Chapter 14 : Early Champions of the Common Man
Bread upon the Waters
Early Champions of the Common Man
TRADITION DOMINATED organized labor in Seattle, which was living largely on its past. The high point of its history seemed to be the great general strike in February, 1919, in which 60,000 men and women in 110 unions quit work. The city then had a population of 315,000. That strike was voted by the Central Labor Council, a unique body with a revolutionary background unknown in the rest of the States.
The council was an open forum where any subject could get a hearing and a vote. Thus the general strike, as a class-war weapon, was discussed on the CLC floor as early as 1903, and the council had endorsed industrial unionism in 1909, its delegates being instructed to sponsor it on the floor of the A F of L national convention that year.
All industrial activity in Seattle was stopped by the general strike of 1919. Technically, it was voted in support of a walk-out by the shipyard workers of Seattle and Tacoma, 30 miles south, who wanted guarantees against unemployment and wage-cuts following World War I. But the unions which had pushed the demand for a city-wide tie-up had been stirred into action largely by the passage of a criminal syndicalism law over the Governor's veto; they knew well that this would be used as a legal club against outspoken union members. The militant locals, too, had been inspired by the recent Russian Revolution; a month earlier the Metal Trades Council had set up a Soldiers, Sailors, and Workmen's Council, after the manner of the Russians, to aid demobilized war veterans in finding work.
Across the land, editorial writers and orators cried out that revolution had begun in Seattle. They foresaw a reign of terror and bloodshed; and perhaps some were disappointed at the lack of violence. Many of the alarmists called this "an IWW strike." Yet the Industrial Workers of the World had no part in bringing it about nor in conducting it, though some of its units actively supported it. A F of L unions were responsible for the whole action.
A general committee of 300, designated by the Central Labor Council, in turn appointed a committee of 15, which directed all operations in the general strike. Unionists without guns served as auxiliary police, and arrests even for misdemeanors were markedly fewer than in ordinary times. This strike was a mighty demonstration of working class solidarity and orderly procedure. It lasted five days.
In the CLC there were two distinct factions÷the conservative old-timers who had urged a stoppage limited to 24 or 48 hours, and the left-wing groups, who were actuated more by emotion than by reason.
Ole Hanson, flag-waving mayor, was widely credited ou`tside of Seattle with breaking the strike through threats of martial law. Actually however, it disintegrated and was officially called off because the committee in charge, dominated by the militants, had no concrete objectives, no practicable plan for carrying action further. That failure was a set-back from which the Seattle labor movement did not recover until the CIO came into the picture.
More than 35 years before "the Century of the Common Man" was spot-lighted in the speeches of a Vise-President of the United States, and long before the CIO was thought of, the Industrial Workers of the World aggressively championed the cause of the great mass of humans symbolized in that phrase.
The IWW was founded in Chicago in 1905, at a congress of some 200 radicals, who included Eugene Debs, Daniel De Leon, Mother Mary Jones, Lucy Parsons, widow of one of the Haymarket defendants, Father Thomas Hagerty, Catholic priest and social crusader, and Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners. They were concerned with organizing the nation's unskilled and migratory labor, that hitherto neglected multitude of workers, together with the skilled trades, into a mighty revolutionary union, built on industrial instead of on craft lines.
"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common," the IWW's flaming Preamble proclaimed. "There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among the millions of working people, and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life.
"Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.* . . . By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old."
Those sentiments attracted a fearless company of zealots, men used to hardship,who went forth as organizers of the workers farthest down. For the most part, they headed West, to reach the throngs that labored in the agricultural fields, the orchards, the lumber woods, the metal mines, the canneries, on big construction jobs, on merchant ships, and on the water-fronts. Some, too, went East, to line up workers in the textile mills, making spectacular forays there. Others busied themselves among the sailors on the Great Lakes, in the metal manufacturing trades, and in the rubber industry.
These organizers were not a class apart, but members who felt the urge to line up others. They served as volunteers, being paid nothing by the organization, and made their own living by working "at the point of production," which gave them close contact with those they organized.
Traveling as did migratory workers generally÷on night freight trains, in box cars, on top, or on the rods beneath÷they had to keep on guard constantly against railroad police and hijackers. Usually, however, the trainmen, unionists themselves, were friendly to any traveler who carried a "red card." By day the IWW emissaries stopped to cook meals and wash their linen in some "jungle," usually alongside a railroad and on the bank of a creek or river a little way out of a town. Here, too, they would get some sleep in a lean-to or other shelter.
Spoken of as "Wobblies" by their enemies, supposedly to indicate instability, they ignored the derisive implication and adopted that term as a convenient handle.
In the brief span of its life, the IWW produced men who became internationally known and whose names were torches of inspiration in many lands. Most of them paid a high price for their fame, some with their lives.
Frank Little and Wesley Everest were Iynched. Joe Hill, the poet and song-writer, was executed. Bill Haywood, out of prison on bail while his war-time conviction was being appealed, was persuaded by New York. Communists that world revolution was just around the corner and that he was needed in it. He skipped bail and fled to Russia, only to be relegated to the sidelines, and to die there a broken man.
Richard Ford and William Suhr spent years in prison, solely because of speeches, alleged to have incited a killing committed in the course of a riot among terribly exploited workers in the California hop fields. Carlo Tresca, many times jailed in strikes and often in danger of death, survived to the age of sixty-four; then, after long anti-Fascist activity, he was assassinated in 1943 in the New York City dim-out. Ironically, he did not live to see the downfall of Mussolini, which came only six months later.
The IWW was much more of a revolutionary organization than a labor union÷and frankly so. Its Preamble appeared in every issue of its various newspapers, pamphlets, and other publications, and its literature had the great virtue of simplicity.
Open forums in the Wobbly halls, scattered through cities and towns from coast to coast, helped to make clear to new members what the organization was fighting for. And it had one educational center where organizers were trained÷the Work Peoples' College in Duluth. The ordinary Wobbly was uneducated, except for what he had learned by reading IWW literature or listening to speeches by its organizers. But he had a feeling that something was coming to him in life. Ignored by the big craft labor unions, he clung to the IWW, the "One Big Union," as his only protection. Its pamphlets and books and newspapers in various languages explained in simple words the value of industrial unionism. The rank-and-file had a clear example of craft union weakness when, for instance, in railroad strikes, where the shopmen walked out because of deep grievances the enginemen, firemen, and trainmen kept on working and involuntarily helped break the strike of their own brothers.
The "little red song book" was the Wobbly's Bible, and every IWW hall rang out with lusty male voices singing Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, which satirically glorified the lot of the migratory worker; Casey Jones, an IWW version; The Red Flag; Workingmen, Unite! and a host of others.
It was characteristic of IWW meetings that after the last speech had ended and the applause had died down, the audience would break up into circles, to continue discussing the subject, and later each circle would sing its favorite song. Gradually the circles would merge, and finally each man present, his arms over another's shoulders, would join in Joe Hill's best-known ballad, The Preacher and the Slave, a take-off on the street-corner revival hymn, In the Sweet Bye and Bye:
Long-haired preachers come out every night, Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right; When you ask them for something to eat They will answer with voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye In that glorious land above the sky; Work and pray, live on hay, You'll get pie in the sky when you die.
Immediately after the Seattle general strike a state-wide drive against labor radicals was begun, with the IWW as principal target. The new criminal syndicalism law was brought into play, and many Wobblies were sent to prison solely for membership, on the testimony of stool-pigeons who had joined the organization, and who volunteered "admissions" of acts of arson and sabotage. Similar prosecutions followed in Oregon and California.
These drives were designed to corral any articulate IWW organizers who might have sprung up since the imprisoning of 225 of its leaders. convicted in three big trials in Illinois, Kansas, and California, because of their opposition to the United States entering World War I.
From the beginning of their activities in the Northwest, the Wobblies were hated, feared, and bitterly opposed by the big industrial interests in Seattle and the surrounding country. All that opposition was a challenge to them. They fought courageously and doggedly to change the condition of the migratory workers. They had forced wages up in the agricultural and construction fields. But it was in the lumber woods that they made their presence felt most.
Pay rates in the logging camps were low, hours long (a work-day of 11 or 12 hours was common), compensation for physical injuries non-existent. A man might be crippled by a falling tree, and then no longer could make a living. Bathing and laundry facilities were generally absent from the camps and the timber-workers had to sleep in vermin-ridden bunks. Often the food was monotonous and poorly cooked.
These men were of varying nationalities, a considerable percentage having Scandinavian parentage and some being French-Canadian, but the bulk of them were American-born. They were "womanless, homeless, and voteless." The policy of the employers generally was to hire unmarried men, preferably those with itching feet, who would not stay long on a job. Migration was encouraged by the foremen, who worked their men until they were too fatigued to continue; then others would be brought in to replace them.
In 1917 the IWW staged a vast strike in the Northwest lumber woods, which cut the work-day to eight hours and forced employers to put in decent sleeping quarters and sanitary facilities. That strike was poison to the timber barons because it reduced their profits at a time when they had a chance to make huge war fortunes. They dealt largely with spruce needed for Army airplanes, and the price of spruce had skyrocketed.
The Wobblies stood for direct action, and among their most effective tactics were the slow-down strike and the strike-on-the-job. The slow-down was a means of giving "little work for little pay," in contrast to the Samuel Gompers conception of "A fair day's work for a fair day's pay."
Peculiar to the IWW, the strike-on-the-job was used to excellent effect in the 1911 conflict in the lumber woods. After a few weeks many of the striking Wobblies had run out of money. To get a stake, groups of the strikers took jobs at lumber camps scattered through Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. They would work five days on an 11- or 12-hour basis. On the sixth day, at the end of eight hours, one of them would blow a whistle. All of his gang would instantly quit work, draw their pay, and move on to another camp, where they would repeat the process. This went on until the employers in despair conceded the eight-hour day to get production.
In retaliation, two Wobbly halls in Centralia, a timber-shipping town 90 miles south of Seattle, were raided and wrecked, one in 1918 by the tail-end of a Red Cross parade and the other on Armistice Day, 1919, by parading American Legionnaires. Warned that the second raid was coming, the IWW's appealed to the police for protection, got no satisfaction, and so prepared to defend their headquarters.
Gun-fire met the marchers as they broke down the union hall doors, and four Legionnaires were killed in the fighting which followed. Posses quickly hunted down and jailed dozens of IWW members. After dark, Wesley Everest, war veteran and one of the hall's defenders, was handed over to a party of local merchants, who emasculated him with a razor, hanged him from a river bridge, and shot his body full of holes.
No one was punished for that Iynching, but seven IWW's were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and were sentenced to 25 to 40 years in prison. Another, found insane by a jury, was held a few months in an asylum, and then was sent to join the others in the penitentiary.
The heyday of the IWW was a romantic period, ending with its ultimate aims÷industrial solidarity the world over and the social revolution÷still roseate dreams. In its early stages the Russian revolution inspired the Wobblies, but they were soon disheartened by ensuing developments in Russia÷the counter-revolution, supported by that nation's former Allies; the terror which inevitably followed; the one-party dictatorship; denial of civil liberties and of self-organization to working people.
Various forces, both external and internal, contributed to the disintegration of the Industrial Workers of the World÷ideological differences over the Russian situation, war trials, which left the organization leaderless, mass deportations, tarring and feathering off organizers, lynchings, jailings under the criminal syndicalism laws, and postwar unemployment, which invariably comes with demobilization.
But apart from these elements, the IWW was marked for failure because of fundamental weaknesses in tactics. Loosely organized, it never got a tangible hold on its membership; and contemptuous of the business world's methods, it had no signed contracts. Thus the gains it made through hard-fought strikes were necessarily only temporary. Its attitude toward the future, though idealistic, was visionary and not practical.
In justice be it said, however, that this courageous fighting organization served as a trail blazer for the CIO. The mistakes made by the IWW were many, and the Committee for Industrial Organization learned from it what pitfalls to avoid. Advantages won by the CIO for the workers in the mass production, migratory, lumber, agricultural, and unskilled fields, have been duly signed and sealed in air-. tight contracts. Moreover, the CIO appeared at a much more favorable time. It utilized the benefits of the pro-labor legislation enacted under the New Deal, while the IWW had no aid from law-makers.
To me, in 1935, Seattle was a union ghost town. Since 1919 labor there had moved like a sleep-walker. There had been strikes in the interim, yes, but, with the exception of the longshoremen's walkout in 1934, usually to little effect. Some had run on for months, even years, finally petering out like a stream of water flowing across desert sands. One strike of motion-picture operators continued for 13 years. It was settled during my stay.
Local technique puzzled me. A union would put a single picket with a banner, "This place is on strike," in front of a shop. After a few days, he would disappear. When I had seen this happen several times, I stepped into the office of one of the small unions, and asked if a certain shoe store strike had been settled.
"No," said the secretary, "we're out of money, so we couldn't pay the picket any longer." When the union was flush, it would assign another picket to duty.
Union officers, quartered in the Labor Temple, were largely of the type portrayed by cartoonists in the capitalist press÷chair-warmers and cigar-smokers. I learned that rank-and-file members were not encouraged to hang around the union offices. At meetings of locals the officers would take up routine matters÷reading of the local's minutes, CLC minutes, the local's correspondence, then adjournment. Dull proceedings, no new faces.
The only really animated labor scene in the Temple (apart from the gatherings of our own girls, who went on strike a little later and enlivened the whole building) was to be found in the Central Labor Council meetings, which still furnished an arena for verbal bouts and political contests. I remember particularly one stormy session there÷a fresh outbreak of an old jurisdictional wrangle. After many years the Brewery Workers' Union, industrial in form, had succeeded in affiliating with the CLC. Through all that time the Teamsters' Union had claimed the brewery wagon drivers, and got away with it.
On the night that the brewery union delegates were seated, they told how glad all their members were over making this new alliance, and promised to bring plenty of beer for everybody to the next CLC meeting.
But that celebration never took place. Dave Beck, president of the Seattle Teamsters' Joint Council, real boss of the CLC, and heir apparent to Dan Tobin, head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, had not been present when the brewery workers' delegation first appeared. As soon as he heard what had happened, he put his machine into motion.
At the next CLC session I sat in the front row with our delegates. When the secretary, calling the roll, reached the name of a brewery union man, Beck got up quickly from among the teamsters and objected loudly to the brewery workers' delegates being seated, on the ground that theirs was a dual union.
Almost instantly a free-for-all fight started. No free beer flowed that night, but blood flowed later, as an outcome of that clash. Soon the Teamsters' Union declared the Northwest Brewing Company unfair, and called a strike in its plant. The Northwest company had an agreement with the Brewery Workers' Union, which Beck did not recognize as a legitimate union contract.
Violent battles broke out between the beer-wagon drivers in the brewery union and the Teamsters' Union pickets. To protect the Northwest company's employes, thugs who had been "on guard" at the factories we were picketing were transferred there. Gun fights ensued, and four teamsters were killed. The dressmakers' local being affiliated with the CLC, I went with delegations to lay wreaths on their coffins. A deputized guard named Hiatt, who had been rough with our pickets, got a 10-year sentence as an accessory in one of those killings.
* In its original form, that Preamble called for the eventual coming together of all toilers on the political as well as on the industrial field, to "take and hold that which they produce by their labor...." Subsequently the political reference was dropped. Harrison Gray Otis, labor-hating editor of the Los Angeles Times, is said to have originated this label.
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