November: a bloody month in labor history

November 7th, 2005 by Julie Ferguson

If you’re a history buff, then this is a fitting month to root around in the Web’s labor archives since so many seminal events occurred in November. Plus, it just so happens that 2005 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Industrial Workers of the World, more commonly known as “the Wobblies.” My colleague Jon recently wrote a post about the curious juxtaposition of Starbucks vs. IWW, a seemingly anachronistic occurrence. In a similar vein, a recent article in The Toronto Star notes that The Wobblies are stirring and wonders if we need `one big union’ in the global village:
“At the turn of the last century, the very presence of radical giants like two-fisted Big Bill Haywood, social reformer Eugene Debs and silver-haired firebrand “Mother” Jones in one room was enough to make captains of industry gnaw their cigar ends with angst.
But to the latte-swilling, Wal-Mart-shopping, logo-sporting workers of today, the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World – a.k.a. the Wobblies – 100 years ago tomorrow, sounds, well, so awesomely over.
In an age of globalization, when the vast majority of the world’s underpaid, insecure and unemployed people live in conditions that wouldn’t have surprised Charles Dickens, the idea of an expansive cross-border labour movement to unite the workers of the world seems to have gone the way of the doily and the moustache cup.
The Wobblies were free-spirited, often transient, and dedicated to a large social vision,” says Craig Heron, professor of history at York University. “They carried around the union songbook in their back pockets.
Those days of zealous singsongs, all-night debates and pamphlets on the meaning of life as a labourer are light years away from today’s shrinking union population, beleaguered by globalization and bruised by layoffs, cutbacks and wage freezes. And for many of the world’s non-union workers, collective action is as distant, or irrelevant, as water on Mars.”

Talk of singsongs and the free-spiritedness of members might give a false impression of the times in which the Wobblies first made their debut. These events of by-gone Novembers offer a flavor of the era that gave rise to the labor movement:
November 5, 1916 – The Everett Massacre
The I.W.W. was particularly active in the Pacific Northwest in the early years of the last century. They planned a street-speaking event in Everett to show solidarity with striking shingle workers. About 300 members boarded two steamers, but as the boats approached the dock, shots rang out. “On the dock, deputies Jefferson Beard and Charles Curtis lay dying, and 20 others, including the sheriff, were wounded. On the Verona’s deck, Wobblies Hugo Gerlot, Abraham Rabinowitz, Gus Johnson and John Looney were dead and Felix Baran was dying. While the official I.W.W. toll was listed as 5 dead and 27 wounded, as many as 12 Wobblies probably lost their lives, their bodies surreptitiously recovered from the bay at a later date.” You can read more and view primary sources of the event at the Everett Public Library’s Digital Collection.
November 11, 1919 – Centralia Masacre
“On November 11, 1919, a gunbattle erupts during an Armistice Day parade of American Legionnaires in Centralia, leaving four dead and resulting in the lynching of one member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). World War I veterans and other Centralia citizens march on the local headquarters of the IWW, whose members anticipate an attack. Shots are fired, killing veterans Arthur McElfresh, Ben Casagranda, and Warren Grimm and wounding veterans John Watt, Bernard Eubanks, and Eugene Pfister. That night a mob removes imprisoned IWW member Wesley Everest, who was also a veteran, from the town jail and lynches him from the bridge over the Chehalis River.” The University of Washington Libraries offers a collection of primary sources.
November 19, 1915 – Joe Hill shot by firing squad
A labor activist and I.W.W. member, Joe Hill was a famous songwriter whose protest songs were highly popular with workers and a staple on picket lines. While he was in Salt Lake City to organize a strike, a former policeman was shot and killed. Joe was charged with the murder and shot by a firing squad. Protesting his innocence, he had this to say before his death:
“The main and only fact worth considering, however, is this: I never killed Morrison and do not know a thing about it. He was, as the records plainly show, killed by some enemy for the sake of revenge, and I have not been in the city long enough to make an enemy. Shortly before my arrest I came down from Park City; where I was working in the mines. Owing to the prominence of Mr. Morrison, there had to be a “goat” and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an I.W.W, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be “the goat”. I have always worked hard for a living and paid for everything I got, and in my spare time I spend by painting pictures, writing songs and composing music. Now, if the people of the state of Utah want to shoot me without giving me half a chance to state my side of the case, bring on your firing squads – I am ready for you. I have lived like an artist and I shall die like an artist.”
For more on Joe Hill, see the PBS biography, which includes links to song clips and lyrics.