Austin Lewis

The New Labor Movement
of the West

(September 1917)


Source: From The Class Struggle, Vol. 1 No. 3, September–October 1917, pp.1–10.
Transcription: Matthew Siegfried.
HTML mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive (2022).
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2022). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


Wider and more deep grows the industrial agitation in the Far West, bringing into its scope forces which have hitherto been recognized as outside of the pale of organization, and welding the masses of labor into a unified and coherent body. The Industrial Workers of the World, formerly a mere outlaw organization, looked at with contempt by large numbers of members of the American Federation of Labor, “regular” union men, is now in possession in more than one place of an industrial power which will render its future much more secure. With a curious sort of fatuousness, the government and the various state officials have advertised this movement as pro-German and anti-war, and have stated that its funds came from German sources, an accusation which they have been obliged publicly to withdraw and have thereby increased both the publicity and the standing of the Industrial Workers. The organizer of one of these unions in a district where hitherto its activities had not been remarkable informed me that their membership had increased sevenfold within a few months as the result of the advertising and the agitation directed against them.

A concrete example of its progress I found in the City of Portland, where the organization had long had a hard fight to maintain itself. To my astonishment I saw an entirely different condition of things than ever before in such a headquarters. There was a great hall capable of holding a thousand people comfortably. At one end of the hall was a rail and counter which separated the office from the hall, and in the office were seven desks, each of which represented a separate industrial union- construction workers, agricultural workers, and so on. The office was well equipped with files and typewriters. Each desk was occupied by a secretary and the work was going on as smoothly and as efficiently as in any corporation office which I ever visited. It was very evident that a complete change had come over the spirit of the group. The organization which I was observing could hardly be identified with its migratory parent which so few years ago had had the same name. This organization now is composed of men who are actually functioning in industry. They are, as the phrase runs, “on the job,” they are workmen, not out of work, but practically engaged in industrial labor. And in that fact lies the secret of the recent conflicts throughout the West. Vast masses are feeling the urge of the new idea. The rise in prices, the shutting down of immigration, the fact that for once the job is hunting the man, have put new energy into that portion of the working class which had formerly little hope and has aroused the aspiration that was formerly crushed under the load of unavoidable and hopeless misery. What was happening at Portland was merely typical. As one of the organizers in that city remarked to me, “If you think this is anything you should see Seattle.”

The spirit goes down to the very depths, that is the joy and the hope of it. It is concurrent not only with a demand for higher wages but with demands also for conditions—for better working conditions, for more human satisfaction, and, in a rudimentary form but still vitally there, for shop control and actual dictation of the conditions under which the worker will consent to labor. The cannery workers in California have shown ability to strike and to maintain their demands. The cannery workers! They have actually compelled the appointment of a state committee and have had highly respectable ‘gentlemen before them, pleading almost with tears in their eyes that these nomads, these despised and most contemptible workers up to the present time, may allow the fruit crop of the Golden State to be preserved. If I could only show you what is involved in a successful movement of the cannery workers and the apparent ludicrousness of the idea that cannery workers could ever have organized and ever have gained the ear of authority you would be able to gain some slight grasp of the scope and possibilities of this new Western labor movement. But I could not; you would have to live here for some years before you could appreciate. Four years ago, the first clash came between the hop-pickers and the employers, and a district attorney and a deputy sheriff fell on the field as well as several workers. To-day Ford and Suhr are in jail under life sentences, but the hop-pickers have only to make demands to have them granted, and all through the hopfields the conditions have greatly improved. So that even at the remote extremity of labor organization, such as that of the migratory workers of the harvest fields and canneries, the impetus is felt. Labor is lifting its head and the conflict is proceeding. Its progress is evidenced by the opposition it is meeting and its security is testified to by the fact that in every case of conflict, the other side has been forced to the performance of illegal acts. The enemy is no longer as strong as formerly. Owing to the increasing development of the industrial power of the organization the ordinary legal process cannot so well be trusted and so the capitalist and employing groups are driven more and more to the employment of hired’ irregular mercenaries as they feel the actual power slipping from their fingers.

In the town from which I write there was an attack made on the I.W.W. headquarters a week or two ago. The furniture was stacked up in the street and burned and the military mob which did the trick was undoubtedly urged on to the task by interests in this community which are counter to that of the industrial unions. But there had been no industrial strife worthwhile here to provoke the act The young artillerymen who carried their instructions were probably members of a company which had been organized by a former chief of police. They bad no public approval such as had marked the San Diego and Fresno fights. They burned the property; the State will have to pay for it. The Colonel came over at the government’s request and took an inventory. And so, the matter rests, with a disgusted populace and an I.W.W. which has gained immeasurably in the public estimation as a result. This is cited because as a single isolated instance it contains all the elements of the present situation throughout the entire West. The stars in their courses appear to fight for the organization and every act adverse to it so far appears to react in its favor.

In a short article it is quite impossible to give anything like a detailed account of the activities on the Pacific Coast; neither can it be attempted. The main facts in the individual conflicts must be sought elsewhere. Here it is only possible to point to the general tendencies which the facts appear to illustrate.

A few weeks ago, I was in the district of the lumber strike. This is a matter of great importance to the government as there are certain woods which must be had for the making of aeroplanes. As one of the organizers remarked, the government will be in a difficult position unless terms are made with the workers, for they certainly cannot get the larch while the men are on strike and if they are driven back to work, well, perhaps the larch might not be adaptable to the government purposes. There may be different views as to the reason of the success of the strike so far. I have heard it said that the lumber owners are not averse to the strike as they have stocks on hand and are anxious to keep up prices. But the fact is that there were about fifty-five thousand workers out in the State of Washington, that the lumber industry was working only to about fifteen per cent, of its normal capacity, and that the whole strike was carried on with a discipline and a good order very ominous indeed for the capitalist and employing element. The demands were for an eight-hour day and for certain conditions which appear to include bedrooms with a limited number of beds instead of the dirty, lousy bunks which were formerly supplied. The lumber worker wishes to stop being a migratory with a pack on his back. Shower baths are also demanded as well as decent ‘tables where food can be put on properly instead of presented in the disgusting and savage manner in which the worker is to-day fed.

These demands are unquestionably approved by large numbers of people outside the organization and in the States where woman suffrage prevails acquire a great deal of feminine support. The notable thing is that the I.W.W. has control in a number of the lumber camps closely approximating to that which the Western Federation of Miners used to exercise. The strike has produced much ability and has been conducted admirably from every point of view as far as appears to an outsider who has had, however, some experience in such matters. What is going to happen? Are the lumber employers going to yield to the I.W.W. and thus admit a defeat in a great industrial conflict? Are they going to treat with the I.W.W., hold conferences and arrive at decisions? If so, the result will be incalculable; the effect upon the whole of the Western labor field will be the most stupendous in the history of modern labor. It will mean no less than the substitution of the syndicalist conception for that of the old trade unions, a complete revolution in working class thought. And suppose the employers do not come to terms, what is to happen? The lumber industry is so vital that the government may, in default of the ability of the present proprietors to settle things, take it over into its own hands. I discussed this matter with strike leaders. The reply was illuminating. The government may take it over, and we should be quite as willing to work for the government as for any other employer, but government or no government we must have our terms or we do not work.

In the lumber districts, owing to the remoteness of the camps and the general conditions, the employers would find it much more difficult to employ those irregular forces of gunmen and provocateurs which they have used in other industries. So far, the conditions have been peaceable and the strike, considering its size, the immense amount of territory which it covers, and its duration, has been almost a model.

An examination of the other strikes where violence has been more obvious and where the industrial overlords have resorted to the use of their condottieri shows the same undercurrent, the same general trend. Take Butte, for example, where Frank Little was hanged and the industrial Bashi Bazouks put themselves on record. The older trade unionism had failed, the new industrial unionism was trying to make headway, and the extent to which it was progressing is evidenced by the revenge which the enemy took. It was a cheap revenge and as futile as it was cheap, one that is bound to react against them in the long run and which has already had the effect of immensely stimulating and increasing the tendency toward the new organization. As far as provoking the workers to resistance of a nature which would lead them to the employment of weapons, the use of which would certainly react upon themselves, the tactics of the employers have failed completely and the reaction against such methods is already finding an expression in the official class itself. This has been made very apparent in the recent car strike in San Francisco. The Chamber of Commerce through its president sent a letter to the Mayor complaining that the law was not upheld by the police force and that the Mayor was not taking proper methods to put down violence in connection with the running of the company cars. To which the Mayor replied in part (and I make no hesitation in quoting so much as it is so significant and will probably not find its way to the Eastern capitalist press):

“Doubtless you are disappointed because the police have not yet turned their machine-guns on crowds in our streets and killed a few dozen strikers, including the customary number of innocent bystanders; but with all respect for your opinion, I think the police do well to keep law and order as far as they have done but without any quick or wanton slaughter of the people. Violent and bloody repression has never maintained law and order so effectually as firmness coupled with moderation and common sense.

“It is unfortunate that so many persons of your type in this country are so incurably stupid about business and industry, the very matters in which you are most concerned and in respect to which you deem yourself most enlightened. The world is changing all around you, and you and your kind do not know it any more than the Czar knew what was happening to him and Russia until it was all over. You still believe in Napoleon’s whiff of grapeshot You still think that industrial discontent can be quelled by the policeman’s dub. Happily, the rest of us do not need to take you or your law and order committee as seriously as you take yourselves.”

The hanging of Frank Little can have no detrimental effect upon the movement as a whole, and none but a set of besotted idiots in a corporation owned community would ever imagine that a mere lynching could have any preventive influence upon the growth of an industrial movement. The one great danger that it might have provoked a similar kind of reprisal is now past, and there seems every reason to believe that the storm-tossed and tragic labor movement of Butte, with all its grim history and violent hysterias, will at last find itself at one with the new and rational syndicalistic trend.

Bisbee marks another step in the same course. In Bisbee the movement of the irregular forces of capitalism and the industrial overlords has been more dramatic and has received greater public attention than elsewhere. That is because their operations were carried out on a larger scale and the violations of the ordinary conventions of a legal society were more strongly marked than in other less favored places. It is given to few industrial masters to be able to get the command of irregular and illegal forces to the same extent as the corporation did in Bisbee and it must be candidly admitted that they took full advantage of their opportunities. They succeeded in deporting by main force twelve hundred and sixty-four men, separating them from their families, invading their houses, robbing their families, insulting their wives and in short behaving precisely like an irregular Turkish cavalry regiment in an Armenian villa yet, with the one exception that they were not plucky enough to murder. These irregular levies of the industrial overlords cannot murder in the plain light of day to be really effective; they must deal with a lame man in the dead of night and be carefully and securely masked. The Sheriff, Harry Wheeler, openly took part in the lawless and indecent exhibition and the tacit approval of the Governor appears to have been bestowed upon it. But it was an irregular and extralegal movement; the industrial masters do not appear to have been able to rely on their legal and political henchmen, and so far in Bisbee, as in all other places to which attention has been called, the deterioration of the industrial masters appears to be manifest. They are going to pieces in face of the new industrial movement and the economic changes which are undermining their position. They will be fighting with their backs to the wall ere long. What did they do? The facts are perhaps most concisely stated in the following words:

“Into houses they went, into bedrooms. They dragged men out, many from wives and children, many half dressed and some in pajamas. If a wife protested or asked to be allowed to say farewell, she was struck across the face and insulted. If the man protested, which very few did, he was ‘knocked on the head with the butt of a rifle and marched bleeding down the street. Some were found on streets, others in rooming houses, others in houses they had purchased with their savings. If a gunman was in doubt, he took his man. If he met a man he owed a grudge, he took him, striker or not; it made no difference. Several houses were robbed by these gunmen. In some cases, money was taken. Gunmen returned later here and there to intimidate wives of the victims of mine oppression. Many families deprived of their husbands and fathers were left practically destitute.”

And in this matter the attitude of the strikers was again beyond all praise. They preserved a calm demeanor in the face of the insults and the violence. One movement and they might have precipitated a massacre. They refrained from any demonstration and in their prison camp on the desert have been models of propriety and self-restraint.

The antecedent conditions in Butte have found a counterpart in those of Bisbee as in the lumber camps. In all three cases former labor organizations had failed to do the work and the coming in of the I.W W. was greeted by a proportion of the workers sufficient at all events to put the organization on its feet and to give it the immediate control. In all three cases the question of wages has been made somewhat subsidiary to those of hours and the camp conditions and working conditions have been more to the fore. Thus in Bisbee the miners demanded that the physical examination should be abolished. They claimed that the examination was used by the company doctors to discriminate against men who were supposed to have union leanings and whom they would disqualify from work by making an adverse physical report. They wished to confine two men to a machine. In this matter they take the same ground as the British machinists in their disputes with the government over the making of munitions and it is evidently an effort to prevent “dilution” by means of unskilled or semi-skilled labor. They insisted that two men should work together on all “raises,” meaning thereby “dangerous declivities where there is abundance of gas.” This would seem to be a very reasonable provision for it is obvious that a man alone in a state of semi-asphyxiation would have very small chance to save himself. They also required that there should be no blasting during the shift, which is obviously an elementary precautionary measure. The requirement that there should be no discrimination against organization members is the usual stipulation of trade unions. It is really only noticeable from the fact that it seems obvious that the strikers had no idea that they could control the work and make a closed shop of it.

As for wages they demand six dollars a day flat for work underground and five and a half for work at the surface. These wages appear large and have been made the basis of much comment, but under the circumstances they are very reasonable. When the nature of the work is considered and the rate of profits, and the further fact that the wages have always been calculated on a sliding scale proportionate to the price of copper, which price was actually set by the employing corporation, the demand appears to be even extraordinarily conservative.

The purely agricultural unions in the Far West are yet to be heard from. Reports constantly come in of their activities and prophecies of a general rising are rife. So far, however, there has been nothing of great importance. A strike was called, so we are informed, of agricultural workers in the states of Washington, Utah, Idaho and Oregon. According to the reports in the ordinary daily papers, the call was unsuccessful and the strike did not materialize. How far these reports are true does not at the present appear. It seems to be probable that there was no immediate dramatic response to the strike call though there is no doubt that the very threat of the Strike will have tended much to improve conditions and to increase the power of the organization in rural communities. Speaking of this part of the world, California, while we have had no great demonstration on the part of organized labor in the agricultural industry there has been a constant insistence by the laborers upon conditions, which has very materially improved the status of the worker on the farm. Here and there small groups have been claiming better pay and more human conditions of labor and notch by notch the standard is being raised. It takes much time and patience to accumulate the force necessary to precipitate a strike in the agricultural districts where the work is so scattered and small groups are engaged in the struggle. But the experience of the Middle West last year shows very conclusively that it can be done and there is no doubt that every year will see a broadening of the fighting forces of industrial unionism until they embrace an effective agricultural workers’ movement. Indeed, on all grounds, except the most narrow and selfish individualism, it is eminently necessary for the community itself that this should happen.

To sum up, then, the Industrial Workers’ movement is marked by a tendency to improve the status of the workers and to seek something more than a mere economic recompense in the shape of wages. It has, however, not yet reached the stage of seeking to make itself a fundamental factor in the conduct and administration of industry. It seems to be on the verge of establishing itself as the dominant labor factor in certain industries and has unquestionably improved its position greatly in the last few months.

Top of the page

Last updated on 11 June 2022