The Industrial Workers of the World in Spokane

Click to expand. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

To some, the war fever and mandatory patriotism presented an opportunity to settle old scores.  Since its founding in 1905, the workers union, the IWW, had been a thorn in the side of big business and conservative politicians.  To the IWW’s opponents, the US entry into the war, combined with the unapologetic stance of the IWW for peace, meant a chance to crush the union once and for all.

While the desire for action against Germany grew steadily after the announcement of unlimited submarine warfare in February of 1917, many still adamantly opposed war.  A year before hostilities between the United States and Germany began, Captain A.J Harris, Commandant of Fort Wright, advocated military preparedness in a hall on Sprague Avenue.  After making his speech, he answered questions from the audience, which included a number of socialists.  “Don’t you think it would be better to spend part of the millions being spent for war to search for the reasons so as to prevent future wars?” one person asked.  “Don’t you think that if the working class called a universal strike that would end the war?” another questioned.1  These questions help to explore the reasoning behind many of Spokane’s citizens anti war stance.

In the early 20th century, laborers oftentimes suffered at the hands of their employers due to poor pay, terrible living conditions if they worked on site, long hours, and work environments that largely ignored worker safety.  Many Socialists and Marxists looked at conflict not as a patriotic struggle between empires, but as an extension of capitalist exploitation that they already suffered from.  The enemy they argued, was the capitalist system, not soldiers from other nation states.  Spokane housed chapters of the Socialist Party of America and the socialist union, the Industrial Workers of the World.  In 1916 the IWW passed an anti war resolution condemning the use of military force.  Part of the resolution read: “We condemn all wars, and for the prevention of such, we proclaim the anti-militaristic propaganda in time of peace, thus promoting class solidarity among the workers of the entire world, and, in time of war, the general strike, in all industries.”2

One of the most prominent members of the IWW, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, pictured here, was active in Spokane prior to the war. She was arrested in the city in 1909 after chaining herself to a post during a free speech fight. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the possibility for war grew ever greater in America, Spokane and the outlying region appeared as a battleground for anti war laborers and the military, who had been ordered to protect important resources and infrastructure.  The regions great mineral and agricultural wealth proved an absolute necessity to any American war effort, and the hardlined labor strike stance adopted by the socialists guaranteed conflict. Early in 1917 a number of IWW members were arrested after a shootout with the Everett police.  In an effort to raise legal funds for the men, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn appeared in Spokane in February to speak to supporters.  Known to many as the “Joan of the IWW”, her long history of activism made her a monumental figure in the socialist movement.  She had been arrested multiple times before, once in Spokane a few years prior to her rally in support for the Everett members. Her presence in the city during this time solidified the importance of the Spokane region in the IWW’s struggle.  It foreshadowed the growing commitment of the movement, and the bloodshed that eventually followed.3

When John Spargo, a Marx biographer and popular member of the Socialist party came out in support for the war, many Spokane socialists denounced him.  The Spokesman Review reported that the local chapter of the Socialist Party went as far as to call upon Whitworth University, who had scheduled Spargo to speak to their students, to cancel his invitation to him.4  His support of conflict came as a major blow to the anti war side, who faced ever growing opposition in the face of deteriorating German-American relations.

The months immediately after the formal declaration of war proved a tempestuous time for the anti war movement, specifically the IWW.  In March, the trial to prosecute a Wobbly for his involvement in a gunfight that claimed the lives of 5 IWW members and 2 Sheriffs across the state began.5  In that same month plans for a general lumber labor strike in the Pacific Northwest were being drawn up, and a Wobbly member was found dead due to electrocution while attempting to sabotage a plant by cutting wire.6  Relations continued to deteriorate in April when a soldier was shot through the calf while guarding a railroad bridge in Spokane. Convinced of Wobbly responsibility, dozens of soldiers from Fort Wright marched through the streets of Spokane en route to storm IWW headquarters.  Spokane police arrived just in time to prevent violence, but the peace did not last.7

In May, just east of Spokane, another conflict began when a Wobbly cook was fired for supposedly destroying food at Otis Orchards. Over one hundred Wobbly laborers at the Orchards went on strike in protest of the termination.  Wobbly leaders demanded that the hotel the cook worked in be turned over and managed by IWW members.  The Daily Chronicle reported that many of the members returned to the work site during the strike to destroy property.8

The beginning of the Summer saw limited success for the IWW movement before things began to fall apart.  A railroad strike for Odessa laborers of the Great Northern Railroad ended victoriously as the workers won rights to an eight hour work day. The Wobblies saw an increase in membership in neighboring Idaho as well.9  As the summer continued however, they faced ever increasing resistance.  A front page article in July of the Daily Chronicle announced organized efforts by Idaho businesses to boycott Spokane goods.  Many Idahoans viewed Spokane as complicit in the rise of IWW membership and organization in their own state, because Spokane harbored local IWW headquarters.10  Mayor Fleming supported their right to free speech, but popular opinion turned against the IWW message and their rights.

This 1918 propaganda poster features Uncle Sam rounding up spies, traitors, and the IWW alike. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. Digital ID cai 2a14550.

The Wobblies suffered a series of blows to their organization in August and September.  A Federal investigation began on the IWW in California, Oregon, and Washington.  Destruction of crops at the hands of IWW members at the outset of the war was due in part to German agents, the Feds argued. Assistant United States District Attorney, Casper A Ornbaun, spoke bluntly on the matter: “After careful investigation we have reached the conclusion that the entire IWW movement is the work of enemy agents.  We have under surveillance Germans who are guiding the acts of these vandals.  These men are not working for labor; they are working for the Germans.11

One day after the announcement of Federal investigations Frank Little, a prominent leader of the IWW in the Pacific Northwest, was dragged from his bed and lynched in Butte, Montana at a railroad trestle.12  With the Wobblies branded as enemy agents, authorities put the Spokane IWW headquarters in their crosshairs.  On the eve of major strikes across the entire Pacific Northwest, a company of Spokane Guardsmen raided Wobbly headquarters on both the Trent Avenue and Main Street locations.  Their leader James Rowan and 26 other members were arrested, and their names published in The Spokesman Review.13  The raid in Spokane occurred weeks before anti-IWW raids all across the nation took place.  Although most of the Spokane Wobblies were released from prison in early October of 1917, the total suppression of the IWW effectively neutered their ability to organize and strike effectively.

 

Sources

  1. Spokesman Review, February 14, 1916. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=2OMUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=t-ADAAAAIBAJ&pg=6625%2C1941242. Page 6, Column 5.
  2. “The IWW Position on War.” The Industrial Workers of the World. Accessed January 4, 2018. https://www.iww.org/de/history/resolutions/Convention_war_1916.
  3. Spokane Press, February 6, 1917. Unknown Page.
  4. Spokesman Review, March 23, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=9-IUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=sOADAAAAIBAJ&pg=4292%2C1579153. Page 1, Column 5.
  5. Spokesman Review, March 9, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=07BXAAAAIBAJ&sjid=r_MDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6855%2C1968260. Page 3, Column 7.
  6. Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 30, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=rMZXAAAAIBAJ&sjid=NPQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=1987%2C5475085. Page 1, Column 3.
  7. Spokesman Review, April 22, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=JuEUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=oeADAAAAIBAJ&pg=4597%2C559725. Page 1, Column 6.
  8. Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 24, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=_cJXAAAAIBAJ&sjid=MvQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4372%2C3685563. Page 1, Column 3.
  9. Kershner, Jim. “100 Years Ago in the Inland Northwest: The Wobblies Make Waves.” Spokesman.com. June 26, 2017. Accessed January 4, 2018. http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2017/jun/27/100-years-ago-the-wobblies-were-making-waves/.
  10. Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 27, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=ddB7do2jUx8C&dat=19170727&printsec=frontpage&hl=en. Page 1, Column 1.
  11. Spokesman Review, August 1, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=vt4UAAAAIBAJ&sjid=juADAAAAIBAJ&pg=6263%2C21142. Page 2, Column 2.
  12. Spokesman Review, August 2, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=v94UAAAAIBAJ&sjid=juADAAAAIBAJ&pg=5947%2C105501. Page 1, Column 1.
  13. Spokesman Review, August 20, 1917. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=cMhYAAAAIBAJ&sjid=juADAAAAIBAJ&pg=6432%2C3245234. Page 1, Column 6.