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History of the Sacramento IWW: “Building a Battleship”

Old IWW poster showing a man behind bars looking at the viewer and saying "Fellow Workers: Remember!  We are in here for you; you are out there for us."
An old IWW poster made in response to the large numbers of Wobblies who were being arrested and thrown in jail as part of a federal crackdown on the IWW.

As of November 28, 1918, the Sacramento local of the IWW is for the most part languishing in jail. However, in typical IWW fashion their spirits remain unbroken and they continue to be problems for the law and for everyone within earshot. The Sacramento IWW in particular decided to employ a technique called “building a battleship”, which is as far as this author is aware unique to the Sacramento local.

As one journalist in the Sacramento Bee describes the situation in the Sacramento City Jail where the Wobblies are being held, “curses, yells, pounding on the cells with anything that they can lay their hands on, and the singing of their IWW hymns” are done day and night, much to the annoyance of the prison guards, the other inmates, and anyone within earshot of the Sacramento City Jail. This had, in fact, been done ever since their arrests in the December of the previous year and had only been getting louder and rowdier as the trial grew closer.

The term “building a battleship” comes from the call that is given by a Wobbly when they want their fellow workers to start banging on the iron bars of their cells, thus making the most noise possible. The same journalist notes that the cry “build a battleship” can be heard in the Sacramento City Jail usually around five times a day. The noise is so loud that the protests of the other inmates are drowned out and the sheriffs are forced to stop their work until the battleship ends.

The purpose of “building a battleship” wasn’t just to be annoying and to stick it to the law, but to also encourage their jailers to rough up the IWW members before their trial. The logic was that if the IWW members showed up with black eyes, bruising, and such that the jury and judge would be more sympathetic. Of course, there was little the Sacramento local could have done to avoid getting the book thrown at them, but that’s another story.

This article is based on information taken from the November 28, 1918 edition of the Sacramento Bee.

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