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This Day in Resistance History: Honoring George Speed

May 18, 2011

On this day in 1855, anarchist and unionist George Speed was born in Maryland. He became the Chairman of the IWW Executive Committee, and played crucial roles in the Pullman strike, in fighting government oppression of unions, and in the Haymarket trial. He was also an early proponent of a racially diverse union, demanding no distinction be made between members of different races.

Speed started his working life as a hatmaker’s apprentice, and joined the Silk Hat Finishers’ craft union. Soon, his union activities eclipsed his craft skills, and he became a union organizer.

Speed’s union work took him to Louisiana and Texas to meet with timber laborers; to the Midwest to help organize industrial workers, and to California, where he spent much of his career meeting with and supporting the unionizing efforts of farm workers.

In 1903, Asian-American and Latino farm workers wrote to Samuel Gompers and asked for a union charter from the AFL. Gompers replied that the AFL would never accept members of Chinese or Japanese descent. He told the workers until they guaranteed they would turn away Asian members, they would not receive a charter. Speed spoke to this issue by saying, “The whole fight against the Japanese is the fight of the middle class of California, in which they employ the labor faker to back it up.”

He also noted, …One man is as good as another to me; I don’t care whether he is black, blue, green or yellow, as long as he acts like a man and acts true to his economic interests as a worker.”

George Speed helped to support part of Coxey’s Army during 1894. The march was a protest over the unemployment of workers following the Panic of 1893. It was originally suggested by Jacob Coxey, a socialist from Ohio who actually was a member of the elite; he owned vast tracks of land, a silica manufacturing plant, and race horses. The size of the march on Washington, D.C., grew to 6,000 men, many of them members of unions.

Newspapers of the time started a panic over the event, calling the workers “tramps,” predicting massive riots from the “noisy, pillaging mob,” and charging various union leaders with trumped-up sex scandals. George Speed helped to face down government troops who attempted to stop the march—although, in fact, the group was never allowed to enter the capital—and learned some valuable lessons which he later applied that same year during the Pullman Strike.

George Speed played a central role in many union actions and strikes, but perhaps the most notable was the Pullman Strike of 1894. Three thousand Illinois railroad car manufacturing employees went out on strike after their wages were cut and their workday expanded to 16 hours. They paralyzed travel and shipping in two-thirds of the United States by doing so. But that was just the beginning. At its peak, the strike encompassed a quarter of a million workers in 27 states, making it one of the largest strikes in United States history.

The American Railway Union joined forces with the Pullman Car Company workers, and its members refused to switch tracks for any train that included Pullman brand cars. When threatened, 125,000 workers walked off the job.

The government attempted to muscle in by issuing an injunction to union leaders, which was simply ignored. United States Marshals and the Army were then sent in on the pretext that since the trains carried US Mail, the strike violated the Sherman Act.

Thirteen workers were killed and 57 wounded during the action. Eugene Debs, head of the Railway Workers union, was arrested and tried, but halfway through the trial the charges were dropped—apparently to avoid a victory by Clarence Darrow, who represented the union. Although mainstream media of the time crowed about the “defeat” of labor, the resulting Industrial Commission report firmly supported collective bargaining as a way to correct the power imbalance between capitalists and laborers. The Erdman Act of 1898 also made yellow-dog contracts (in which workers had to spurn union membership to get hired) illegal.

George Speed was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World when it was officially formed at a convention in 1905.

Speed’s experience in labor organizing proved helpful to many groups that were unionizing at the time. One example was in 1913; Speed was approached by a group of longshoremen who wanted to organize against unfair practices that included discrimination against minority workers. Speed helped the group draft a list of demands: a pay raise to all workers, regardless of race; a 10-hour day; time-and-a-half for night work; double time for Sunday work; and no retribution for striking. Although some of their demands were met, the strike leaders were then fired.

Speed notified the IWW, and the union organized a strike of 1,500 workers who demanded collective bargaining, their raise in pay, and the restoration of jobs. George Speed stayed in Philadelphia to meet with the strikers every day, giving them “the straight stuff” until all demands were met. He helped usher in a new decade of prosperity for Philadelphia longshoremen, and one which became an interracial model for other unions to emulate.

In 1917, George Speed was one of the IWW members in Chicago arrested on charges of violating the Espionage Act of World War I. The IWW “Wobblies” refused to enlist and encouraged draft dodging among its members; the union also supported strikes of lumber workers and miners whose work was deemed “crucial” to the war effort.

Other unions of the time took a placating approach to capitalists and encouraged their members to accept small, incremental changes and improvements. The IWW took a much more radical approach. It was targeted for the trial among the unions because it advocated an all-out attack on capitalism, including industrial sabotage. Leaders spoke of class warfare, especially during wartime. One IWW tract of the time stated, “In the case of wars, which every intelligent worker knows are wholesale murders of workers to enrich the master class, there is no weapon so forceful to defeat the employers as sabotage by the rebellious workers.”

The trial lasted for more than two months. The government tried to claim that the IWW wanted to replace President Woodrow Wilson with Kaiser Wilhelm and that they were accepting funding from Germany. At the same time, the suit claimed that the IWW was being run by Russian Bolsheviks. IWW members were called terrorists by the press.

When Bill Haywood, IWW’s leader, was called to the stand, he showed the charges for the baseless persecution that they were. If the IWW was anti-war, he argued at one point in his questioning, why would they be pro-German? “Germany today is the worst autocracy in the world,” he said.

Despite the absurdity of the charges, the jury deliberated for just over an hour and found all 100 defendants guilty. Fourteen of the top IWW leaders, including George Speed, were sentenced to 20 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary and fines of $10,000 each. Thirty-three other defendants received sentences of 10 years in prison.

At the time of the trial, George Speed was 64 years old and the Chairman of the IWW. He said on the record:

My idea of life is this: that the whole history is one of pain and struggle. That there are two classes in society absolutely antagonistic to each other—an employing class and a working class—and that the interest of the employing class is to buy labor in the cheapest market. I came to that conviction young, and when I got hold of a Marxian leaflet in 1883, it inspired me with a new life. Before that time, I was a little indifferent and a little careless, and after that I tried to devote my whole time to make life better for myself and for my fellow workers.

The trial triggered a wave of vigilante actions against IWW members across the country, with lynchings, beatings, and arrests. IWW’s headquarters in New York City were ransacked. But the IWW continued to stand firm in the tradition of its leaders like George Speed.

Today, the IWW continues to fight for the rights of workers, organize union actions, and participate in community actions such as the creation of food co-ops and food justice organizations. Member groups have organized protests against the Iraq War, demonstrations in opposition to sweatshop labor, and supported boycotts of companies like Coca Cola for its suppression of worker rights. Speed’s dedication to the working class continues on in the union which he helped to create.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2011 9:59 pm

    Great article!!

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    May 19, 2011 12:06 am

    Thanks–I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Robbin Hederson permalink
    April 2, 2013 6:19 pm

    This is so helpful. I wish there were more images of Speed. My grandmother, a wobbly, knew and admired him.

  4. DJ Alperovitz permalink
    October 15, 2016 1:23 am

    would you please cite your sources for 1) FW George Speed being a founding member of the IWW and 2) that FW George Speed was found guilty and sent to Leavenworth. Thanks DJ

  5. October 15, 2016 2:08 pm

    DJ. the person who wrote this article dies a few years ago, so I don’t have any way of finding the sources she used.

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