This week in history: Feds raid IWW offices and union halls
Big Bill Haywood and office employees in the General Office of the Industrial Workers of the World, 1001 W. Madison St., Chicago, 1917. Published in International Socialist Review, vol. 17, no. 4 (October 1917), pg. 206. Photographer unknown.

One hundred years ago, on September 5, 1917, federal officials conducted a coordinated nationwide raid on offices and union halls affiliated with the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). By that time the United States had entered World War I, “the war to end all wars.” The following two paragraphs by Joyce L. Kornbluh from Encyclopedia of the American Left, 2nd ed., summarize the events:

“Preceding and during World War I, the IWW retained its antimilitary stand and opposed U.S. involvement in the war. In contrast to the no-strike policy adopted by the AFL after the United States entered the conflict actively, the IWW continued to lead strikes. These wartime strikes gave employers and the government the opportunity to accuse the IWW of treason. In September 1917 U.S. Justice Department agents raided IWW offices throughout the nation with warrants branding the entire leadership—over two hundred men and women—as subversives. In the major trial in Chicago, nearly a hundred Wobblies, virtually the entire first and second tier of past and present leaders, were sentenced to federal prison terms of from ten to twenty years, with accompanying fines of $10,000-$20,000.

“Little judicial effort went into protecting IWW members from community hysteria. Employer-funded vigilante groups and patriotic leagues were as likely as police units to raid IWW halls, homes, gatherings, and meetings with impunity. The persecution was soon intensified by criminal syndicalism laws passed in many states with the specific objective of destroying the IWW. Every form of intimidation was employed. An infamous incident that took place on Armistice Day, 1919, is indicative of the temper of the anti-IWW campaign. A group of American Legion members in Centralia, Washington, led an attack on the local IWW hall with the goal of destroying furniture and beating up members as had been done in past incidents. IWW Wesley Everest, a war veteran still wearing his uniform was castrated and lynched for resisting the assault. Seven other resisting IWW members were sentenced to jail terms of from twenty-five to forty years and most remained in prison until 1933.”

Among the many cities and even smaller communities where IWW facilities were invaded, the national headquarters of the organization in Chicago were the government’s primary target. The International Socialist Review from October 1917 published this statement from the national Secretary-Treasurer William D. Haywood:

“Fellow Workers:

“At 2:00 pm, September 5th, the General Office and Publishing Bureau were raided by the United States authorities.

“Government officials have taken for investigation all the correspondence files, books, and ledgers wherein the financial transactions of the General Office are recorded, and the duplicate membership record of the GRU [Grand Recruiting Union] and many of the Industrial unions, that were kept on file in the General Office. Also there was taken samples of all literature published by the organization, and samples of the dues stamps and various assessment stamps, membership books, report blanks, credentials, and all other supplies pertaining to the work of the organization.

“In the Publishing Bureau, none of the machinery was disturbed, but the federal officials requested that proofs be printed of all the papers, cuts, and literature published by the bureau.

“From the editorial rooms was taken all the contents of the safe belonging to Solidarity, all the books, records, and mailing list of Solidarity, and also the mailing list of all the language papers, all bound and unbound files and all the papers.

“From this voluminous mass of papers, literature, and records the government will endeavor to sift whatever evidence (if any) they can find to substantiate their charges against the organization, and will present same to the Federal Grand Jury now sitting in Chicago.

“We who have nothing to hide, and never have had, have nothing to fear from a fair and square investigation. In fact the General Office, only a few weeks ago, sent an invitation to Justice [J. Harry] Covington, who had been appointed by President Wilson to investigate the IWW, to visit the General Office in Chicago and go over all our records himself, and we assured him of our hearty cooperation in the event he accepted our invitation.

“However, while this indiscriminate seizure of the records, files, and property, etc., of the organization, and the fact that the General Office and the Publishing Bureau have been in the possession of federal authorities, has handicapped the work of the organization considerably, we are now able to inform the membership that the General Office is open for business, and will fill all orders for supplies and literature promptly and efficiently.

“In regard to the publication of our papers, we do not know when we shall be allowed to publish them again, but we think that in the course of a few more days we shall be able to resume the publication of Solidarity and the foreign language papers.

“In the meantime until the publication of our papers is resumed, we shall endeavor to keep the membership informed through bulletins and letters of whatever events may yet transpire.

“We also ask the forbearance of the membership if answers to their correspondence is somewhat delayed, as the main of the General Office, the Publishing Bureau, and of all the papers is tied up in the post office. We expect to secure the release of all our mail in a day or so, and we will lose no time then in replying to the correspondence of one and all.

“Until things become normal again, we ask the membership to redouble their efforts to build up the organization to the end that the lot of the workers may be bettered, and their toil-worn existence brightened.

“Yours for the OBU [One Big Union],

William D. Haywood, Secretary-Treasurer IWW. Chicago

The 1917 raids were accompanied by further repressive measures. Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was also imprisoned for his opposition to the war. Following the end of the war, hundreds of anarchists and labor leaders who had been born abroad were deported. This period, known as “the first Red Scare,” led to a massive decline in the labor movement in the 1920s. By the end of the decade, with the Wall Street stock market crash of October 1929, the Great Depression set in and labor organizing started up again on an unprecedented scale. The CIO took its idea of industrial unionism, as opposed to the AFL’s craft unionism, from the IWW’s idea of the One Big Union. The second, anti-communist “Red Scare” followed World War II.


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