the status quo. The Industrial Worker, the official newspaper of the “One Big Union,” still appears, still carries as its masthead motto “An injury to one is an injury to all,” still valiantly runs on its editorial page the uncompromising preamble to the constitution adopted at that Chicago convention in 1905:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. …
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.
But the old society is still here, thriving more vigorously than ever; the workers have late-model cars, and the struggle of the I.W.W.’s young radicals to burst its bonds is history now—good history, full of poets and tramps, bloodshed and cruelty, and roads not taken by American labor. The history not merely of an organization but of an impulse that stirred men from the lower depths of the economy—vagrants, lumberjacks, harvest hands, immigrant millworkers—and set them to marching in step with Greenwich Village literary radicals to the tune of gospel hymns and innocent ballads fitted with new, class-conscious verses.
But it was not all ballads and broadsides. The I.W.W. was radical in the word’s truest sense. When it denied that the working and employing classes had anything in common, it meant precisely what it said. The I.W.W. put no faith in the promises of bourgeois politicians or in the fairness of bourgeois courts. It made 110 contracts with employers, and it spurned other unions—like those enrolled in the American Federation of Labor—that did. It was composed of hard, hard-working men, little known to respectability. As a result, it badly frightened millions of middle-class Americans, and it meant to.
Yet it must be understood that the I.W.W. did not grow in a vacuum. It arose out of an industrial situation for which the adjective “grim” is pallid. In the America that moved to productive maturity between 1880 and 1920, there was little room or time to care about the worker at the base of it all. It was an America in which children of ten to fourteen could and did work sixty-hour weeks in mine and factory; in which safety and sanitation regulations for those in dangerous trades were virtually unknown—and in which industrial accidents took a horrible toll each year; in which wages were set by “the market place” and some grown men with families worked ten to twelve hours for a dollar and stayed alive only by cramming their families into sickening tenements or company-town shacks; in which such things as pensions or paid holidays were unknown; lastly, it was an America in which those who did protest were often locked out, replaced by scabs, and prevented from picketing by injunction and by naked force. At Homestead, Pullman, Coeur d’Alêne, Cripple Creek, Ludlow, and other places where strikers clashed with troops or police between 1892 and 1914, the record of labor’s frustrations was marked with bloody palm prints. And at the bottom of the scale was the vast army of migrant workers who beat their way by rail from job to job—not only unskilled, unprotected, and underpaid but unnoticed and unremembered.
Out of such a situation grew the I.W.W. It gained much not only from the horror of its surroundings, but from the spirit of an infant century when the emancipation of almost everyone—women, workers, artists, children—from the dragons of the past seemed to be a live possibility, and “new” was a catchword on every tongue.
The opening years of the organization’s life were not promising. Its founding fathers were numerous and diverse—discontented trade unionists, Socialists like Eugene V. Debs and the whiskered, professorial Daniel De Leon, and veterans of almost every other left-wing crusade of the preceding twenty years. There was among them all, a recent I.W.W. historian has written, “such a warfare as can be found only between competing radicals.” They were, however, united in objecting to the craft-union principles of A.F.L. chieftain Samuel Gompers, whom Haywood described as “a squat specimen of humanity” with “small snapping eyes, a hard cruel mouth,” and “a personality vain, conceited, petulant and vindictive.”
Gompers’ plan of organizing only skilled craftsmen and negotiating contracts aimed only at securing a better life from day to day struck the I.W.W.’s founders not only as a damper upon whatever militancy the labor movement might generate to challenge capitalism, but also as a betrayal of the unskilled laborers, who would be left to shift for themselves. The new leaders therefore created a “single industrial union,” as far removed from craft divisions as possible.
All industrial labor was to be divided into thirteen great, centrally administered divisions—building, manufacturing, mining, transportation, public service, etc. Within each of these would be subgroups. But each such group would take in all employees contributing to that industry’s product or service. On the steam railroads, as an instance, clerks, telegraphers, and trackwalkers would share power and glory with engineers, brakemen, and conductors. A grievance of one lowly set of workers in a single shop could bring on a strike that would paralyze a whole industry. And some day, on signal from the One Big Union, all workers in all industries would throw the “Off” switch, and the wage system would come tumbling down.
Much of the scheme came from the brain and pen of a priest, Father Thomas Hagerty, who while serving mining parishes in the Rockies had come to believe in Marx as well as Christ. He had the scheme of industrial unionism all worked out in a wheel-shaped chart, with the rim divided into the major industries and the hub labelled “General Administration.” Gompers looked at a copy of it in a magazine and snarled: “Father Hagerty’s Wheel of Fortune!” He did not expect it to spin very long.
Nor, during the I.W.W.’s first three years of existence, did it seem likely to. Factional quarrels wracked national headquarters and the Western Federation of Miners, the biggest single block in the entire I.W.W. structure, pulled out. By spring of 1908 the organization, whose paper strength was perhaps 5,000 but whose actual roster was probably much thinner, was broke and apparently heading toward the graveyard that seems to await all clique-ridden American radical bodies.
But the death notices were premature. The headquarters brawls were among and between trade unionists and Socialists, and the I.W.W.’s future was, as it turned out, linked to neither group. It belonged to a rank-and-file membership that was already formulating surprise tactics and showing plenty of vigor. In Schenectady, New York, for example, I.W.W.-led strikers in a General Electric plant protested the firing of three draftsmen by staying at their machines for sixty-five hours, a use of the sit-down strike thirty years before it was introduced by the auto workers as a radical measure during the Great Depression. In Goldfield, Nevada, the I.W.W. under thirty-one-year-old Vincent St. John organized the town’s hotel and restaurant workers into a unit with the local silver and gold miners. This unlikely combination of hash-slingers and miners, an extreme example of industrial unionism, forced the town’s employers to boost wage scales, temporarily at least, to levels of five dollars per eight-hour day for skilled underground workers, down to three dollars and board for eight hours of dishwashing by the lowly “pearl divers.” It seemed to be clear proof that “revolutionary industrial unionism” could work. The fiery St. John was even able to close down the mines one January day in 1907 for a protest parade—on behalf of Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone, three officers of the miners’ union who had been arrested (they were later acquitted) in the bomb-killing of former Governor Frank Steunenberg of Idaho. St. John’s parade brought three thousand unionists into the small-town streets “all wearing tiny red flags.”
The real turning point came at the organization’s fourth convention, in 1908. The believers in “direct action at the point of production” forced a change in the I.W.W.’s holy writ, the preamble. It had originally contained the sentence: “A struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce” (italics added). Now this “political clause” was scuttled, over the violent protests of Socialist De Leon, who helplessly denounced the change as an exaltation of “physical force.” The shock troops of the direct-action group were twenty lumber workers known as the Overalls Brigade. Gathered in Portland by an organizer named Jack Walsh, they had bummed their way to Chicago in boxcars, raising grubstakes along the way at street meetings in which they sang, harangued, peddled pamphlets, and passed the hat. One of their favorite tunes, with which they regaled the convention, was “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum,” set to the old hymn tune “Revive Us Again”:
Sourly, De Leon dubbed Walsh’s men The Bummery, but the day was theirs. The veteran Socialist leader retreated and organized a splinter I.W.W., which dwindled away in seven years.
It was the I.W.W.’s second split in a short history, but its most important. It gave the organization over to soapbox singers and bums, brothers in idealism who were poor in all things save “long experience in the struggle with the employer.” They were to break from past labor practices and give the I.W.W. its true inwardness and dynamism; to fit it with its unique costume and role in history.
They gave it, first, a musical voice. Walsh’s crusaders sang because when they sought the workers’ attention on street corners they were challenged by those competing sidewalk hot-gospellers, the Salvation Army. By 1909, the press of the organization’s newspaper, the Industrial Worker, was able to put out the first edition of Songs of the Workers to Fan the Flames of Discontent. More succinctly known as the “Little Red Songbook,” it has gone through over thirty subsequent editions—all scarlet-covered and fitted to the size of an overalls pocket. The songbook and the preamble were to the I.W.W. membership what the hymnbook and the Discipline of the Methodist Church had been to frontier preachers—the sum and touchstone of faith, the pearl of revelation, the coal of fire touching their lips with eloquence. Most of the songs were the work of men like Richard Brazier, an English-born construction worker who joined up in Spokane in 1908; or Ralph Chaplin, a struggling young Chicago commercial artist who wanted to chant “hymns of hope and hatred” at the shrine of rebellion; or Joe Hill, born Joel Haaglund in Sweden, who wrote not parodies alone but also original compositions, which Chaplin described as “coarse as homespun and as fine as silk”; or bards known simply as T-Bone Slim or Dublin Dan. The I.W.W. members soared on those songs, enjoying them as much for their mockery as anything.
To the patriotic cadences of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” they sang “Solidarity forever, for the Union makes us strong” (a version which Ralph Chaplin had given them and which the entire labor movement took over without credit). To the sentimental notes that enfolded Darling Nelly Gray they sang of “the Commonwealth of Toil that is to be,” and to the strains that had taken pretty Red Wing through ribald adventures in every barroom in the country, they roared that “the earth of right belongs to toilers, and not to spoilers of liberty.” They raided the hymnbook of Moody-and-Sankey revivalism for “Hold the fort for we are coming, union men be strong,” and for “There is power, there is power, in a working band” (instead of “in the blood of the Lamb”). They laughed in sharps and flats at Casey Jones, of the craft-proud Brotherhood of Railway Engineers, as a union scab who “kept his junk pile running” and “got a wooden medal for being good and faithful on the S.P. line.” They sang in the hobo jungles, on the picket line, and in the jailhouse, and it was their singing especially that separated them from the A.F.L. by an abyss of spirit.
The “new” I.W.W, soon had a nickname, as derisive and defiant as its songs: the Wobblies. It is not certain how the name was born, though a popular legend declares that a Chinese restaurant owner in the Northwest was persuaded to grubstake I.W.W. members drifting through his town. His identification test was a simple question, “Are you I.W.W.?” but it emerged in Cantonese-flavored English as “Ah loo eye wobble wobble?” Whatever its origin, the name was a badge of pride.
The I.W.W.’s new leadership provided halls in the towns where a wandering Wobbly could find a warm stove, a pot of coffee, a corner in which to spread a blanket for the night, and literature: the Industrial Worker and Solidarity, leaflets by St. John or Haywood, and books like Jack London’s The Iron Heel, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Laurence Gronlund’s Cooperative Commonwealth. All of them furnished material for arguments with the unorganized, and also such stuff as dreams were made on.
In 1909 the I.W.W. attracted national attention through the first of its spectacular clashes with civic authority. In Spokane a campaign was launched urging loggers to boycott the “job sharks,” employment agents who hired men for work in lumber and construction camps deep in the woods, charging them a fee for the “service.” Many a lumberjack who “bought a job” in this way was swindled—sent to a nonexistent camp or quickly fired by a foreman in cahoots with the shark to provide fast turnover and larger shared profits. At street meetings, the Wobblies preached direct hiring by the lumber companies. Spokane’s thirty-one agencies retaliated by getting the city council to ban such meetings. The Industrial Worker promptly declared November 2, 1909, Free Speech Day and urged every man in the vicinity to “fill the jails of Spokane.”
From hundreds of miles around, Wobblies poured in by boxcar, mounted soapboxes, and were immediately wrestled into patrol wagons. In a matter of weeks, the jail and a quickly converted schoolhouse were overflowing with five or six hundred prisoners. They came into court bloody from beatings; they were put to hard labor on bread and water, jammed into cells like sardines, and in the name of sanitation hosed with ice water and returned to unheated confinement. Three died of pneumonia. Among the prisoners was a darkhaired Irish girl from New York, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Eighteen years old and pregnant, she complicated her arrest by chaining herself to a lamp post. “Gurley,” a proletarian Joan of Arc, was lodged with a woman cellmate who kept receiving mysterious calls to the front office. It turned out that she was a prostitute, servicing customers provided by the sheriff “for good and valuable consideration.” This fact was trumpeted by the I.W.W. as soon as Gurley figured it out.
Fresh trainloads of Wobblies poured relentlessly into town, while those already in jail kept the night alive with selections from the Little Red Songbook roared at full volume, staged hunger strikes, refused to touch their hammers on the rock pile, and generally discomfited their captors. In March of 1910 the taxpayers of Spokane threw in the towel, released the prisoners, and restored the right of free speech to the I.W.W. Other free-speech fights in the next few years carried the Wobbly message throughout the Far West and helped in organizing new locals among the militant.
Two years after the end of the Spokane campaign, the I.W.W. made headlines in the East. In the textile-manufacturing town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, on January 11, 1912, more than 20,000 workers struck against a wage cut that took thirty cents—the price of three loaves of bread—out of pay envelopes averaging only six to eight dollars for a fifty-four-hour week. It was an unskilled work force that hit the bitter-cold streets, and a polyglot one, too. Some twenty-five nationalities, speaking forty-five languages or dialects, were represented, including French Canadians, Belgians, Poles, Italians, Syrians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Russians, and Turks.
There was only a small I.W.W. local in Lawrence, but the tactics of One Big Union under the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” had never been more appropriate. I.W.W. pamphlets and newspapers in several languages had already appeared. Now the leadership deployed its best veterans in the field—Haywood, William Trautmann, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—and in addition a big, jovial-looking Italian organizer of steelworkers, Joe Ettor, whose usual costume was a black shirt and a red tie.
For over two months, something akin to social revolution went on in Lawrence. A strike committee of fifty-six members, representing all nationalities, filled days and nights with meetings and parades. Haywood stood out like a giant. He hurdled the linguistic barrier by speeches partly in sign language (waving fingers to show the weakness of separate craft unions; balled-up fist to demonstrate solidarity), visited workers’ homes, and won the women’s hearts by joshing the children or smacking his lips over shashlik or spaghetti. He also shrewdly exploited the publicity that bathed Lawrence, which was near the nation’s journalistic capitals. Demonstrations were called with an eye not only to working-class morale but to public opinion. It was an education for many Americans to read about “ignorant, foreign” mill girls carrying signs that said: “We Want Bread And Roses, Too.”
The employers played into Haywood’s hands. National Guardsmen were called out. Police arrested more than three hundred workers and, in a climax of stupidity, clubbed a group of mothers and children preparing to leave town by railroad for foster homes. In defiance of the evidence, Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, another Italian organizer, were arrested as accessories in the shooting of a woman striker. Authorities held them for seven months before a trial. When it came, it not only let the two men go free but gave Giovannitti a chance to spellbind jury and reporters with an oration on behalf of “this mighty army of the working class of the world, which … is striving towards the destined goal, which is the emancipation of human kind, which is the establishment of love and brotherhood and justice for every man and every woman in this earth.”
Long before that speech, in March of 1912, the bosses had given up and agreed to the strikers’ terms. It was the I.W.W.’s finest hour up to then. Flushed with success, the One Big Union next answered the call of silk workers at Paterson, New Jersey, to lead them in a strike that began in February, 1913. The pattern of Lawrence seemed at first to be repeating. There were nearly fifteen hundred arrests, and in addition police and private detectives killed two workers by random gunfire. One of these, Valentino Modesto, was given a funeral at which twenty thousand workers filed by to drop red carnations on the coffin. But after five months even relief funds and singing rallies could not prevail over hunger. The strike was broken.
Not, however, before it produced a unique project and a strange alliance. One of the reporters who came to Paterson on an April day was John Reed—talented, charming, Harvard ’10—who was enjoying life to the hilt in the Bohemian surroundings of Greenwich Village, then in its heyday. When Reed stopped to talk to a striker, a Paterson policeman on the lookout for “agitators” hustled him off to jail. There he stayed for four days, sharing smokes and food with the strikers and amiably teaching them college fight songs and French ballads in return for instruction in the arts of survival in prison. On his release he became an enthusiastic supporter of the embattled workers and brought such friends as Mabel Dodge, Hutchins Hapgood, Walter Lippmann, Lincoln Steffens, and others to hear Haywood and other Wobbly leaders speak.
Between the individualistic rebelliousness of the young artists and writers escaping their bourgeois backgrounds and the hard-shelled but dream-drenched radicalism of the I.W.W. leaders, there was instinctive connection. Reed conceived the idea of a giant fundraising pageant to present the strikers’ case. On June 7, thousands of silk workers came into New York by special train and ferry and marched to Madison Square Garden. There they watched hundreds of fellow strikers re-enact the walkout, the shooting of Modesto, his funeral, and the mass meetings that followed. Staged by Reed’s Harvard friend Robert Edmund Jones against a backdrop created by the artist John Sloan, the pageant was described by Outlook as having “a directness, an intensity, and a power seldom seen on the professional stage.” Since it ran for only one night, it failed to earn any money beyond expenses, despite a full house. Yet as a moment of convergence in the currents of radicalism vitalizing American life and letters in the last days of prewar innocence, it has a historic place of its own.
The Lawrence and Paterson affairs were only forays, however. The I.W.W. ran strikes and kept footholds in the East—the dockworkers of Philadelphia were firmly organized in the I.W.W.-affiliated Marine Transport Workers Union, for example—but it lacked staying power in the settled industrial areas. As it moved into its peak years, the future of the One Big Union was in the West, where its message and tactics were suited to the style of migrant workers, and to the violent tempo of what Elizabeth Flynn recalled as “a wild and rugged country where both nature and greed snuffed out human life.”
Here, in the mountains and forests, were men who needed protection even more than the unskilled rubber, textile, steel, and clothing workers receiving I.W.W. attention—men like the “timber beasts,” who worked in the freezing woods from dawn to dusk and then “retired” to vermin-ridden bunkhouses, without washing facilities, where they were stacked in double tiers like their own logs. The companies did not even furnish bedding, and a lumberjack between jobs was recognizable by his roll of blankets—his “bundle,” “bindle,” or “balloon”—slung on his back. The bindle stiff who “played the woods,” however, was only one member of an army of migrant workers, as many as a half million strong, who as the cycle of each year turned followed the harvests, the construction jobs, the logging operations, and the opening of new mines. Sometimes they got a spell of sea life in the forecastle of a merchant ship; often they wintered in the flophouses of Chicago or San Francisco; and not infrequently they spent the out-of-season months in jail on charges of vagrancy. The public mind blurred them together, and made no distinction among hoboes, bums, and tramps, assuming them all to be thieves, drunkards, and panhandlers. But the true migrant was none of these. He was a “working stiff,” emphasis on the first word, and thus ripe for the tidings of class war.
The I.W.W. reached him where he lived: in the hobo “jungles” outside the rail junction points, where he boiled stew in empty tin cans, slept on the ground come wind, come weather, and waited to hop a freight bound in any direction where jobs were rumored to be. The Wobblies sent in full-time organizers, dressed in the same caps and windbreakers, but with pockets full of red membership cards, dues books and stamps, subscription blanks, song sheets, pamphlets. These job delegates signed up their men around the campfires or in the boxcars (“side-door Pullmans” the migrants called them), mailed the money to headquarters, and then followed their recruits to the woods, or to the tents in the open fields where the harvest stiffs unrolled their bindles after twelve hours of work in hundred-degree heat without water, shade, or toilets. But there were some whom the organizers could not reach, and the I.W.W. sent them messages in the form of “stickerettes.” These “silent agitators” were illustrated slogans on label-sized pieces of gummed paper, many of them drawn by Ralph Chaplin. They sold for as little as a dollar a thousand, and Chaplin believed that in a few weeks a good “Wob” on the road could plaster them on “every son-of-a-bitch of a boxcar, watertank, pick handle and pitchfork” within a radius of hundreds of miles.
The stickers were simple and caught the eye. “What Time Is It? Time to Organize!” shouted a clock. “Solidarity Takes the Whole Works” explained a Bunyan-sized workingman with an armload of trains and factories. The three stars of the One Big Union (Organization, Education, Emancipation) winked bright red over a black and yellow earth. A “scissorbill”—a workingman without class loyalty—knelt on bony knees and snuffled to the sky, “Now I get me up to work, I pray the Lord I may not shirk.” But the most fateful stickers to appear between 1915 and 1917, as the nation moved toward war, were those that urged: “ SLOW DOWN. The hours are long, the pay is small, so take your time and buck them all”; and those on which appeared two portentous symbols: the wooden shoe of sabotage, and the black cat, which, as everybody knew, meant trouble.
A tough problem for the I.W.W. was how to achieve “direct action” in the migrant workers’ spread-eagle world. A factory or a mine could be struck. But how could the I.W.W.’s farmhands’ union, the Agricultural Workers’ Organization, “strike” a thousand square miles of wheatfield divided among hundreds of farmer-employers? How could the Forest and Lumber Workers’ Industrial Union tie up a logging operation spread among dozens of camps separated by lonely miles?
The answer was, as the Wobblies put it, “to bring the strike to the job,” or, more bluntly, sabotage. To the average American, sabotage conjured up nightmares of violence to property: barns blazing in the night, crowbars twisting the steel and wire guts out of a machine. The word itself suggested a European tradition of radical workers’ dropping their sabots , or wooden shoes, into the works. But the I.W.W. leaders insisted that they had something less destructive in mind—merely the slowdown, the “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency,” or, in working-stiff terms, “poor pay, poor work.” To “put on the wooden shoe,” or to “turn loose the black kitty” or “sab-cat,” meant only to misplace and misfile order slips, to “forget” to oil motors, to “accidentally” let furnaces go out. Or simply to dawdle on the job and let fruit rot on the ground or let threshing or logging machinery with steam up stand idle while farmers and foremen fumed.
I.W.W. headquarters was vague about where the limits to direct action lay. Nor did it help matters when it printed dim, oracular pronouncements like Bill Haywood’s “Sabotage means to push back, pull out or break off the fangs of Capitalism.” Such phrases were enough to frighten not only the capitalists, but the Socialists, who in their 1912 convention denied the red sacraments to any who advocated “crime, sabotage or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation.” (The next year, the Socialists fired Haywood from the party’s executive board, completing the divorce between the Wobblies and politics.) Still the I.W.W. leaders in the field pushed ahead with their tactics. The Agricultural Workers, to strengthen the threat of mass quittings by harvest hands, organized a “thousand-mile picket line” of tough Wobblies who worked their way through freight trains in the farm belt, signing up new members and unceremoniously dumping off any “scissorbills” or “wicks” who refused a red card. The Lumber Workers forced the camp owners to furnish clean bedding by encouraging thousands of lumberjacks to celebrate May Day, 1918, by soaking their bindles with kerosene and making huge bonfires of them.
Potentially such tactics were loaded with danger, but from 1913 to 1919 they worked. Ralph Chaplin estimated that in early spring of 1917, when the A.W.O. was signing up members at the rate of 5,000 a month, the going wage in the grain belt had jumped from two dollars for a twelve-to-sixteen-hour day to five dollars for a ten-hour day. Two years later northwestern loggers were averaging twenty-five to fifty dollars a month plus board. These facts meant more to the average reader of Solidarity and the Industrial Worker than I.W.W. theories about the overthrow of capitalism. If he thought about the shape of society after the final general strike, it was only in the vague way of a church deacon who knew there was a celestial crown reserved for him, but did not trouble his mind about it from day to day. Yet the very success of the organization anywhere stirred not only the anger of its enemies but the fears of unsophisticated Americans who were ready to believe that the Wobblies were already putting the torch to the foundations of government and justice. With war hysteria actively feeding the fires of public hostility, the I.W.W. became the victim of new and spectacular persecutions.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the blood of martyrs would splash the pages of the IW.W.’s book of chronicles. The mine owners, lumber-camp operators, and ranchers whom the Wobblies fought were themselves hard, resourceful men who had mastered a demanding environment. They knew a challenge when they saw one, and the West, in 1915, was not too far past Indian, stagecoach, and vigilante days. Sheriffs and their deputies were ready to use any method to rid their communities of “agitators”—especially those described in the press as “America’s cancer sore.” The Los Angeles Times, for example, said that
A vast number of I.W.W.’s are non-producers. I.W.W. stands for I won’t work, and I want whisky.… The average Wobbly, it must be remembered, is a sort of half wild animal. He lives on the road, cooks his food in rusty tin cans … and sleeps in “jungles,” barns, outhouses, freight cars … They are all in all a lot of homeless men wandering about the country without fixed destination or purpose, other than destruction.
“When a Wobbly comes to town,” one sheriff told a visitor, “I just knock him over the head with a night stick and throw him in the river. When he comes up he beats it out of town.” Lawmen furnished similar treatment to any hobo or “undesirable” stranger, particularly if he showed a tendency to complain about local working conditions or if, after April 6, 1917, he did not glow with the proper enthusiasm for the war to end wars. Hundreds of suspected and genuine Wobblies were jailed, beaten, shot, and tortured between 1914 and 1919, but some names and episodes earned, by excess of horror or myth-creating power, a special framing among dark memories.
There was the case of Joe Hill. He was the most prolific of the Wobbly bards; the dozens of numbers he composed while drifting from job to job after his emigration from Sweden to America (where his name transformed itself from Haaglund into Hillstrom and then into plain Hill) had done much to make the I.W.W. a singing movement. His songs had, a recent Wobbly folklorist has written, “tough, humorous, skeptical words which raked American morality over the coals.” They were known and sung wherever Wobblies fought cops and bosses.
In January, 1914, Salt Lake City police arrested Hill on the charge of murdering a grocer and his son in a holdup. Circumstantial evidence was strongly against him, but Hill went through trial and conviction stoutly insisting that he had been framed. Though a popular ballad written many years afterward intones, “The copper bosses killed you, Joe,” Hill was not definitely linked to any strike activity in Utah, and had been in the I.W.W. for only four years. But his songs had made him a hero to the entire radical labor movement, and he had a sure sense of drama. Through months of appeals and protest demonstrations he played—or lived—the role of Pilate’s victim magnificently. On November 18, 1915, the day before a five-man firing squad shot him dead, he sent to Bill Haywood, in Chicago, a classic telegram: “Goodbye, Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning. Organizel” Thirty thousand people wept at his funeral. At his own request, his ashes were put in small envelopes and distributed to be scattered, the following May Day, in every state of the Union.
And there was the “Everett massacre.” On October 30, 1916, forty-one Wobblies had travelled from Seattle to Everett, Washington, some forty miles away, to speak on behalf of striking sawmill workers. Vigilantes under Sheriff Donald McRae arrested them, took them to the edge of town, and forced them to run the gantlet between rows of deputies armed with clubs, pick handles, and bats. Next morning the grass was stiff with dried blood. Five days later, two steamer loads of I.W.W. members sailed up Puget Sound from Seattle for a meeting of protest. As they approached the Everett docks, singing “Hold the Fort for We Are Coming,” the sheriff and his men were waiting. They opened up with a hail of gunfire, and five Wobblies were killed, thirty-one wounded; in the confused firing, two vigilantes were also killed. Seventy-four Wobblies were arrested and tried for these two deaths but were acquitted. No one was tried for killing the I.W.W. men.
The following summer Frank Little, a member of the I.W.W. executive board, died violently in Butte, Montana. Little was a dark-haired man, with only one good eye and a crooked grin. He was part Indian, and liked to josh friends like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Bill Haywood by saying: “I am a real Red. The rest of you are immigrants.” In June, with his leg in a cast from a recent auto accident, he left Chicago headquarters for Butte to take command of the copper miners’ strike, denounced by the mine owners as a pro-German uprising. On the night of August 1, 1917, six armed and masked men broke into his hotel room and dragged him at a rope’s end behind an automobile to a railroad trestle, from which he was hanged, cast and all. No arrests were made by Butte police.
As a final gruesome example, there was what happened in Centralia, Washington, on Armistice Day, 1919. An American Legion parade halted before the town’s I.W.W. hall, long denounced as a center of seditious efforts to stir lumberjacks to wartime strikes and already once raided and wrecked by townsmen. Now, again, a group of men broke from the line of march and swarmed toward the building. The Wobblies inside were waiting. Simultaneous shots from several directions shattered the air; three legionnaires fell dead. The marchers broke in, seized five men, and pursued a sixth. He was Wesley Everest, a young logger and war veteran. He killed another legionnaire before they captured him and dragged him, with his teeth knocked out, to jail. That night a mob broke in and took Everest to a bridge over the Chehalis River. There he allegedly was castrated with a razor and then hanged from the bridge in the glare of automobile headlights.
The hand of history struck the I.W.W. its hardest blow, however, in September of 1917. The United States government moved to cripple the One Big Union, not because it was a threat to capitalism (the government insisted, without convincing the Wobblies) but because it was impeding the prosecution of the war. Whereas Samuel Gompers had moved skillfully to entrench the A.F.L. deeper in the hearts of the middle class by pledging it fully to Wilson’s crusade, the I.W.W. remained hostile. In its eyes, the only war that meant anything to a working stiff was that foretold in the preamble, between the millions who toiled and the few who had the good things of life. Wobblies had seen too many strikes broken by troops to warm to the sight of uniforms. “Don’t be a soldier,” said one popular stickerette, “be a man.”
The General Executive Board knew the dangers of that position once war was declared. The members hedged on expressing any formal attitude toward America’s entry, and when the draft was enacted, the board advised them to register as “I.W.W. opposed to war” and thereafter to consult their own consciences. (Wesley Everest had been one of many Wobblies who chose uniformed service.) But the militant I.W.W. campaigns were frank challenges to the official drive for production. Five months after the declaration of war, federal agents, under emergency legislation, suddenly descended on I.W.W. offices all over the country. They confiscated tons of books, newspapers, letters, and pamphlets—as well as wall decorations, mimeograph machines, and spittoons—as evidence, then returned to remove Wobbly officials handcuffed in pairs.
The biggest trial of Wobblies on various counts of obstructing the war effort took place in federal district court in Chicago in the summer of 1918. Relentlessly the prosecutors drew around one hundred defendants a net of rumors and accusations charging them with conspiring to burn crops, drive spikes in logs, derail trains, dynamite factories. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (later to be famous as professional baseball’s “czar”) presided in shirt-sleeved informality over the hot courtroom as, day after day, government attorneys read into the record every savory piece of I.W.W. prose or verse from which such phrases as “direct action” and “class war” could be speared and held up for horrified scrutiny. The jury took less than an hour to consider thousands of pages of evidence and hundreds of separate alleged offenses, and returned against all but a handful of the defendants a predictable wartime verdict of “guilty” on all counts. The white-thatched Judge Landis handed out sentences running as high as twenty years, as if he were in magistrate’s court consigning the morning quota of drunks to thirty days each.
The 1918 federal trials (which were followed by similar episodes in a number of states that hastily enacted laws against “criminal syndicalism”) were a downward turning point for the I.W.W. In theory, the One Big Union was wholly responsive to its rank and file, and invulnerable to the destruction of its bureaucracy. (The fact was that it made valorous efforts to keep its officialdom humble. As general secretary-treasurer, Bill Haywood received thirty-five dollars a week—just twice what a field organizer took home.) But democratic enthusiasm could not override the fact that the veteran officers and keenest minds of the I.W.W. were behind bars, and their replacements were almost totally absorbed in legal maneuvers to get them out. A pathetic Wobbly fundraising poster compressed the truth into a single line under a picture of a face behind bars: “We are in here for you; you are out there for us.” In 1920 there might still have been fifty thousand on the I.W.W. rolls, but they were riding a rudderless craft.
Other troubles beset the One Big Union. The Communist party rose on the scene and sucked into its orbit some respected veterans, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (though she had left the I.W.W. in 1916) and William D. Haywood himself. Released from Leavenworth while his case was on appeal, Big Bill jumped bail and early in 1921 fled to the Soviet Union. Forgivably and understandably, perhaps, his courage had at last been shaken. He was fifty-one years old, seriously ill, and certain that he would die—with profit to no cause—if he had to spend any more time in jail. He was briefly publicized in Russia as a refugee from capitalism. He married a Russian woman, and for a time held a job as one of the managers of an industrial colony in the Kuznetsk Basin. But soon there was silence, and rumors of disillusionment. In May of 1928 he died. Half his ashes were sent to Chicago for burial. The other half lie under the Kremlin wall—like those of his old friend of Paterson days, John Reed (see “The Harvard Man in the Kremlin Wall” in the February, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE). By and large, however, Bolshevik politicians had as little appeal for old-time Wobblies as any other kind. (Yet in 1948 the leadership of what was left of the organization refused to sign Taft-Hartley non-Communist affidavits. No contract, and no deals with bourgeois governments. Principle was principle still.)
More cracks crisscrossed the surface of solidarity. Some of the more successful I.W.W. unions experienced a yearning for larger initiation fees, and for just a taste of the financial stability of the A.F.L. internationals—the stability which had never been a Wobbly strong point. They quarrelled with the General Executive Board. A few locals chafed under what they thought was too much centralization. And finally, in 1924, there was an open split and a secession of part of the organization, taking precious funds and property with it. The last great schism, in 1908, had freed the I.W.W. for vigorous growth. Now it was sixteen years later, and time and chance were playing cruel games.
Middle age was overtaking the young lions, dulling their teeth—especially those who, one by one, accepted individual offers of clemency and emerged from prison, blinking, to find a changed world. The harvest stiff no longer took the side-door Pullman. He was a “gas tramp” now, or a “flivver hobo,” riding his battered Model T to the job, and beyond the reach of the thousand-mile picket line. The logger, too, was apt to be a “home-guard,” living with his family and driving through the dawn hours to where the saws whined and the big ones toppled. The children of the sweated immigrants of Paterson and Lawrence were clutching their high school diplomas, forgetting their working-class background, becoming salesmen and stenographers. Even the worker who stayed in the mill or the mine was sometimes lulled into passivity by the squealing crystal set or the weekly dream-feast of the picture-show. The ferment in the unskilled labor pool was hissing out. A new society was being built; but Ford and the installment plan had more to do with it than the visionaries who had hotly conceived and lustily adopted the I.W.W. preamble of 1905.
There was some fight left in the old outfit. It could run a free-speech fight in San Pedro in 1923, a coal strike in Colorado in 1927–28. But it was dwindling and aging. When the Depression came, labor’s dynamism was reawakened by hardship. The C.I.O. was created, and fought its battles under the pennons of “industrial unionism,” the heart of the Wobbly plan for organizing the army of production. The C.I.O. used singing picket lines, too, and sit-down strikes—techniques pioneered by such men as Haywood and Vincent St. John when labor’s new leaders were in knickers. The old-timers who had known Big Bill and The Saint could only look on from the sidelines as the younger generation took over. Moreover, the success of organizing drives in the thirties, and the programs of the New Deal, vastly improved the lot of millions of working people. The agony that had nourished the I.W.W.’s revolutionary temper was now abating. Ironically, the very success of labor in uplifting itself through collective bargaining and politics drove one more nail into the I.W.W.’s coffin.
But “coffin” is perhaps the wrong word. Like Joe Hill, the I.W.W. never died. In its offices scattered across the country, old-timers still sit and smoke under pictures of Frank Little and Wesley Everest, or leaf through copies of the Industrial Worker like the great readers they always were. They do not give up; they expect that history will knock some sense into the workers soon, and that then the cry of “One Union, One Label, One Enemy” will rise again from thousands of throats. But meanwhile, their offices are, in the words of a recent observer, haunted halls, “full of memories and empty of men.”
By contrast, the steel and glass office buildings of the bigtime A.F.L.-C.I.O. unions are alive with the ring of telephones, the hum of presses, the clatter of typewriters, and the clicking of secretaries’ heels hurrying through the doors behind which sit organized labor’s well-dressed statisticians, economists, lawyers, accountants, editors, co-ordinators, and educators. They have given much to their workers, these unions —good wages, decent hours, vacations, benefits, pensions, insurance. But they may be incapable of duplicating two gifts that the I.W.W. gave its apostles, its knights, its lovers—gifts that shine through a pair of stories. One is of the sheriff who shouted to a group of Wobblies, “Who’s yer leader?” and got back a bellowed answer, “We don’t got no leader, we’re all leaders.” The other is a recollection by an unidentified witness at the Chicago trial:
Well, they grabbed us. And the deputy says, “Are you a member of the I.W.W.?” I says, “Yes,” so he asked me for my card, and I gave it to him, and he tore it up. He tore up the other cards that the fellow members along with me had. So this fellow member says, “There is no use tearing that card up. We can get duplicates.” “Well,” the deputy says, “We can tear the duplicates too.” And this fellow worker says, he says, “Yes, but you can’t tear it out of my heart.”