A History of the IWW: Encounters With The Law

A giant bell labeled IWW The One Big Union is stubbornly ringing despite the efforts of the army, police, capitalists, and priests to stop it by holding on to its clapper.
A cartoon from the One Big Union Monthly suggesting that the entire might of the government and the capitalist class weren’t enough to stop the IWW. In some ways, they were right.

If you have ever looked at the history of the IWW, chances are you’ve noticed that IWW members get arrested and end up in jail a lot. The most famous stretch of time where large concentrations of Wobblies ended up in America’s jails is during and just after the First World War, but even before then Wobblies had a habit of finding themselves in a jail cell for some very interesting reasons. The following summaries are taken from the Sacramento Bee:

May 31, 1907 – “Smith Jokes on Way to Prison”
Joseph Smith, one of two Wobblies convicted of the murder of Nevada sheriff Silva, jokes about starting an IWW local in the prison to IWW organizer Vincent St. John on his way to the train. I’m sure he’d be pleasantly surprised to find that since then the IWW has indeed started several locals in prisons through IWOC. Then again, perhaps he wouldn’t be surprised and instead would be wondering what has taken the IWW so long to start organizing prisons.

November 5, 1909 – “More Orators Taken to Jail”
In the midst of the Spokane free speech fight, a number of IWW orators are taken to jail and fire hoses are turned on the crowd that had gathered to listen to “the IWWs” speak. The IWW responds to these events with a parody of the preamble to the IWW constitution, which reads: “The IWWs and the police have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as the police use clubs and hose and the IWW uses pen and tongue. Between these two a struggle must go on until the IWW civilizes the police.” At that point, you might as well go all the way and write “[b]etween these two a struggle must go on until the IWW abolishes the police and the capitalist class and lives in harmony with the rest of humanity.”

October 8, 1910 – “Eight More of Orators Jailed”
During the Fresno free speech fight, Fresno police decide to provoke a crowd and a “free-for-all fight with the Fresno police” ensues. In the end, eight IWW speakers get arrested and added to the city’s collection of “Industrialists” in the local Fresno jail. I mean, if you’re going to arrest people for street speaking and antagonize the crowd while you’re at it, you deserve to be punched in the face.

December 27, 1912 – “IWW Workers Jailed”
Members of the Denver IWW local, Frank Jacob and Arthur Rice, are arrested for allegedly “directing offensive language at the police”. This actually says a lot more about the police than it does about either FW Frank Jacob or FW Arthur Rice.

August 4, 1913 – “IWW Sent To Jail For Contempt”
Alfonzo Shortell, a member of the Sacramento IWW, was arrested for allegedly attacking a cigar man for not agreeing with him on “IWW propaganda”. Upon appearing in court, Shortell informed the judge that he wasn’t going to get any justice in the court, which the judge took issue with and promptly sentenced him to 24 hours in the jail for contempt of court. I’m pretty certain this proves Shortell right, but I guess the judge has to preserve his dignity somehow.

November 21, 1913 – “IWW Gives Police of Marysville Hard Fight”
William Thompson, an IWW member in Marysville, picked a fight in a saloon and “ran amuck”. It took three police half an hour to arrest Thompson because he was a large man, over six feet tall, and kept fighting them. There’s a weird amount of admiration for Thompson’s exploits in this article – Thompson would probably have been called a hero if he wasn’t an IWW member and he wasn’t fighting the police.


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