“We take in all nationalities and colors because the interests of all workers are the same and the only foreigner we know is the boss.”
That’s the Industrial Workers of the World talking. Also known as the IWW or Wobblies. They meant what they said. The Wobblies were a radical bunch forming the One Big Union and though their heyday is long past they are still around.
Today, their headquarters is in Chicago and their songbook, filled with rousing anthems “to fan the flames of discontent,” remains available. Colorful and legendary, the Wobblies are but one of the groups of laboring folks fomenting action years ago on behalf of oppressed workers in the struggle between hardscrabble proletarians and the masters of wealth and property.
But the Wobblies were unique in their openness to all races or genders. They were concerned especially for the working stiffs considered unskilled and therefore not allowed into the more skilled craft unions, such as the American Federation of Labor or AF of L. Some Wobblies referred to that body as the “AF of Hell.” Championing a home-born version of the revolutionary doctrine “Syndicalism,” the Wobblies believed that those who sweat to create the products begotten by toil deserve to oversee production and own that wealth so made by human hands.
In light of this philosophy, opulent capitalists with their gilded ways were no more than arrogant parasites who filched from the laboring masses. The Wobblies wanted to “organize, educate and emancipate” common men and women and abolish the wage system altogether. Washington state lawmakers responded with the Criminal Syndicalism Law of 1919: “With this legislation, the Red Coast lumbermen and their allies in the commercial press, private patriot front groups, and the government targeted, demonized, and criminalized what they saw as the most offensive face of the working class, the Industrial Workers of the World.”
The geography of the “Red Coast” is defined as “ranging from the Columbia River in the south to the Olympic Peninsula in the north.” In this finely written work, the authors chronicle the many intense and sometimes deadly confrontations that were occurring throughout the country: “At the state and local level, class warfare raged as employers mobilized both the state and the mob to lash out at class-conscious workers. Washington state was one of the great theaters of this conflict, as the teens witnessed the Grays Harbor and Pacific County Lumber Strike of 1912, the multiple free speech fights, the 1916 Everett Massacre, and the 1919 Seattle General Strike.”
This is a story of determined immigrants trying to gain a foothold in a new country that could be cruel and unwelcoming. It is also a record of courageous men and women who stoutly faced threats and abuse from conservative business owners, spies and vigilantes as well as the forces of law, which all too often were marshalled on the side of the moneyed haves. Here is a “hidden history” meant to inform the reader of the breadth of labor and leftist activism that once pervaded the social and political realities of western Washington.
The year 1919 was a turbulent one. Recent world and domestic events made anxiety rampant. Two years previously, the Bolshevik Revolution had turned Russia upside down. The colossal slaughter of the Great War had just ended. Another upheaval came in the pestilent form of the Spanish Flu that brought death swift and sudden to as many as 100 million globally. In Seattle about 1,400 lost their lives in the epidemic.
There was widespread labor unrest. In February, the General Strike shut down Seattle for six days. Shipyard employees numbering 35,000 put down their tools when pay increases promised after the war’s end failed to materialize. They were joined by 25,000 more workers from all over the city who struck in solidarity. In the end, goals of the strike were largely unmet, yet it was an impressive demonstration of the muscular potential of organized labor. Not a few feared that something like a Bolshevik rebellion was a strong possibility in the United States.
It was the first celebration of Armistice Day on Nov. 11. In Centralia, Washington, the American Legion planned a parade to commemorate the fallen of World War I. In that town, the Legion “served as the armed guard of the employing class.” As the date approached, it became an open secret that legionnaires planned to attack the local IWW union hall. Leftist Wobblies had viewed the recent war as a vicious scam in which the owners of capital everywhere pitted common people of many nations in mortal combat against each other. It was not a perspective appreciated by the Legion.
Sure enough, the attack came. Some Wobblies inside and outside the hall were armed and fired in self-defense. Three legionnaires lay dead. One Wob named Wesley Everest was caught by legionnaires as he fled. Ironically, he had served stateside in the U.S. military during the war. In the chase, Everest fired his gun and killed one of his pursuers. Beaten and bloodied, he was dragged to the jail. Later that night, lying prone in a cell, he was seized by a mob. Everest was hanged from a bridge spanning the Chehalis River. In the wake of the Centralia tragedy, eight Wobblies were sentenced to 25 to 40 years in Walla Walla. Not one legionnaire or anyone responsible for the grisly murder of Everest was ever prosecuted.
“Red Coast” details other critical episodes, like the 1934 longshoremen’s campaign known as the “Big Strike” that affected ports throughout the entire Pacific Coast from Canada to Mexico. It was a hard-won fight in which a few workers were murdered. “In Seattle, a company guard shot longshoreman Shelvy Daffron in the back, killing him.” The authors state that the strike “stands as one of the most important events in American labor history.”
For anyone interested in this state’s history of working people and their fight for economic justice, this well-crafted volume is indispensable. Solidarity forever!
"The Red Coast, Radicalism and Anti-Radicalism in Southwest Washington" by Aaron Goings, Brian Barnes and Roger Snider was published by Oregon University Press in 2019
Read the full Nov. 27 - Dec. 3, 2019, issue.
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