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This Day in Labor History: November 5, 1916

[ 16 ] November 5, 2011 |

On November 5, 1916, a boat loaded with members of the Industrial Workers of the World attempted to dock in Everett, Washington. Local leaders, determined to stop the I.W.W. from entering their nice little town and influencing their striking shingle weavers, opened fire on the docking boat, killing at least 5 I.W.W. members, though probably closer to 12. 2 deputies died as well, shot in the back by friendly fire. Known as the Everett Massacre, this incident was the first of several incidents of organized violence against the I.W.W. in the Northwest during the second half of the 1910s.

Shingle weavers lived a tough life. You could always tell who was new to the job. The newbie had 10 fingers. Shingle weavers created roofing shingles out of raw pieces of cedar. They did so with bare hands and whirring buzz saws without protection. In addition, the saws produced wood dust that workers breathed in. “Cedar asthma” was a common malady. Shingle weavers had been the first workers in the timber industry to organize into unions, going back to the late 19th century. In fact, as 1916 approached, the I.W.W., while active in the region organizing itinerant loggers, had almost no presence in Everett. Many shingle workers saw themselves as skilled workers as felt closer to the American Federation of Labor than the disreputable radicals, although the AFL had shown very little interest in organizing them. The shingle weavers had gone on strike in the summer of 1916 to receive a pay raise to make up for slashed wages from an industry downturn in 1914.

The shingle weaver strike was almost over when the I.W.W. showed up. In fact, only one mill remained on strike. On August 19, 1916, strikebreakers at that mill got into a fight with strikers, beating them up pretty bad. The I.W.W. had only a small presence in the town but capitalized on the newly explosive situation. Wobblies began agitating more, organizing the workers. The town quickly shut down the I.W.W. office, thinking it would get rid of them, but more kept arriving.

Everett leaders unleashed their full fury on the Wobblies, even before November 5. 40 Wobblies were rounded up, brutally beaten, and taken to the edge of town where, despite some severe injuries, were forced to walk along the rail line back to Seattle. Wobblies were used to being kicked out of town. In fact, much of their early publicity came from free speech actions throughout the West as local police forces and industry leaders routinely violated their 1st Amendment rights.

So when word of the beatings got out, the Wobblies were not going to back down. Instead, the hired a boat, the Verona, which they loaded with 300 of their members to bring the free speech struggle to Everett. By the time the boat arrived, law enforcement had massed at the dock. Snohomish County Sheriff Donald McRae had deputized 200 citizens to stop the “invaders.” McRae yelled out, “Who are your leaders?” The response: “We are all leaders!” At this point, McRae and his deputies opened fire, nearly causing the boat to capsize as the Wobblies fled the assault.

The known dead Wobblies were Hugo Gerlot, Abraham Rabinowitz, Gus Johnson, John Looney, and Felix Baran. There were 7 Wobblies missing, probably shot into the water and later fished out and quickly buried to avoid the information becoming public. Naturally, the Wobblies were then arrested and charged with the deaths of the 2 deputies killed by friendly fire. The authorities chose only one Wobbly, Thomas Tracy, to stand trial for the “murders,” but even in a day where unbiased juries in labor trials were a rare exception, the jury acquitted Tracy due to the complete lack of evidence.

The I.W.W. did not go away after the Everett Massacre. Building upon it and other martyrs to the worker struggle, they made the Pacific Northwest timber industry the union’s prime focus in 1917, bringing the industry to a halt that summer protesting the atrocious living conditions and working environments loggers suffered daily. Eventually, the federal government intervened after the U.S. entered World War I because the strike became a national security issue due to the necessity of Northwestern wood to build airplanes. The I.W.W. wouldn’t go away after that either. In fact, it took another act of violence against radical workers in order to suppress the Wobblies in the Northwest. We’ll get to that next week.

Previous editions of this series have covered the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 and Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676.

Comments (16)

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  1. jeer9 says:

    Thanks. Powerful story and a timely reminder of the lengths to which Big Money will go to suppress unions and fair wages, not that we need too many of those these days what with OWS.

  2. DrDick says:

    Great story and all too illustrative of labor and industrial history in this country and elsewhere in the capitalist world.

    [Cue BradP to show up and claim that this never happened, that management has always treated workers fairly and would continue to do so if not for those evil unions, or that this was a perfectly reasonable response to the violent revolutionaries of the IWW.]

    • Hogan says:

      Brad is on record as preferring the deacentralized direct-action IWW model to the bureaucratic faux-legalistic AFL model for collective bargaining, so I wouldn’t expect that myself.

      • DrDick says:

        Brad is also on record as being in favor of (all) private sector unions (while routinely savaging the UAW), just not public sector unions. I do not expect any consistency on this issue. He hates unions period, but doesn’t like to admit it.

  3. creature says:

    This series on the workers’ rights movement in the US is outstanding. It should be compiled and become a mandatory course in high schools. Of course, that is a unlikely occurence, but the story of us vs. the ‘job creators’ is what really made America strong. My maternal grandparents were active in the tire and rubber workers’ organizing activities in Akron, OH, back in the 30′s. I heard plenty of stories of head-busting company goons, complacent cops and out-right discrimination. Years later I was active in the United Rubber Workers, and served as a local president. I didn’t see the level of injustice that they did. It was because they did see that sort of brutality and overcame it, that I had such and ‘easy ride’ as a labor union officer. Looks like it’s time for some more serious labor organizing again.

  4. Bruce Webb says:

    I just moved from Everett last year after 17 years. Still a gritty blue collar kind of place at least within the old city limits (it has expanded to take in a lot of suburbia) and STILL has not forgotten the Massacre. Not least because against all odds it supports a Public Library with a very active Everett History Room and librarian Dave Dilgard.

    Everett is kind of socially conservative and man do they love their guns, but mostly they vote Dem on New Deal class lines. Even the elites being pretty Dem. Everett is the home of former Senator Scoop Jackson, solid defense hawk yet fairly solid social liberal who wouldn’t tolerate union busting for a second. Scoop is gone now but his wife still lives in the nicest house on appropriately named Grand Avenue, conveniently on the bluff overlooking Naval Station Everett, our northernmost Carrier Base.

    How gritty is Everett? In it’s heyday and still today loving natives dub it Ever-Rot. But for the most part I enjoyed my near two decades there. Thanks for the shout-out.

    • Bruce Webb says:

      BTW Everett was NEVER a “nice little town”. It was a mill town that sprang right from investors from the East Coast including a little known guy named John D Rockefeller (whose name is still on the street that serves the Court House) and who in the 1890s had bigger than big plans to turn it into the Pittsburg of the NorthWest. With a saltwater port. It was a roaring town by the 20s with wood-working industries that went far beyond shingle mills. Lumber and pulp mills? Door and Casket manufacturers? If you could do it with wood Everett could do it. And as a result downtown Everett from 1892 to last week (last time I had a drink there) was never “nice” in the conventional Main Street sense.

      A popular ‘game’ right to the 80s was called ‘doing the Hewitt run’. Hewitt was the main road leading from Puget Sound to the Snohomish River, then a major commerce artery for lumber and back in the day hosting at least 40 bars and taverns. Doing the ‘Hewitt Run’ meant having at least one drink in every bar from the Soundside to Riverside which given the limitations of human metabolism was quite the challenge. Yet some millworkers by legend were up to the task. And to this day if you want to buy a working class Man’s drink, that is one with solid booze for money you would not likely survive even a reduced Hewitt Run, one that time has reduced to maybe a dozen establishments.

      But if you want to try it, perhaps in conjunction with seeing a major entertainment event at the downtown Event Center (which itself wiped out my favorite bar AND a strip joint) take a side trip to the China Doll a block S on Broadway. So so food but if they like you the stiffest drink in Everett. Which translates to the stiffest drink anywhere. Tell Holly that ‘Bruce sent you’.

      My point being that Everett was never Mayberry, though if you wanted you could live Mayberry, the church, home, school thing only being blocks away from Hewitt. But at heart true to its alternative motto ‘City of Smokestacks’

  5. At about this time the Non-Partisan League government of North Dakota was trying to negotiate an agricultural labor contract with the IWW for the wheat harvest. The NPL was formally a faction of the Republican Party, but they were Socialists, more or less, and established a state bank that still exists.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=iN1GAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA1102&lpg=PA1102&dq=“Non+Partisan+League”++”IWW”&source=bl&ots=D_LELk-9BL&sig=2rbyIKng-RJZXnPEEXsdo0QnWu

  6. [...] like the I.W.W. But the Wobblies were hated by the timber industry and local authorities. We have seen how the Everett police responded to the I.W.W. with murderous violence. They were not alone. A year before, in 1918, Centralia residents had destroyed the local I.W.W. [...]

  7. [...] series has also covered the Everett Massacre of 1916 and the creation of the CIO in [...]

  8. [...] Pittston Strike October 26, 1676–Bacon’s Rebellion November 5, 1916–The Everett Massacre November 9, 1935–Creation of the CIO November 11, 1919–The Centralia Massacre November [...]

  9. […] would be murdered. Police and corporations would take extra legal action against them at Bisbee and Everett. When they fought back, such at Centralia and Wheatland, they would be railroaded into prison and […]

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