Legendary labor leader Frank Little was assassinated 100 years ago to stop him from doing what he did best – organize workers. His life was defined by an unshakable conviction that you had to fight tooth and nail for the working class.
Little was a child when his parents joined thousands who jumped at the chance of grabbing 160 acres in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush. An extended drought, coupled with a global economic crisis, made keeping a family farm difficult to impossible for many. As the Populist Party wrote in its 1892 Omaha Platform, “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few. … From the … prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes — tramps and millionaires.”
By the time Little was twenty, he abandoned farming and followed his brother Walter to California where they mined for a living. Little discovered mine owners had only one objective — the acquisition of excessive profits in any way possible. They paid miserable wages. They spared every expense that might have made this work safer. They overworked the miners, squeezing out every last ounce of blood and sweat.
Working class warrior. Realizing there was no reasoning with the bosses, Little, along with hundreds of other miners, certified their allegiance to the working class by joining the newly-formed Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905. The IWW’s stated mission was to unify the working class against the oppressing capitalist class. They came to be known as Wobblies.
This “hobo-agitator” leaped into the famous IWW free-speech efforts with the likes of Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and James P. Cannon. When cities passed ordinances against soapboxing, Little and hundreds of other Wobblies were thrown in jail. Cities were going broke trying to keep them all behind bars, and were eventually forced to rescind these unconstitutional laws. Little’s unstoppable organizing of fruit pickers, lumberjacks, oil workers and miners placed him time and again in the line of fire.
Wobblies promoted the call for “One Big Union” as opposed to the craft unions of the day that only represented the highest paid laborers. While skilled in organizing strikes, the group eventually split over the question of how to unify the working class and take power away from the capitalists. Cannon, founder of U.S. Trotskyism, and many others eventually left the IWW over the need for of a revolutionary party to lead the way.
His last days. In 1917, Frank Little travelled to Butte, Mont., to help the miners striking against the powerful Anaconda Mining Corporation. Tensions were high. Miners were waging a militant strike, furious about the recent Speculator Mine fire that killed 168 men. Additionally, the Russian Revolution, along with the U.S. entry into World War I that same year, had prompted a ferocious pro-war, anti-communist campaign by the U.S. government and big business.
Though crippled as the result of a vicious attack in Texas, Little vigorously supported the Butte miners and continued to speak out against U.S. workers joining the war effort. He urged workers to “fight the capitalists but not the Germans.” On the night of Aug. 1, six men kidnapped him from his boarding house room. They roped him to the bumper of their car, dragged him across cobblestone streets and then hanged him above the railroad tracks with a note pinned to his chest, “First and last warning.” No one was ever convicted of this heinous crime.
On Aug. 8, 1917, one week after his murder, ten thousand people filled the streets of Butte for Montana’s largest funeral procession in history. They knew who was on their side, who had put his life on the line. The city fathers forced mourners to carry the U.S. flag in the procession. But once away from the city, the flag disappeared, leaving only the IWW banner to honor this brave Wobbly’s life. On his tombstone is carved, “Slain by Capitalist Interests for Organizing and Inspiring His Fellow Men.”
Can’t kill the spirit. Frank Little is part of a too-long list of civil rights organizers, union militants and leftists who have been murdered for fighting for workers. Their lives are part of a proud history that continues to this day.
After WWI, severe repression against radicals by the U.S. government led to the decline of the IWW. It was inclusive, anti-racist, class-conscious, and played an important role in unifying not just trades workers but industry-wide toilers. One hundred years later, the Freedom Socialist Party is collaborating with the IWW in critical mobilizing against fascists and white supremacists. A fight that welcomes the bold courage of a Frank Little.
Patrick Burns, a retired union carpenter, is a long time labor activist and member of Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity in Seattle. Send feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org.