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Emanuel Garrett

Out of the Past

Bill Haywood
(Feb. 4, 1869–May 18, 1928)

(14 February 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 7, 14 February 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Big Bill Haywood described his family background as “so American that if traced back it would probably run to the Puritan bigots or the cavalier pirates. Neither would give me reason for pride.”

Bill’s pride lay rather in that by heritage and life-long activity he was a member of the working class. From the age of nine up, Bill worked – as miner, as cowboy, and above all as labor militant. In 1896, he joined the Western Federation of Miners, becoming a charter member of the Silver City Local. Aggressive, incorruptibly anti-boss, he quickly rose to a position of leadership. The Denver convention of the union in 1901 elected him secretary-treasurer of the union.

Wrote Many Pages of Labor’s History

Bill’s towering figure (he was as large in body as he was unyielding in his devotion to the cause of the working-class) is associated with many stirring pages of labor history. Many are the names of labor’s great leaders whose work is linked with his – Eugene V. Debs, Vincent St. John, and others.

The Telluride strike, in which the union challenged the Guggenheim interests and after many months marked by violence against the strikers, under the “protection” of martial-law, won its demands for an eight-hour day and wage increases; the long campaign in Colorado for an eight-hour day in which the courts, the Rockefellers and other mine barons combined to persecute the union-men with floggings, jailings, “deportation or death;” the Lawrence strike which drew into its many months of activity, and finally victory, dozens of the best strike organizers, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti – in all these, and others, Bill played his part.

When the Industrial Workers of the World was founded Bill sat in the chair. He continued a member of the I.W.W., even after the Western Federation of Miners, moving away from the militancy on which it was founded, left the I.W.W.

Bill had also joined the Socialist Party. In 1907, while in prison, he was nominated for governor of Colorado by the S.P., and polled 16,000 votes. In 1912, the Socialist Party, which could no more abide revolutionists in its midst then than now, expelled him from its National Executive Board for “advocating violence.”

The Bosses Were Always Out to Get Him

Bill was ever a target for the bosses and their police. They were always out to get him. In 1906, the bosses saw their opportunity. An ex-governor of Idaho had been murdered in December 1905. Haywood, Charles H. Moyef, president of the Federation, and G.A. Pettibone were arrested for the crime on the testimony of a paid provocateur, Harry Orchard, who implicated the three.

The trial began in May 1907. Borah was attorney for the prosecution, Darrow for the defense. Unions all over the country contributed to the defense. Meetings protested the arrest, and demanded acquittal. There were witnesses everywhere to prove Orchard a liar. The jury brought in a verdict of “Not guilty!”

During the war, the drive against labor militants was particularly vicious. Union offices were everywhere raided. Workers were jailed. On April 1, 1918, there began the biggest of the anti-labor trials in the United States with Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis presiding. Haywood and 94 other “Wobblies” were charged with sedition. The defendants and their lawyers challenged the entire boss system. Bill, called the six month trial “a protracted propaganda meeting.”

Defense witnesses testified to the horrors to which labor militants had been subjected – the massacre of Frank Little, the lynching and torturing of workers by mobs of business men. The jury, in the hysteria of war-time democracy decided, after being out one hour, the defendants were “Guilty, as charged in the indictment.”

Haywood was sentenced to twenty years, and fined $30,000. On July 28, 1919, Haywood was released from jail, pending his application for a new trial. Bill immediately plunged into the work of the movement – touring the country, raising money for his imprisoned comrades.

In the meantime the split in the Socialist Party between the left and the right was maturing. When it came to a head in September 1919, Bill went with the left and became a member of the Communist Party soon after it was organized.

In the Soviet Land of Freedom

His application for a new trial was denied. Haywood decided to leave the country in disguise. “Saluting the old hag with her uplifted torch, I said: ‘Good-by, you’ve had your back turned on me too long. I am now going to the land of freedom!”

The Russian workers greeted him enthusiastically. Bill, arriving in the early years of the Russian Revolution, felt himself a part of the great edifice the workers there were trying to build. In the film, Tsar to Lenin, you can see him standing shoulder to shoulder with Russian workers, smiling, at the second congress of the Communist International. In 1928, disheartened by the Stalinist bureaucratism which he saw growing around him, he died of a paralytic stroke.

A newspaperman tells the story that before Bill left, he met Bill smoking an expensive cigar. How, asked the news reporter, can you, a leader of the proletariat, smoke a rich man’s cigar? “Nothing, answered Bill, is too good for the proletariat.” Big Bill Haywood lived his life in that conviction: Nothing is too good for the proletariat!

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Last updated: 28 November 2015