Nov. 5 of this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Everett Massacre in Washington state, where members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) were shot by vigilantes. Though a tragic day in local labor history, it was one of many milestones in the growth of labor militancy in response to the chaos and violence of capitalism on a national and global scale.
Shingle weavers strike. The massacre was a reaction to a strike by the cedar shingle weaving workers at an Everett plant — the culmination of escalating repression and violence by mill owners.
The shingle “weavers,” named so because they would insert cedar into a vertical saw blade, reach over the blade for the cut shingle and insert it into a stack of shingles, were striking over restoration of wages. Though timber harvesting was generally on a path of growth, mill owners overproduced and slashed wages during one of the bust cycles. As the crisis was abating, the shingle weavers union was able to win wages back from plant owners to pre-crisis levels. Except for Everett mill owners, one of which was Fred Baker, who among other things had a street named for him, the one I grew up on.
The mill owners were particularly nasty capitalists. Everett was a timber town, their town, and they were determined that nobody was going to change that. They organized the Everett Commercial Club as a vehicle to consolidate their tremendous power in the region over workers, politicians and the police. The Commercial Club took it upon itself to “investigate” shingle weavers’ claims for wage restoration. Their real motive was to maintain control, undermine workers’ drive for higher wages if possible, and put them down with violence if necessary.
Timber work — a daily threat to life and limb. Speaking of violence, working in the timber industry in its early years, from harvesting trees to finished goods manufacturing, was dangerous, life threatening work. It was common for workers to be crushed, and for hands and fingers to be severed or permanently injured. Shingle weaving was highly skilled work involving manual dexterity, as they weaved 50 shingles a minute! It was said that a person could recognize a shingle weaver because they were missing fingers. Cedar shingle weavers also fell victim to “cedar asthma” as they were constantly exposed to cedar dust.
Throughout the timber industry, from the forests to the mills, workers lived in company towns. Even though their work was finished after twelve hours, it never really ended because they never left the job site. Higher-skilled workers might make $4 per day, but they gave almost half of it back for room and board and heating oil. They had to scrap and fight for the most minor comforts — employers didn’t volunteer anything.
Craft vs. industrial unionism. Most of the timber industry was organized into American Federation of Labor (AFL) craft unions, around a specific skill, such as weaving shingles, or lumber jacking. Each craft had separate contracts with employers, and unskilled workers had no union at all.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) advocated industrial unionism, organizing workers into “One Big Union” across an industry, regardless of skill, and for that matter, race and sex. They were making inroads in timber, particularly in the forests. Owners benefited from divisions between workers, and the IWW was breaking through those divisions. They were a threat to not only employers, but to AFL bureaucrats as well.
“Bloody Sunday.” Mill owners, which were really a trust of capitalists across the segments of the timber industry, repeatedly showed they would be willing to do anything to protect their interests. Throughout 1916, they upped the ante at every turn. They sent strike breakers into the mills to beat striking workers.
A week before the massacre, the IWW sent a small contingent from Seattle to support a rally by striking shingle weavers in Beverly Park, in the town center of Everett. When the Wobblies were disembarking the vessel they were met by 200 armed vigilantes, deputized by the local sheriff who was in the back pocket of the mill owners. The vigilantes told the IWW they could only speak at a location way outside of town, the IWW refused, and they were dragged to the forest and beaten repeatedly.
On Sunday, Nov. 5, 300 Wobblies boarded two vessels sailing from Seattle with the intent of supporting striking shingle weavers. They were met by 200 vigilantes again, and were not even allowed to disembark. The vigilantes asked the IWW “who is your leader” and an IWW member shouted “we are all leaders.” The vigilantes soon opened fire on the vessels. In just a few minutes, five Wobblies were dead, and 27 wounded. Another seven apparently “disappeared” but bodies were found later in Port Gardner. Because the Wobblies showed up prepared to defend themselves, two deputies were killed and 20 others wounded.
Upon their return to Seattle, 74 Wobblies were arrested. The famous Tracy Trial resulted in a release of all prisoners and was a victory for labor solidarity, winning the support and financial contributions of several unions from around the country.
Lessons for today. The Wobblies were labeled“radicals” and “outside agitators” by the bosses and AFL Union leaders. They were radicals, and the most undaunted supporters of striking workers. They defended themselves and pushed back against capitalists that were otherwise running roughshod over the region.
Direct dangers to workers in many industries have been reduced, but that has only been because labor has fought hard for these gains. As technologies and materials have changed, new and more insidious risks to workers’ lives have risen in their place. Capitalists have globalized to exploit new markets and keep their interests mobile, and have somewhat adjusted their tactics to deceive public perception. But their strategies remain the same as in 1916: to pay workers as little as possible and try to keep them constantly off-balance and afraid of each other so the profiteers can run roughshod over the world. Let us be inspired by the fallen Wobblies and the brave shingle weavers who won so much for the working class.
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