When Being Leftist in this Country Meant Risking Ones Life and Livelihood

A Socialist rally on May Day 1912 in New York's Union SquareLibrary of Congress

Jacobin - December 9, 2019

"One Big Union—that is their crime. That is why the IWW {International Workers of the World} is on trial. In the end, just such an ideal shall sap and crumble down capitalist society. If there were a way to kill these men, capitalist society would clearly do it; as it killed Frank Little, for example — and before him, Joe Hill . . . So, the outcry of the jackal press, “German agents! Treason!” — that the IWW may be lynched on a grand scale."

“To be a red in the summer of 1919 was worse than being a Hun in the summer of 1917,” wrote John Dos Passos in 1919, his novel of the war years. The nation was war-weary as the year began, still reeling from the deadly influenza — the “Spanish flu.” It yearned and deserved “normalcy,” politicians argued — a return to the familiar, to a rural America, to a country of farms, small towns, and the leafy prosperity of the new suburbs. It wanted to leave behind the battlefields and bloody revolutions of the old world.

Yet the Armistice celebrations — enormous and near universal in the United States — had hardly stilled when that “normal” was erased and new disputes emerged, exposing deep fissures that presaged an extraordinary year to come. On November 11, 1918, clothing workers in New York began a general strike, demanding a forty-four-hour workweek and wage increases. They were joined on picket lines by returning soldiers and sailors. Scarcely a month had passed, and far across the continent, shipyard workers in Seattle voted to strike, rejecting the wage offers of wartime government regulators.

And strike they did, clearing the way for the Seattle General Strike, the first and only one of its kind in the United States, challenging not just managerial authority but civil as well. For a full week in February, committees of ordinary workers saw to it that the sick were cared for, that the garbage was collected, that babies got their milk, and that there was order on the streets.

Seattle was just the beginning. Workers’ moods had shifted steadily to the left. They were moved by the new radicalism of the times, not just in the United States but internationally. New solidarities had been constructed, ethnic isolation had diminished, and appetites had enlarged. Conflicts spilled out of the workplace and into working-class neighborhoods. At the same time, the mainstream American Federation of Labor was confronted as increasing numbers of workers came to reject its traditions and practice — conservatism, collaboration with employers and the state, and strict insistence on the sanctity of contracts and the authority of trade union leaders.

All this came to a head in 1919, a year like none other. Some3,630 strikes were recorded, involving 4.6 million workers. In the wake of the Seattle walkout, four harbor-wide longshoremen’s strikes broke out in New York, the last tying up shipping for six weeks. The year ended with national walkouts of coal miners and steel workers, the latter one of the largest US strikes ever: 375,000. The Open Shop Review, an organ of the employers’ associations, insisted it was an attempt by foreigners, “Bolsheviks and anarchists,” to destroy the government. In Pittsburgh, representatives of the Interchurch World Movement investigating the steel strike indeed found “the Slavic workers were radical and impatient with the conservative pleas of their leaders,” though they were neither Wobblies nor anarchists. The national coal strike was settled in November, but conflict continued in southern coalfields, culminating in insurrection in the armed march of 10,000 miners into Logan County, West Virginia — the “Battle of Blair Mountain.”

This was not what employers wanted, not what they had fought for, even as, for the most part, they were still winning. There were cracks in American society in 1919 — perhaps even large enough to be expected — but this was a chasm, and a living affront in the boardrooms and residential districts of the Babbitts of the land.

Employers were intent on rolling back wartime concessions to workers — above all, wherever they had won the eight-hour day and the union shop. Countless employers’ associations were reborn or rebounded, and myriad employment plans were produced, all of which came under the umbrella of the “American Plan.” The American Plan revived the “open shop” strategies of the 1910s, based on the idea that strikes were illegal and trade unions were “un-American.” In 1919, this was revised: now it was the reds. The “Red Scare” and the Palmer Raids would follow — along with the infamous Centralia incident.

The Wobblies

Dos Passos was quite right to point out the lumbermen and their war with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies). The Wobblies, always a minority within the labor movement, were in many ways the heart and soul of that movement. They believed that when the day came, “control of industry would pass from the capitalists to the masses and the capitalists will vanish from the face of the earth.” The workers would then possess the machinery of production and distribution, enabling them to create “a new society without poverty, police, jails, armies, churches . . . blessed with freedom and abundance.”

But they were trade unionists as well. They championed industrial unions, direct action, the strike; they savaged “business unionism” and the racism of the AFL unions. They organized Mexican copper miners in Arizona and black Louisiana timber workers; their leadership included Ben Fletcher, the black Philadelphia longshoreman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Irish firebrand, and Frank Little, the western organizer who self-identified as American Indian.

The Wobblies gave as good as they got. Their victory in the Spokane free speech fight helped make the Pacific Northwest a stronghold, with Seattle as base camp. They fought on dozens of fronts, leading many of the biggest strikes of the period despite numbering about 200,000. One of their greatest victories came in the 1917 strike in timber — some 50,000 loggers and mill workers struck for and won the eight-hour day. ...
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