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This Day in Resistance History: IWW members sentenced to 20 years in 1918 for “obstructing the war”

August 28, 2012

Despite constitutional claims to supporting free speech, the US federal government has a long history of criminalizing speech, especially during times of war.

The Espionage Act was passed in 1917 as a means of prosecuting anyone who publicly opposed World War I, which included opposing military recruitment and interfering with military operations.

However, the Espionage Act, like today’s Patriot Act, was really designed to target dissident groups and individuals in the US that the power structure determined with a threat to that power.

One such group that was targeted by the US government during the US involvement in WWI was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor group also known as The Wobblies.

The Wobblies were engaged in radical labor organizing that was different than most other unions, since they allowed Blacks, women and recent immigrants to be part of their union. The IWW also was unique in their mission as workers in that they outwardly oppose capitalism and sought to create an economic system that was run by workers for the benefit of all.

Many of the Wobblie chapters were also critical of the US involvement in WWI, since they saw it as a capitalist war, where working class people were forced to fight against other working class people in order to benefit the capitalist class. The IWW passed a resolution at their national convention in 1916 and in their newspaper, the Industrial Worker, they wrote: “Capitalists of America, we will fight against you, not for you! There is not a power in the world that can make the working class fight if they refuse.”

Such a critique got the attention of the federal government, which began a campaign to turn public opinion against them. This campaign involved the cooperation of various news agencies throughout the country, which would print editorials damning the IWW for speaking out against the war and accused them of being “a threat to the nation’s security.”

This attack against the Wobblies is well noted by James MacGregor Burns and Stewart Burns, who state:

In September 1917, despite an intensive investigation that failed to substantiate allegations that the Wobblies were paid German agents or had violated the espionage or conscription acts, the Justice Department took action against them. Its agents swept down on union offices and the private homes of union members from Chicago to Spokane and seized every document they could find—including the love letters of Ralph Chaplin, the editor of Solidarity. From the several tons of “evidence” collected in the raids, the government constructed charges that the IWW—if not directly paid by the Germans—was at any rate a criminal conspiracy to obstruct the war effort, advocating draft refusal and military desertion. Federal indictments were brought in Chicago and four other cities. When the Chicago trial opened in April 1918, more than 100 Wobbly leaders were in the dock—Big Bill Haywood among them. Each faced more than a hundred separate charges. The government did not intend, nor did it have evidence, to prove the guilt of every individual on all counts. Instead, for a month and a half prosecutors took turns reading from the captured documents and lecturing the jury on the subversive and atheistic nature of Wobbly doctrine. The defense attempted to put its accuser—the capitalist system—on trial. A succession of union members took the stand to testify about their experiences in the struggle against the exploitation of man by man.

The Wilson administration ordered the Justice Department to raid 48 IWW branch offices across the country. Of those that were put on trial, most of them were found guilty on August 28, 1918 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, plus heavy fines. Although they appealed the sentences, most did serve several years in federal prison until they were pardoned by President Harding.

However, the result of the raids, arrests and incarceration of hundreds of Wobblies, along with deportation of hundreds more, diminished the ranks of the radical union in such a way that it never recovered until decades later.

The resistance to US militarism and capitalism by the Wobblies should be a lesson for those resisting today. Such radical politics will not be tolerated by the power structure, but resisting such policies are unavoidable if we want a truly free society.


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