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America’s Industrial Workers of the World were crushed by big business

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Labour Party, Ships on Thursday, 12 December 2013

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This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 491 published on 12 June 1971.

Seattle dock, picture, image, illustration

The Seattle dock where the Wobblies marched in columns

They marched four-abreast down to the docks. They were tired and hungry and many bore the bruises and scars of their recent battles with police and vigilantes. Some looked grim and defiant, but most of them were in high spirits and sang exultantly:

We meet today in Freedom’s cause
And raise our voices high.
We’ll join our hands in union strong
To battle or to die.

It was a song that had found favour with the transport workers in Britain early in the century. Now, in November 1916, it was sung in the American west-coast city of Seattle; and the singers were the Industrial Workers of the World, better known by their nickname, the Wobblies.

The I.W.W. was a trades union founded in Chicago in 1905. It aimed to combine workers all over the world into one big union which would overthrow capitalism and build a new society in which workers would participate in the management and control of industry. To begin with, however, the Wobblies fought against the unjust treatment meted out to workers by the great American business corporations; their principal weapon was the strike.

They also became involved in a running battle for freedom of speech – the right to hold street meetings and to recruit members. They devised an effective means of attack. Wobblies would come from all over the west to towns where their meetings had been forbidden. They would hold demonstrations and, when these were broken up, would go willingly to gaol. So great were their numbers that they clogged the judicial system and the disruption they caused in this fashion far outweighed the trouble they caused with their meetings. Eventually most authorities refused to implement the laws against them.

In the town of Everett, however, the authorities, bolstered up by the town’s businessmen, stood firm. When Wobbly meetings were held, the sheriff – a man called Macrae – and his deputies set on the attenders in large numbers and beat them up. Consequently, the Wobblies planned a demonstration in strength. They would charter a boat to sail from Seattle across the Puget Sound to Everett, where they would land to demonstrate, several thousand strong. Thus it was that on 5th November the Wobbly columns marched to the Seattle dock to board the steamships Verona and Calista, bound for Everett.

Sheriff Macrae and the businessmen of Everett had received plenty of warning, however, and they had laid their plans. The dock at Everett was cleared and 200 deputies concealed themselves among its sheds and warehouses while others were hidden on boats. On the hills above the harbour thousands of Everett townsfolk who supported or at least sympathised with the Wobblies, gathered to welcome the steamers, little knowing what sort of welcome had been prepared below. They strained their eyes seawards and at last the Wobblies’ steamers came into sight and snatches of their singing echoed across the bay.

The Verona was the first to enter the harbour. The Wobblies lined her decks and Hugo Gerlot, a young German, climbed the steamer’s flagstaff to wave to the crowd on the hills. Below, Sheriff Macrae strolled on to the dock, hitching his holster into place. He hailed the boat and told the demonstrators: “You can’t land here.” “The heck we can’t,” was their reply and the gang-plank was placed in position.

A shot rang out followed by a well-placed volley. High on the flagstaff, Hugo Gerlot screamed then thudded on to the deck. Shot through the head and limbs, he tried to go on singing until death ended his song.

The deputies now poured fire into the ship. The Wobblies, clustered on deck, were easy targets. As they rushed to the far side, the steamer listed sharply and many were thrown into the sea. At last some Wobblies righted the ship and manoeuvered her out of range. The men left struggling in the water became target practice for the deputies until the order to cease fire was given.

Five Wobblies were killed and six were missing. Thirty men were badly wounded. Sadly the Verona limped back to Seattle, the Calista trailing disconsolately in her wake.

Meanwhile in Everett, two deputies lay dead on the dock. Sheriff Macrae and his backers from the town’s Commercial Club were determined that the Wobblies should pay for their deaths; 74 of the Verona’s passengers were arrested and sent back to Everett to stand trial, on a charge of murder.

Their case lasted two months. They were defended by a brilliant attorney, George F. Vandermeer, who finally convinced the court that the deputies could have been killed as easily by the cross-fire from their own side as by a Wobbly’s gun. The 74 were acquitted and the Movement rejoiced. But its triumph was short-lived; big business in America was too strong for the Wobblies and it crushed them slowly.

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