Solidarity forever: 'Undesirable citizens'

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Part two of our series on the Wobblies looks at the bosses' attempt to have Bill Haywood framed and executed.

When the IWW was formed in 1905 the most important constituent was the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Under the leadership of Bill Haywood and Charles Moyer, the WFM had fought strikes in the West that sometimes assumed the dimensions and characteristics of small wars.

The mining companies brought in armed guards and private detectives to protect imported scabs and the WFM armed to defend itself. A year-long strike in Colorado in 1903-4 had seen the state governor mobilise the militia to protect the mines with the union eventually going down to defeat in the face of the proclamation of martial law. By the end of the strike 42 men had been killed, 1,345 had been interned without trial and 773 forcibly deported from the state.

It was this experience that convinced the WFM that a new union movement was necessary. No sooner had the IWW been established than a determined attempt was made to destroy the WFM altogether by hanging its leadership.

On 30 December 1905 the former governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg, was killed by a bomb planted by Harry Orchard, a former Pinkerton agent. The case was actually handed over to the Pinkertons who set about framing Hayward and Moyer for this and other crimes. Orchard was promised his life if he implicated the WFM. This attempted judicial lynching, which had the support of businessmen and politicians up to and including President Theodore Roosevelt, provoked a massive, indeed unprecedented, campaign of solidarity.

Roosevelt famously described the WFM leaders as “undesirable citizens”, prompting thousands of people to wear badges declaring, “I am an undesirable citizen”. Huge demonstrations were held across the United States. A quarter of a million dollars, a huge sum in those days, was raised for their defence and it was made clear both at meetings and rallies and in the socialist press that their execution would be met with armed resistance and strikes.

Writing in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason on 6 March 1906, Eugene Debs threatened revolution if Haywood and Moyer were killed. He warned that the governors of Idaho and Colorado would soon follow them, that a million revolutionaries “would meet them with guns” and threatened a general strike “as a preliminary to a general uprising”. This special issue of the paper sold over 3 million copies across the West.

The threat was taken seriously. The Idaho authorities asked Roosevelt for federal troops “in the event of their being unable to keep order and suppress armed resistance”. And Roosevelt himself complained that the “labour men are very ugly and no one can tell how far such discontent will spread. There has been over the last six to eight years a great growth of socialist and radical spirit among workingmen.”

After 18 months in jail Haywood was acquitted and charges against Moyer were dropped. A great victory had been won.

While Haywood was inside, the IWW had been wracked by factionalism and under attack from the American Federation of Labour (AFL). It had not prospered. And while Haywood had moved to the left during his time in prison, Moyer had moved to the right, embracing class collaboration as the only way to save the union.

One place where the IWW had been successful was in Goldfield, Nevada, where the WFM had established an IWW Local and unionised the whole town, starting with the newsboys. As the IWW newspaper proclaimed, they had organised “miners, engineers, clerks, stenographers, teamsters, dishwashers, waiters”, all into One Big Union. Wages were driven up across the board and conditions improved, including the introduction of the 8-hour day.

On 22 January 1906 the town shut down for two hours while a great rally was held, commemorating the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in St Petersburg the previous year, and pledging support for Haywood and Moyer. Vincent St John, one of the IWW leaders, told the crowd that, “We will sweep the capitalist class out of the life of this nation.” This was the IWW dream successfully realised in one town.

Inevitably the employers counterattacked with the enthusiastic assistance of the AFL, which sent organisers into Goldfield to try and break up the IWW. For the AFL leadership a weak, broken union, even no union, was preferable to a militant union. They were assisted by the fact that the WFM leadership had moved to the right once Moyer was released from prison and was in the process of breaking with the IWW. The employers locked out the IWW membership across the town, the WFM negotiated a separate deal for the miners, leaving the other union members to be replaced by scabs brought in by the AFL.

On 5 November 1907 there was an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Vincent St John. He was left with his right hand permanently disabled. Now the mine owners proceeded to destroy the WFM. In December 1907 Roosevelt sent federal troops in to occupy the town and the WFM membership was locked out and replaced with scabs.

Goldfield had become a non-union stronghold.