Today in labor history: Labor radical Tom Mooney freed

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On this day in labor history, Jan. 7, 1939, radical labor activist Tom Mooney, accused of a murder by bombing in San Francisco, was pardoned and freed after 22 years in San Quentin. During his time in prison, labor, socialist, communist, and other activists campaigned worldwide to free him.

Mooney was once a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, but later associated with the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. During the Seattle General Strike of 1919, where the city was idled the city for five days, IWW leaders hoped it would spread into a nationwide general strike demanding freedom for Mooney and other labor frame-up victim Warren K. Billings.

Mooney was tried and convicted for the Preparedness Day bombing, July 22, 1916 in San Francisco. Mooney had been tipped off to threats that preceded the parade and pushed resolutions through his union, the Iron Molders, and the San Francisco Central Labor Council and the Building Trades Council warning that agents provocateurs might attempt to blacken the labor movement by causing a disturbance at the parade. Ten deaths and forty injuries resulted from the explosion in the midst of the Preparedness Day parade.

Police held Mooney incommunicado and without counsel for six days, during which time they attempted to interrogate him. Mooney declined to speak, invoking his right to counsel some forty-one times. At the grand jury proceedings, both Mooney and Billings were still without counsel, and were not permitted to shave or clean up before appearing before the grand jury. The defendants refused to testify in protest of having been denied counsel. After the grand jury returned an indictment, Tom and Rena Mooney, Billings, Israel Weinberg, and Ed Nolan were charged with murder. The show trial that followed was conducted in a lynch mob atmosphere, and featured several witnesses whose testimony was allegedly coached by the prosecutors. Charles Fickert, the district attorney, and the police discounted the testimony of witnesses whose descriptions did not fit Mooney and Billings, or whose description of the bombing did not support the DA's theory that Mooney had planted a suitcase bomb. Mooney and Billings eventually retained a well-known San Francisco criminal attorney, Maxwell McNutt, as their defense counsel.

In a set of trials, Billings was tried first in September 1916 and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Tom Mooney was tried in January 1917 and was convicted and sentenced to hang. Rena Mooney and Weinberg were both acquitted, and Nolan was never brought to trial but released two months after Tom Mooney's conviction.

Due to worldwide agitation, from Mexico City to Petrograd in the Soviet Union, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson became involved. Without informing Mooney's defense committee, Wilson telegraphed California Governor William Stephens asking him to commute Mooney's sentence to life imprisonment, or at least stay the impending execution.

Years later, a Mediation Commission set up by Wilson found no clear evidence of his guilt, and his death sentence was commuted. By 1939, evidence of perjury and false testimony at the trial had become overwhelming. California Governor Culbert Olson pardoned both men. Ansel Adams wrote about meeting Thomas Mooney in his autobiography. Adams was a young boy at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, where Mooney was working. Adams later wrote, "In my memory he is a kind and gentle man." Other artists were inspired by the campaign to Free Tom Mooney, including Woody Guthrie.

Oklahoma mine disaster

Also on this day in labor history, a massive mine explosion left nearly 100 dead in Krebs, Oklahoma, in 1892. The disaster, the worst mining catastrophe in Oklahoma's history, was mainly due to the mine owner's emphasis on profits over safety.

Southeastern Oklahoma was a prime location for mining at the turn of the 19th century. Much of the land belonged to Native Americans and thus was exempt from U.S. federal government laws and regulations. Although the mining company's indifferent attitude toward safety was well-known, there were more than enough immigrants in the area willing to work in the dangerous conditions at the Krebs mine, where most miners were of Italian and Russian descent.

The Osage Coal & Mining Company's No. 11 mine was notorious for its poor conditions. This led to a high turnover of workers, and the company routinely hired unskilled labor, providing little in the way of training to get them up to speed. This was true for even the most dangerous jobs, like handling explosives and munitions.

In the early evening of January 7, several hundred workers were mining the No. 11 mine when an inexperienced worker accidentally set off a stash of explosives. Approximately 100 miners were burned or buried in the explosion. Another 150 workers suffered serious injuries. Nearly every household in Krebs was directly affected by the tragedy.

It wasn't until 2002 that the victims of the Krebs mining disaster were honored by a memorial built at the site of the old mine.

Photo: Demonstrators demand the release of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings in San Francisco in 1931. (San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library/via foundsf.org)

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