Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

The Price of Dissent Testimonies to Political Repression in America

  • by Bud Schultz (Author)
  • November 2001
  • First Edition
  • Paperback
    $36.95,  £31.00
  • Title Details

    Rights: Available worldwide
    Pages: 479
    ISBN: 9780520224025
    Trim Size: 6 x 9
    Illustrations: 45 b/w photographs

Read Chapter 1
Part One

Subverting the Organization of Labor

The right of labor to organize without interference, coercion, and intimidation derives from the exercise of the rights of free speech, peaceable assembly, and freedom of the press enumerated in the Constitution of the United States.
La Follette Committee, U.S. Senate, 1939
The man was lying on the ground, defenseless. The policemen stood over him, beating his limp body with long clubs while fellow officers watched. This scene, captured on film, was one among many in South Chicago on Memorial Day 1937. The beatings—along with a barrage of tear gas and a hail of bullets—were part of an unprovoked police attack on workers who were striking against the Republic Steel Corporation.

Union members and their families and supporters had come that day to picnic and then to demonstrate before the struck plant. As the strikers and their wives and children marched, Chicago police began to advance toward them. "Then suddenly, without apparent warning, there is a terrific roar of pistol shots, and men in the front ranks of the marchers go down like grass before a scythe," the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported, describing a Paramount newsreel of the event that was not released to the public at the time.1 "Instantly police charge on the marchers with riot sticks flying. At the same time tear gas grenades are seen sailing into the mass of demonstrators, and clouds of gas rise over them." The police are "appallingly businesslike" in their attack; one strikes a marcher "horizontally across the face, using his club as he would wield a baseball bat. Another crashes it down on the top of his head, and still another is whipping him across the back." Ten workers were killed and ninety or more were wounded that day, in what came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre. Within weeks, more strikers were killed by police at Republic Steel plants in Ohio and Michigan.

Two years later, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, then chaired by Congressman Martin Dies, held hearings in Chicago to investigate Communist influence in the labor movement. (*Note: The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) has also been known as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and, after 1969, as the House Internal Security Committee (HISC). We have used the more common designation HUAC throughout.) The unwarranted police violence against strikers and the hearings of the congressional investigating committee stand as examples of two facets of the government's attack on labor. The Memorial Day Massacre was the culmination of sixty years of assaults by the armed forces of the government, a campaign conducted on behalf of employers in their disputes with workers over the right to representation and the often grievous conditions of work. The Dies Committee hearings were the renewal of an assault by the legislative and executive branches of the federal government on those within the labor movement who were said to harbor forbidden radical visions of America—an assault that would last another twenty years.

The Class War Against Labor

Whether they were lumberjacks of the Pacific Northwest; coal miners of Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Colorado; migrant farm laborers of Wheatland, California; or needle trades workers of New York City, their work early in the twentieth century was grueling and life-threatening. In the textile factories of Lawrence, Massachusetts, "thirty-six out of every hundred of all men and women who worked in the mills died before they were twenty-five years of age."2 At the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, one man a day on average was killed by the brutalizing pace of a giant, newly designed production line. To improve their conditions—indeed, to reclaim their humanity—American workers had no option but to act collectively, to unionize.

Success in attaining the right to union representation depended squarely on the efficacy of the workers' primary weapon: the strike. Undercutting strikes meant condemning workers to the absolute control of employers and to insufferable conditions on the job. Yet that was the practice of government in America for decades before the turn of the century and for at least three decades afterward. "The existing attitude of the courts and government officials," the congressional Commission on Industrial Relations wrote in 1916, "generally is that the entire machinery of the State should be put behind the strike breaker."3 Because that machinery included the various armed forces of the state, which the government was quick to deploy, violent conflict often broke out. In what could rightfully and literally be called a "class war," the government's alignment with one side doomed the other to defeat.

Louisiana timber workers, South Carolina textile workers, West Virginia coal miners, Pittsburgh steel workers, San Francisco dock workers, Minneapolis teamsters, Detroit auto workers, Chicago packinghouse workers were gunned down by local police, state constabularies, National Guardsmen, and federal troops. From 1877, the year of labor's Great Upheaval, when more than one hundred railway strikers and their supporters were killed by police, state militia, and the U.S. Army, to 1937, the year of the Memorial Day Massacre, the employers' privileged access to the power of the state was most dramatically evident in the form of military force.

But it was also evident in judicial decisions and legislative enactments. "During strikes," the Commission on Industrial Relations said, "innocent men are in many cases arrested without just cause, charged with fictitious crimes, held under excessive bail, and treated frequently with unexampled brutality for the purpose of injuring the strikers and breaking the strike." Employer groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers had succeeded, the commission reported, "in preventing the enactment of practically all legislation intended to improve the conditions or advance the interests of workers." The "economic bias" of the courts in labor disputes was evident in the "long list of statutes, city ordinances, and military orders abridging freedom of speech and press" that have "almost uniformly been upheld" and in the "injunctions [that] have in many cases inflicted grievous injury upon workmen."4

In extreme cases, employers enjoyed more than the privileged access to state power—they usurped state power. "We unearthed a system of despotic tyranny reminiscent of Czar-ridden Siberia at its worst," the New York Daily News wrote of Pennsylvania's coal patches and steel towns in 1925. "We found police brutality and industrial slavery."5 This assessment was confirmed by the La Follette Committee of the U.S. Senate a decade later. In company-owned and company-controlled towns, workers lived in conditions that approximated "industrial peonage." The police, paid by the companies but "vested with the authority of the State," were "used to abridge the constitutional rights of free speech and assembly and freedom of the press," the La Follette Committee added. "In times of strike these private armies have often assumed the attitude of the State toward a foreign enemy at war, or the attitude of public police toward criminals, shooting and killing union people in an effort to compel submission to the wishes of employers."6

In 1935, however, under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the passage of the Wagner Act shifted government away from its uncritical support of industry. This legislation guaranteed collective bargaining; barred unfair labor practices that interfered with workers' rights; outlawed industrial espionage, yellow-dog contracts (*Note: Under a yellow-dog contract, workers, in order to be hired, were required to sign a statement swearing that they would not join a union. After a Supreme Court decision in 1917 legalized yellow-dog contracts, all strikes by employees who had signed such statements became illegal. and employers could get injunctions forbidding union organizers from even speaking to those workers), blacklists, provocateurs, private police, and arms stockpiles—all powerful weapons in the employers' arsenal—and established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce the law's provisions and carry out the election of union representatives.

Corporations denounced the law and "recognized it only after a near-revolutionary wave of sit-down strikes rolled through mills and plants in 1936 and 1937."7 First at Goodyear Tire Company in Akron, Ohio, and then at General Motors in Flint, Michigan, workers put down their tools and occupied the stilled factories. They won a significant victory—union recognition—that energized spontaneous strikes elsewhere. Six thousand at Chrysler, twenty thousand at Hudson sat down. During two weeks in March 1937, Chicago experienced almost sixty sit-downs: motormen, waitresses, candy makers, cab drivers, clerks, peanut baggers, stenographers, tailors, truck drivers, and factory hands. In St. Louis, it was electrical and furniture workers; in Tennessee, shirt workers; in Philadelphia, silk hosiery workers; in Pueblo, Colorado, broom makers; and in Seminole, Oklahoma, oil workers.

These strikes, which the American Federation of Labor (AFL) largely ignored or denounced, took place amid the ferment of building a different kind of union organization—the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The older craft unions of the AFL typically restricted membership to skilled workers in a particular occupation, leaving great numbers of unskilled workers in the expanding mass-production industries unrepresented. The CIO's new industrial unions, in contrast, aimed to organize all workers in a particular industry: all workers in the auto, steel, or electrical industry, for example. The CIO's drive to organize the unorganized industrial workers brought great numbers into the union movement as the 1930s drew to a close.

Many employers grudgingly accepted union recognition as a fact of life. And the emphasis on physical brutality and deadly force as ways of suppressing the right to organize lessened. It was a significant if bittersweet victory. "Lifting the suffocating burden of absolute managerial control from the working lives of Americans," labor historian David Montgomery writes, "was one of the greatest chapters in the historic struggle for human liberties in this country." But, he adds, "the government's intervention also opened a new avenue through which the rank-and-file could in time be tamed and the newly powerful unions be subjected to tight legal and political control."8

To maintain industrial production during World War II, unions agreed to a no-strike pledge and a virtual wage freeze. In return, the Roosevelt administration, through the War Labor Board, assured unions of support for a modified union shop, one with an escape clause that allowed workers to withdraw from the union during the first fifteen days of an agreement, and a dues check-off system that swelled union rolls. (*Note: In a union shop, all workers must join the union aftger working on the job for a specified time. In a closed shop, the employer can hire only persons who are already members of a union. The concept dates back to 1794, when the shoemakers of Philadelphia demanded that their employers hire only union workers. An open shop is one in which there is no union security. Early in the twentieth century, for example, the National Association of Manufacturers led a drive to impose open shops where unions had previously existed.) But these reforms, together with other measures such as the ability to take disputes over grievances and contracts before government agencies, reduced union officials' dependence on rank-and-file support. Leaders also became distanced from, and opposed to, their memberships by having to discipline workers who rebelled against shop-floor conditions. Thus government intervention fostered a change in the character of unions, shifting them away from democratic participation and rank-and-file action.9 The Taft-Hartley Act, passed after the war, subjected union leaders to fines and arrest for failing to break wildcat strikes and made forms of union militancy and solidarity that had been potent weapons against management illegal. The conditions were taking shape for a low-intensity class war that would continue for three more decades.

The Ideological War Against Labor

Historically, the government's hostile actions against unions had an ideological quality about them. The revolutionary character of workers' movements was often wildly exaggerated in order to lay them open to attack from courts, legislatures, and troops. In 1877, the Great Upheaval, a strike of railway workers, was quickly labeled "Communistic." In its aftermath, attempts to reform the conditions of labor were termed "un-American" and, as political scientist Robert Goldstein notes, "the myth of attributing the disturbances to an international communist conspiracy was firmly enshrined in contemporary American histories."10 A surge of strikes after World War I fed into and was affected by the rising tide of postwar hysteria. Referring to the 1919 general strike in support of higher wages for shipyard workers, Seattle mayor Ole Hansen charged: "The sympathetic revolution was called in the exact manner as the revolution in Petrograd." It threatened, he said, to "spread all over the United States," unless the "traitors and anarchists" understood that "death will be their portion if they start anything."11 To oppose business was to oppose Americanism; to support unions was to support Bolshevism. Even as unlikely a group as the Boston police force was branded as "Soviet!" "Bolshevist!" when officers struck to demand representation by the conservative American Federation of Labor. On the heels of the police strike, thousands of steel workers struck for the right to be represented by the AFL and to bargain over wages and hours. But employers, the press, and the government made the strike turn on ideology, not on the bona fide grievances of steel workers. The U.S. Justice Department conducted "red raids" against immigrant steel workers, while a young J. Edgar Hoover slipped "proof" of the red conspiracy to the press and began accumulating a centralized file of "radicals," two habits that he used successfully for more than half a century.12

For their part, radicals in the labor movement felt the special repression reserved for them. Troops in St. Louis raided the headquarters of Socialists who supported strikers during the Great Upheaval. Socialist gatherings were attacked violently in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, where police killed at least one person attending such a political meeting. Sheriff's deputies abducted members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) during a strike in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1917 and shipped them deep into the desert. Earlier, in Everett, Washington, IWW members were killed in a hail of bullets fired by deputies. The Wilson administration marshaled the departments of War, Labor, and Justice against the IWW, setting up a competing union under the auspices of the U.S. Army, undercutting the radical union in negotiations with employers, and imprisoning hundreds of its leaders. The nation's first red scare climaxed with the Palmer raids of 1920, when up to ten thousand suspected alien radicals—many of them members of workers' groups—were seized simultaneously in cities across the nation and held for deportation. The country was riding high on a wave of political intolerance that would be equaled only in the McCarthy era.13

Although this red scare subsided, its grip on the national consciousness was lasting. It resurfaced in the years before World War II, notably in the form of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by Texas Congressman Martin Dies. Established in 1938, partly in response to the sit-down strikes by automobile workers, much of the Dies Committee's first year of hearings was directed at the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations and at radicals in the labor movement.

As World War II ended, workers across the country, pressed by inflation, the loss of overtime, and the burden of accumulated unresolved grievances, began to walk off their jobs in spontaneous actions. The year 1946 also brought a historic wave of sanctioned strikes in the auto, steel, electrical, packinghouse, and other industries by more than a million and a half workers, amid corporate calls for the repeal of the Wagner Act. President Harry Truman, who had proposed legislation for the selective use of military conscription against strikes, seized the oil refineries, the railroads, and the packinghouses to break strikes of workers in those industries. Thirty states passed anti-labor laws, and sixty bills to curb labor were before a Congress that eventually passed the Taft-Hartley Act. It was a crucial reversal.

Standing before the AFL convention, John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers Union, thundered against Taft-Hartley: The statute contained "only two lines that say labor has the right to organize and thirty-three pages of other additional restrictions that dare labor to organize."14 It outlawed the closed shop, sympathetic strikes, and secondary boycotts; it held union leaders liable for fines and arrests if their memberships engaged in wildcat strikes; it allowed strikebreakers to call for the decertification of striking unions and then vote in the subsequent NLRB elections; and it required all elected union officials to sign an affidavit swearing that they were not members of the Communist Party or any organization that believed in or taught the overthrow of the government by force and violence.

"We would not merit the name of free Americans if we acquiesced in a law which makes it a crime to exercise rights of freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of assembly," the CIO executive board stated. The board then pledged: "We will not comply with the unconstitutional limitations on political activity which are written into the Taft-Hartley Act."15 But Taft-Hartley's anti-Communist provision both wielded a stick (threatening to deny unions access to the NLRB) and dangled a carrot (offering union leaders an opportunity to squelch opposition within their own ranks), and the resolve of CIO and AFL leaders collapsed quickly.

Few could resist being swept up in the mounting hysteria that took hold of the nation in the Cold War era. Truman's loyalty program empowered the attorney general to designate any American organization as "subversive," without allowing the group an opportunity to defend itself; the FBI was unleashed to ferret out from among the millions in government employ those who might in the future perform a disloyal act; Dies's old House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), rejuvenated and made permanent, debuted in Hollywood; and Communist Party leaders were indicted under the Smith Act on the basis of beliefs the government ascribed to them.16 States moved to protect themselves from the now imminent threat of subversion: Texas outlawed any party that "entertained any thought" contrary to the Constitution; Tennessee enacted the death penalty for advocating the unlawful overthrow of the government; and loyalty oaths were required to fish in New York City reservoirs, to get unemployment compensation in Ohio, or to box, wrestle, barber, or sell junk in Indiana. As John Henry Faulk, the blacklisted radio personality and leader of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, said of the moment, "Hysteria took the form of a frothing insanity."17

It became a Cold War crusade that the CIO joined with a passion. From 1946 to 1949, the CIO formulated what amounted to a "party line," a strict litmus test of orthodoxy, the centerpiece of which was support for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and opposition to the third-party presidential bid of former vice president Henry Wallace. Then came the climax: the CIO, whose founding unions had been expelled from the AFL, itself expelled eleven dissident, left-wing unions in 1950, including two that had been among its founders. In all, close to one million workers were affected.

Many of the remaining unions, as well as others from the AFL, set upon the banished unions in bitterly fought jurisdictional battles. These raids were given credence and sustenance by government intrusions. Officers of ousted unions were indicted for perjuring themselves when they signed Taft-Hartley oaths; unions whose leaders refused to sign the oath were denied a place on certifying ballots by the NLRB; leaders of expelled unions were indicted under the Smith Act; foreign-born leaders and members were threatened with deportation. FBI harassment added to the intimidation; and congressional committees, especially HUAC, timed their investigations of the expelled unions to coincide with NLRB elections, placing the weight of government emphatically on the side of the raiders. Many of the ousted unions were unable to survive the ordeal, and those that did were left with their resources and leadership depleted, their memberships decimated.

Purged of its radical element and much of its militant presence and bound by the Taft-Hartley Act's restrictive provisions, American labor faced the second half of the twentieth century shorn of important forces and forms of struggle that had brought significant victories in the past. "Business unionism," while acclimating to the provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, sought partnerships with employers in the period of relative prosperity that followed, and the government's actions against labor abated. But its iron hand, whether gloved or not, made its presence felt again in the closing decades of the century, after business once again assumed its aggressive anti-union stance and after a new generation of rank-and-file militants arose to press labor's age-old demands against speedup, wage cutbacks, and dangerous work conditions.


Attacks on Labor Before the Triumph of Industrial Unions

The Unrelenting Campaign Against the Industrial Workers of the World

The nation had never before seen such a sustained, concerted attack against a legal, if dissident, organization as the attack that was directed against the Industrial Workers of the World (commonly known as the "Wobblies"). Nor would the nation again see, across the course of the twentieth century, a union that advocated a fundamental restructuring of the social relations of industry to create an industrial democracy controlled by workers. The limits of acceptable debate by labor were set in large measure by the denial of constitutional rights to these early dissenters. The IWW and the workers it organized were assaulted by police, company gunmen, and vigilantes.18 As the organization grew in strength, and as the patriotic fervor of World War I mounted, attacks by the government became coordinated and national, aimed at no less than the eradication of the radical union. Federal troops patrolled the timberlands of the Northwest, raiding and occupying Wobbly halls, breaking up the Wobblies' street meetings, holding Wobblies in bull pens beyond the reach of civil authority, and even setting up a competing union, the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, that workers were forced to join in order to be hired. One hundred sixty-six IWW leaders were indicted under the Espionage and Selective Service Acts in September 1917. "The Justice Department was indeed fortunate that public hysteria convicted the Wobblies before the jury heard the prosecution's evidence," historian Melvyn Dubofsky writes, "for the prosecution, in fact, had no evidence."19 A Chicago jury took less than an hour to convict more than one hundred Wobblies on four separate, complex counts, amounting altogether to over ten thousand offenses.

The attempts to suppress the IWW continued. By 1920, twenty states, at the behest of employers, had enacted criminal syndicalism laws. Criminal syndicalism was defined as the commission of a crime in order to effect any change in industrial ownership or control or any political change. Persons who became members of an organization that advocated criminal syndicalism or who themselves spoke, published, or circulated such ideas were held liable for heavy jail terms. The laws attached harsh penalties to what the Supreme Court fifty years later described as "mere advocacy not distinguished from incitement to imminent lawless action."20 In 1922 and 1923, in California alone, 265 people were arrested under such a law. It was then that Fred Thompson was tried for criminal syndicalism. His imprisonment in San Quentin only strengthened his commitment to the Wobbly cause. He went on to edit the IWW newspaper, Industrial Worker, and became the union's official historian.

Fred Thompson

My early years were spent in Canada. My father died when I was three. There were seven of us kids, but my mother always managed somehow to have something for us to eat. She had to do a lot of planning to make sure of that. Those were very rough times, when many of my friends went hungry. I came home one night in 1913, took off my shoes, which were wet, with holes in the bottom, put my feet by the coal stove, and picked up the paper. It told about this wonderful harvest all over Canada. I thought that everything was going to be better now. When my feet got warmed, I went upstairs to ask my mother about it. "No," she told me, "it doesn't quite work that way." I couldn't figure that. When my brother came home, I asked him about it. "She's right," he said. "Having lots of big crops doesn't mean that people will eat." He said it was economics.

We had a small encyclopedia in the house, and there I read about economics for the first time. My father had a few books, and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was one of them. That's where I got my radicalism, by the way—from Adam Smith. He described what I could see going on around town. Pretty soon I was reading John Stuart Mill and Malthus. I tried to figure things out. Then I got to know a family that introduced me to Marx's writings. But I think my economics came from the fact that my mother made good use of the available resources. Now, here is a planet with resources; people could live comfortably. Why don't they? That question has been the focus of my life.

I was active in the labor movement in Halifax and out west in 1919, so I was familiar with the IWW. From the beginning, the IWW championed the idea of one union for all in the same work. Then when I came down here in the spring of 1922, I heard some cockeyed stories that the IWW went around burning barns and haystacks. I figured, if they're that nutty, I don't want to belong to them. But I traveled around on a number of jobs where Wobblies worked. I found that they were sensible people, so I joined them in San Francisco later that year. And I've been paying my dues ever since.

In the development of industrial life in America, there were certain areas where it didn't seem strange to have a union. At first, that was confined to the railroads and to machine shops and to a few places where the hired hands were mostly English-speaking skilled craftsmen. We Wobblies were ordinarily working in territory—either geographic or occupational territory—where unionism was not taken for granted. That's why we experienced more hostility than other unions did. When other unions got into similar situations, they experienced the same type of repression. So it wasn't simply our radical philosophy that provided the excuse for going after the Wobblies, but rather that we organized in territories where a union was an alien thing.

In the western logging industry, the IWW made a transformation in conditions. I don't think most people appreciate what we did there. As of 1916, the West Coast logger was a guy who carried his worldly possessions, including his bedding, on his back. He had no facilities for washing his clothes. The "timber beast," they called him. And he was the timber beast. He wore calked shoes that were good for walking along a fallen tree but would wreck a floor. The old saying was that when the logger came into town, you could smell him before you could hear him, and you could hear him before you could see him. He was viewed as a subhuman being, and he felt such. We changed all that to where about the best-paid, best-dressed, best-liked workers on the West Coast were the lumber workers. That was a human transformation the IWW made. I'd say that was one of our major achievements.

Much the same thing happened in metal mining and tunnel work. A lot of the early drilling machinery was very dangerous. The miners drilled with a dry machine, so they inhaled all that powder from the rock. We demanded that be changed by using wet drills. Even after the IWW was gone, replaced by another union, certain habits like that remained. I don't think any miner has changed from dry drilling to wet drilling and then reverted. And all those other safety devices are still there. You institute something that lasts long after you're gone.

Those were the days before radio, before television. Outdoor speaking wasn't an unusual thing. Single tax, women's suffrage, socialism, all kinds of things were promoted. Vegetarianism. You name it. All these heretical ideas were advocated from soapboxes. For example, the IWW objected to workers having to pay a fee to the employment shark to get a job. Ordinarily, the employment sharks had a deal with the foremen about how many days a guy was going to work before he would be canned. They had a system between them so that you wouldn't last too long. We wanted to be able to hire out at a company without having to pay a fee. The place we did our soapboxing about that was right in the skid road area, where working stiffs came into town, spent their money, and got another job.

The Salvation Army was in that area, too, saving souls. Old General Booth, who was a humanitarian, would have been shocked had he been around to see how the Salvation Army he started was in cahoots with the employment sharks. They'd come along with their big bass drum and try to drown out the Wobbly speakers. That's how the Wobbly songbook really got going. We made parodies of all the songs the Salvation Army played. When they played their hymn "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," we'd sing back, "You'll get pie in the sky when you die. That's a lie!"

The fact is that a large number of these free speech fighters were people who had just recently joined the IWW. You have to realize that we were usually organizing migratory workers who hoboed, rode trains through the country. Well, I've done that. On a warm day, you come into the east end of a town and get off the freight train. You walk through town in the hot summer's sun with a heavy coat over your arm. You describe yourself with that coat: a drifting worker who has no place to sleep. Everybody knows that you are not "one of us." But if the IWW could win free speech in those towns, if the IWW could state its aims as a champion of those workers, it meant that they might be considered real human beings, the same as those who slept under a roof every night. I think that's why it was largely the migratory workers who furnished the manpower for the free speech fights, even though they were beaten and jailed for it.

The IWW encountered one or another form of repression from its very beginning. In the early days, one was far more likely to meet up with plug-uglies who beat up organizers. I've been knocked down more than once in my life when I passed out handbills. But it was really during the First World War that the IWW faced its worst repression. I think the motivation is fairly clear. Here the IWW was stepping on the toes of very powerful people: the lumber barons and the copper kings. The IWW was making them spend more money on workers, and that's exactly what they didn't want to do. And these were people who had clout in Washington. In September 1917, federal agents raided the IWW offices all over the country and arrested several hundred people. They charged them with interfering with the war. The motive was evidently not to stop us from interfering with the war effort; it was to discourage us from getting workers to demand better working conditions.

I was arrested in April of 1923. I had been working up on the project that supplies water to San Francisco. If you ever get a drink of water there, remember I helped dig the hole that it comes through. I got fired on that job for distributing Wobbly papers. Then I heard that there was a free press fight in Oroville. That's in the Feather River Canyon in California. So I and a couple of others headed up there. I had been a member of the IWW for only a few months, and this was my first experience with anything of that sort. I went up to the jungles, the places where hoboes cooked and slept under the trees. There must have been about a hundred of us who came; we had heard that the people who were selling IWW papers were getting arrested. Our feeling was that if they were going to arrest people for selling our papers, they would have to arrest a lot of us. So we sent a committee to the sheriff, and he agreed that we could peddle our papers if we weren't too "objectionable." That was a little victory.

Then one of the people there said, "Somebody ought to distribute papers in Marysville." I figured, okay, I'd stop off in Marysville. I went down to the skid road there and passed out a few papers. I was arrested right away. When I got to jail, somebody said, "Don't you know this is the town where they killed the sheriff?" There had been a strike up at a nearby hop ranch in 1913. During the strike, some unknown person shot the sheriff when he disrupted a meeting. That sheriff's son was now the district attorney.

The first charge against me was having in my possession papers that advocated illegal ideas according to the state criminal syndicalism law. Well, they couldn't find anything in those papers to fit that description, so they changed the charge. When they arrested me, I had in my hip pocket membership cards and stamps to bring people up to date in their dues books. Now they charged me with being an organizer for a union that did in secret teach doctrines in violation of the state syndicalism law.

"Syndicalism" is simply French for unionism. But the word has been used, even by historians and sociologists in this country, to mean the type of unionism practiced by major labor unions in France from the 1890s up to World War I. That was a unionism that relied on direct job action. If you were working in a restaurant and you couldn't win an increase in wages, you told customers the truth about what happened in the kitchen. I think there was a sense of humor that went along with it.

Even the word "sabotage" is a French term. A sabot is a wooden shoe. An odd misconception grew out of this: that French weavers wore wooden shoes, and if they wanted to spoil the product, they would throw their wooden shoe into the loom. Well, that is about as incredible a story as I can think of. The use of the term actually came about when the workers in a town went on strike. The boss would get people from the countryside to replace them, people who hadn't absorbed the work ethic that it's wrong to scab on a guy who's gone on strike. The wooden shoes marked the peasants, who wore those clumsy shoes that were not suitable for the factory floor. To act like those country-bred scabs who didn't know the work—that's what "sabotage" originally meant. It meant slowing down, creating an inferior product, or going against the big brass.

But World War I, of course, changed the meaning of "sabotage" altogether. It became associated with dynamiting and blowing up ships. Sabotage was something the army engaged in, not something the labor movement did. So we quit using the word.

Now here was our old literature that mentioned that sabotage, as a job action, was not too bad an idea to use at times. And here was the jury that thought in terms of sabotage in the sense that they had read about it in the newspapers during the war years. That helped stack the case against us.

At the trial, they used two paid informers, Coutts and Townsend. Just those two were all they could find, despicable characters altogether. They went around from trial to trial telling the same damn lies, that we advocated burning barns and so forth. Well, the IWW certainly did not. You don't win improved conditions by burning barns. You win them by getting people organized who will demand, "Either you raise our wages or nobody's going to do the work here."

I think I made that clear to the jury. You know, you read a juror's face when you're on the stand. I talked about how I'd worked as a building laborer putting up foundations for houses. In a hurry-up job, the concrete wasn't completely mixed and it wasn't tamped down thoroughly. We'd see all kinds of defects that we had to cover over with cement slurry. I said to the jury: As working people, we'd much prefer to do good work. But the contractors' motives were to make as much money as possible. And making as much money as possible for the contractors and providing people with good foundations for their homes weren't consistent. I think I made a fairly convincing presentation, for I could tell that I had won some of the jury over.

The first trial ended with a hung jury. The second trial included two more Wobblies they had arrested. They brought Coutts and Townsend in again to give their lies. Then I went on the stand to explain, just as I did in the first trial, what we were trying to do and how we were trying to do it. This time, the jury convicted two of us and freed one of us. I happened to be one of the two convicted. I heard the jury stood four for acquittal, eight to convict, so they settled it among themselves that way.

I don't know why juries convict in one case and not in another. I think a little detail may have made the jury more inclined in the first trial to acquit me. The prosecuting attorney was the crux of this thing. Everybody knew he was the son of the man who'd been shot in the Wheatland riot some years earlier. He was really venomous. He ended his last speech to the jury dramatically, sort of crouching down, and because I came from Canada he said: "This man from foreign shores comes into this country and gnaws at the foundations of our society like a rat." Well, it struck me so funny that I burst out laughing, and the jury started laughing, too. It was self-defeating for the prosecutor.

At the second trial, the prosecutor didn't make the long-winded speech he had at the first. Instead he said, "It's a hot day. Let's let the jury go out and get some refreshments." I was told that when they went outside, newsboys, who didn't usually sell their papers there, were hollering, "IWW sets fire to the rice fields of California!" The jury came back rather quickly and convicted us. And there had been no rice field fires.

On November 7, they took us to San Quentin, Dawes and I. I was in that prison for three years and four months. I forget just how many, but there were well over a hundred IWW members like me in San Quentin at that time, all for no real offense.

My experience there made me reevaluate things. I had thought that there was a criminal class, a special species of wicked people who were different from the rest of us. I found that the people in prison were like people I had worked with on the jobs and met with in the towns. These certainly weren't the large successful crooks. Many were just young people who were broke and took something that didn't belong to them.

A prison is an ideal place for bureaucracy to foster. They had all kinds of petty rules. When some guards took a dislike to certain prisoners, they'd find one reason or other to give them a hard time. They had a dark hole under the ground, with no light, no mattress to sleep on, no nothing. They just had a floor there and a bucket for toilet facilities. They'd throw people inside and keep them there. They had me in there for thirty days. It was not really the physical discomfort that was the worst of it. The hardest part was to keep your mind operating. I always had an interest in geography as a kid. When I was in the hole, I tried to recall how all the rivers in North America flowed to the sea. I would construct maps in my mind, such things as that.

Ordinarily, we were thrown in the hole for going on strike about something. When some injustice was done to one of the Wobblies, we would take a vote: Do we want to go on strike or don't we? Because they added a month every time we did, we actually sentenced ourselves to extra time when we went on strike. But when they mistreated our fellow workers, we figured it was the only thing to do.

We had our gripes, and we dealt with them in an organized way. You had beans almost every meal. Somebody put me wise when I landed there: On Mondays, don't eat too many beans because they're not quite cooked and you're likely to have digestive disturbances. Tuesdays, eat lots of beans because that's the day they're done. Wednesdays, they're sour. And then it was Thursdays, beans are raw again. Sundays, we did get corn pone and gravy, with a little sample of meat to remind us what it used to be like. Of course, that meat always had the iridescence of a rainbow on it. But we ate it.

I figured that the cycle of beans was amusing, so I got it out into the newspapers through visitors. We found that the San Francisco papers made a hullabaloo of what went on in the big house if it was something amusing. So we made sure the newspapers were supplied with all the details of our life. They gave us oatmeal sometimes with maggots in it—that would get into the Chronicle. As a result of the publicity, they did improve our diet. We were even beginning to get a few vegetables toward the end.

I still think a great deal could be done to make prisons more humane places if the labor movement would get involved. It is working people who go to prison, not millionaires. And I think working-class organizations ought to be concerned with conditions there. Four people in a cell that's really a small place for one is an impossible situation. It isn't just the physical crowding, but four personalities clashing. When you lock these same people up day and night, even if they were four saints, they would sooner or later be after each other. It cultivates the worst that there is, the most unsociable traits. But the Wobs got along fairly well because we were people in the habit of organizing.

I had a bifocal view of things. I knew how unconstitutional the law against syndicalism was, how contrary it was to the Bill of Rights. But even as that law was written, it said that you should be convicted only when you do certain things. We hadn't done any of those things. According to the rules of their game, as they declared them, we shouldn't have been in jail. But the other part of my own attitude ran this way: Here is a minority of people who have grabbed this round ball we live on, and since I wanted you and me and the rest of us to take it back from them, I expected they were going to react. So it didn't surprise me that they threw me in jail.

I haven't changed my views. I look at the world today with unemployment and starvation, literally starvation. There are millions of people on this globe dying for the lack of enough food, and yet we don't know what to do with the food we grow. We told the farmers not to plant so much, and even at that, they're going to have crops that are "too big." Well, can I think of anything crazier than a world where people are dying for lack of food and farmers are worrying because their crops are going to be too big? It's institutionalized, organized, well-established insanity, isn't it? That's what the economic system is. And most people think that's the way it has to be. The whole thing is bizarre, ridiculous.

Well, there were all kinds of things done to discourage us from organizing. But we Wobs were sort of irrepressible. We had little regret that we stood our ground and spoke our mind rather than bow down to Mammon. On a San Quentin cell wall, I saw a line from the Aeneid: "Haec olim meminisse iuvabit." It brought to mind Aeneas cheering his fellows on in the shipwreck: "Perhaps it will give pleasure to remember even these things." Yes, it is more pleasant to remember that we resisted than that we didn't.


Epigraph quoted from Robert M. La Follette Jr., Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor: Preliminary Report, 76th Cong., 1st sess., report no. 6, pt. 2, February 13 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939), p. 3.

1. Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, Labor's Untold Story (New York: United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, 1955), p. 314.

2. Dee Garrison, Rebel Pen: The Writings of Mary Heaton Vorse (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985), p. 29.

3. Senate Commission on Industrial Relations, Final Report of the Commission on Industrial Relations, 64th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1916), vol. 1, p. 94.

4. Ibid., pp. 54, 41, 11, 43, 53.

5. Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920{-}1933 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), p. 130. Also see Robert Justin Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America: From 1870 to the Present (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1978), p. 190.

6. Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor, pp. 4, 6, 11. For a firsthand account of repression by company-town police systems, see Pete Muselin's story in Bud Schultz and Ruth Schultz, It Did Happen Here: Recollections of Political Repression in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 65{-}74.

7. Thomas R. Brooks, Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor (New York: Delacorte, 1964), p. 180.

8. David Montgomery, Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 165.

9. See Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (New York: Verso, 1988), pp. 19{-}20, 26{-}35; Montgomery, Workers' Control in America, pp. 161{-}169; and Brooks, Toil and Trouble, pp. 201{-}208.

10. Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America, p. 33.

11. Robert L. Friedheim, The Seattle General Strike (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964), p. 132.

12. Murray B. Lavin, Political Hysteria in America: The Democratic Capacity for Repression (New York: Basic Books, 1971), p. 41.

13. For an account of the Palmer raids by Sonia Kaross, one of the victims, see Schultz and Schultz, It Did Happen Here, pp. 159{-}164.

14. Saul Alinsky, John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography (New York: Putnam, 1949), p. 337.

15. Lee Pressman, Eugene Cotton, and Frank Donner, Analysis of the Taft-Hartley Act (Washington, D.C.: Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1947), p. 49.

16. The HUAC investigation into the film industry began with the case of the Hollywood Ten. Ring Lardner Jr. and Frances Chaney Lardner describe those hearings and the subsequent blacklisting in Schultz and Schultz, It Did Happen Here, pp. 101{-}116. See also pp. 75{-}90 in the same volume for an account of the Smith Act trial of leading Communists by one of the defendants, Gil Green.

17. Ibid., p. 397.

18. Jack Miller recounts his experience in the 1916 Everett Massacre, in which sheriff's deputies opened fire on a ferryboat loaded with IWW workers as it docked in Everett, Washington; see ibid., pp. 237{-}248.

19. Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969), p. 432.

20. The 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Brandenburg is quoted in Thomas Emerson, The System of Freedom of Expression (New York: Vintage, 1970), p. 156. The Court struck down Ohio's criminal syndicalism law, which was "similar in text," Emerson says, to the California law.