Home / General / This Day in Labor History: April 19, 1920

This Day in Labor History: April 19, 1920

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On April 19, 1920, workers affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World went on strike in the copper mines around Butte, Montana. The Anaconda Mining Company, building on the state repression of the IWW during and after World War I, responded by having its guards open fire on the strikers two days later, killing one and injuring sixteen others. The Anaconda Road Massacre would be another event in the violent suppression of the IWW in the American West in this era, effectively decimating the organization.

By 1920, the IWW was a mess. The nation had declared total war on radicals in World War I and government legal thugs such as the Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his young eager assistant J. Edgar Hoover were not asking too many questions about why people would join radical organizations. They basically didn’t care and would just round them up. Companies figured out they could eliminate the IWW from their workplaces using whatever methods they wanted. In the Bisbee Deportation in 1917, Phelps-Dodge and its bought and sold thugs in Bisbee, Arizona, rounded up anyone they thought might be a Wobbly (mostly anyone who looked Mexican) and dumped them in the New Mexico desert. The Wilson administration engaged in a cursory investigation into this widespread violation of civil rights, but everyone got away with it. That same year, the IWW organizer Frank Little, who had been around Bisbee, went to Butte, where Anaconda’s men promptly lynched him. In the Northwest, the government did direct union-busting, sending in the military to run the logging camps to get out wood for the war effort, though at least in that case, it basically gave the workers all the material conditions they demanded in exchange for leaving the IWW. Northwest governors collectively created new programs to watch and arrest IWW members. The aftermath of the war saw more repression, most notably at the Centralia Massacre in Washington. When IWW members actually resisted the destruction of their hall, opening fire on their attackers, well, now the nation cared about violence, though not the lynching of the IWW organizer Wesley Everest.

In short, things were pretty grim for the IWW in 1920. But workers could still find this kind of radical unionism inspiring and it’s not like the American Federation of Labor was going to step into the breach. Now, Butte was not generally seen as a radical bastion. It had a long and august union tradition that the companies had mostly destroyed in the decade before this. But the thing about lynching Frank Little there is that the miners were really uninterested in what Little had to say, even though he arrived there in the atmosphere of the most deadly hard rock mining disaster in American history. They were not Wobblies.

But by 1920, seeing little other choice, miners tentatively opened themselves up to the IWW. The companies had rolled back everything the miners had gained since the 1890s. So this was something of a desperate action. They went on strike and started blocking the roads to the mines to keep out scabs. The companies simply were not going to have that. Anaconda was more than happy to just murder workers and the newspapers simply reported on this matter-of-factly. The state politicians were equally on board with murder. The local sheriff deputized company thugs on April 20.

So on April 21, when about 400 workers showed up to picket at Anaconda’s Neversweat Mine (great name!), the now deputized guards just opened fire. It wasn’t like the miners were even being aggressive. This was just outright murder. Even the sheriff himself, who had arrived to try and mediate what was going on, was shocked at the brazen violence. Every miner was shot in the back. One, a 25 year old Irish immigrant named Tom Manning, died. Men by the names of Roko Lavus, James Sullivan, John McCarthy, Donald De Long, and Peter Marovich were seriously injured. Who knows what happened to these guys as they tried to recover from wherever they took a bullet or two. Manning himself had a young wife and child back in Ireland. He had saved up just enough money to send for them, but died before he had the chance.

The next day, on April 22, federal troops arrived. Ostensibly this was to prevent further violence, but really the Wilson administration was happy to use government force to crush the IWW. It is worth noting that the history of the federal government’s attitude toward organized labor was so bad that even if you take all of this into account, Wilson was still the most pro-union president in American history before Franklin Delano Roosevelt since he was so good for the AFL. But radicals? The IWW? Forget about it, kill em.

So the area’s pro-labor newspaper was shut down by the government. There was a “trial” about the killing but shockingly, the court found that who could tell who killed Manning, so it’s all good. The defense entered the Communist Manifesto into the public record to demonstrate the need to handle miners with violence.

The strike was completely crushed by this violence and it officially ended three weeks later. On May 12, Anaconda banned any member of the IWW from working in its mines. Ralph Chaplin, the IWW propagandist who wrote “Solidarity Forever,” wrote about this:

“The overlords of Butte will not permit their right to exploit to be challenged. Drunk with unbridled power and the countless millions profiteered during the war, with lying phrases of “law and order” on their lips, the blood of workingmen dripping from their hands, and the gold of the government bursting their coffers, they face the nation unreprimanded and unashamed — reaction militant, capitalism at its worst. The copper trust can murder its slaves in broad daylight on any occasion and under any pretext. There is no law to call a halt. In the confines of this greed-ruled city, the gunman has replaced the Constitution. Butte is a law unto itself.”

This was basically the end of the labor wars in the Montana mines. The nation went on such an anti-union spree in the 1920s that even more conservative unions were under constant attack and the United Mine Workers of America nearly disappeared itself in that horrible decade. But if the IWW remained around anywhere, it was in the hearts and minds of western loggers and miners and longshoremen, where it would influence their own union campaigns in the 1930s, sometimes frustrating CIO organizers who thought them anachronistic by the later part of that decade. The left changed a lot between 1920 and 1937.

This is the 515th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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