This week in history: IWW members tried in 1918 for “obstructing the war”
IWW demonstrates in New York City, April 11, 1914 | Wikimedia (CC)

The Chicago trial of 100 members of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) for espionage began this week in 1918. It would end in August 1918 with sentences of 20 years for 15 men; 10 years for 35; 5 years for 33; 1 year for 12, and nominal sentences for the rest.

Despite constitutional claims to supporting free speech, the U.S. federal government has a long history of criminalizing speech, especially during times of war.

The Espionage Act was passed in 1917 as a means of prosecuting anyone who publicly opposed World War I, which included opposing military recruitment and interfering with military operations.

However, the Espionage Act, like today’s Patriot Act, was really designed to target dissident groups and individuals in the U.S. that the power structure determined was a threat to that power.

One such group that was targeted by the government during the U.S. involvement in WWI was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor group also known as The Wobblies.

The Wobblies were engaged in radical labor organizing that was different from most other unions, since they allowed Blacks, women and recent immigrants to be part of their union. The IWW also was unique in their mission as workers in that they outwardly opposed capitalism and sought to create an economic system that was run by workers for the benefit of all.

Many of the Wobbly chapters were also critical of the U.S. involvement in WWI, since they saw it as a capitalist war, where working-class people were forced to fight against other working-class people in order to benefit the capitalist class. The IWW passed a resolution at their national convention in 1916 and in their newspaper, the Industrial Worker, they wrote: “Capitalists of America, we will fight against you, not for you! There is not a power in the world that can make the working class fight if they refuse.”

Such a critique got the attention of the federal government, which began a campaign to turn public opinion against them. This campaign involved the cooperation of various news agencies throughout the country, which would print editorials damning the IWW for speaking out against the war and accused them of being “a threat to the nation’s security.”

This attack against the Wobblies is well noted by James MacGregor Burns and Stewart Burns, who state:

“In September 1917, despite an intensive investigation that failed to substantiate allegations that the Wobblies were paid German agents or had violated the espionage or conscription acts, the Justice Department took action against them. Its agents swept down on union offices and the private homes of union members from Chicago to Spokane and seized every document they could find—including the love letters of Ralph Chaplin, the editor of Solidarity.

“From the several tons of ‘evidence’ collected in the raids, the government constructed charges that the IWW—if not directly paid by the Germans—was at any rate a criminal conspiracy to obstruct the war effort, advocating draft refusal and military desertion. Federal indictments were brought in Chicago and four other cities.

“When the Chicago trial opened in April 1918, more than 100 Wobbly leaders were in the dock—Big Bill Haywood among them. Each faced more than a hundred separate charges. The government did not intend, nor did it have evidence, to prove the guilt of every individual on all counts. Instead, for a month and a half prosecutors took turns reading from the captured documents and lecturing the jury on the subversive and atheistic nature of Wobbly doctrine. The defense attempted to put its accuser—the capitalist system—on trial. A succession of union members took the stand to testify about their experiences in the struggle against the exploitation of man by man.”

The Wilson administration ordered the Justice Department to raid 48 IWW branch offices across the country. Of those that were put on trial, most of them were found guilty on August 28, 1918, and sentenced to 20 years in prison, plus heavy fines. Although they appealed the sentences, most did serve several years in federal prison until they were pardoned by President Warren G. Harding.

However, the result of the raids, arrests and incarceration of hundreds of Wobblies, along with deportation of hundreds more, diminished the ranks of the radical union in such a way that it never recovered until decades later.

The resistance to U.S. militarism and capitalism by the Wobblies should be a lesson for those resisting today. Such radical politics will not be tolerated by the power structure, but resisting such policies is unavoidable if we want a truly free society.

Jeff Smith’s original August 28, 2012, posting for Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy can be viewed here. It has been slightly edited for formatting. Used by permission.


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.