Hoover red scare 1919 ch4
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NEVADA'S RED SCARE:
LABOR AND THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD
America's postwar recession and high cost of living thrust Nevada’s wage earners into economic chaos. Wartime "no strike" pledges and government controls had prevented wages from keeping pace with inflation. Nevada's workers toiled ten- to twelve-hour days under perilous working conditions, and received pay not much higher than during the 1870s. Laborers, becoming increasingly frustrated and disillusioned, formed unions to represent them. Most Nevadans were sympathetic to the workingman's plight, and urged employers to grant wage increases and upgrade working conditions.
However, Nevadans did distrust one union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Swept up in the national hysteria, Nevadans became obsessed with "communists" and plots to overthrow the country. Perceiving the IWW, or Wobblies as they were called, as a grave radical threat, citizens adamantly opposed IWW unions in the state. Ironically, minimal “Wobbly” activity existed in Nevada. Even so, its few IWW members were harassed, and small incidents were frequently distorted and exaggerated. Nevada's intolerance toward radicals contributed greatly to this harassment and eventually led to repressive measures, unbridled, eliminating Wobbly agitators in the state. Founded in 1905 by a group of prominent socialists, the Industrial (or International) Workers of the World was an effectively organized union challenging "the American way of life." Influenced by Marxian ideology, the Wobblies encouraged workers to overthrow the government, destroy capitalism, and seize the means of production. They preached the organization of all skilled and unskilled laborers into "One Big Union," and were especially attractive to poorly paid, badly treated, unskilled immigrant laborers. Primarily a western movement, the IWW gained much of its support from miners, lumberjacks, construction gangs and migratory farm hands. The unjust and oppressive working conditions these groups encountered made the I.W.W.'s unconventional methods highly attractive.
By espousing Marxist philosophies and advocating radical, social and political reform, Wobblies aroused many Americans' worst suspicions and fears. The union hoped to abolish the wage system, gain a six- hour workday and better working conditions, but their strong-arm tactics offended most Americans and alienated traditional organized labor. Wherever I.W.W.s attempted to mobilize workers, slowdown tactics, boycotts and general strikes resulted. Talk of revolution, along with scorn for the church and flag, symbols of the "unjust status quo," provoked the public's wrath. During World War I, anti-Wobbly employers associated the militant union with pro-Germanism and later radicalism and Bolshevism. Americans accused "Imperial Wilhelm's Warriors" of disrupting war production by spiking logs, wrecking machinery, burning haystacks, and carrying on widespread acts of subversion and violence.
Throughout the West, I.W.W.s suffered severe physical abuse from irate citizens for their lack of wartime patriotism and disruptive labor strikes. Tar and feathering of Wobbly members as well as flogging were common. State and federal officials raided IWW union halls, destroyed radical, literature and arrested hundreds as "enemy aliens." "Loyal" Americans even resorted to deporting and murdering Wobbly agitators. In 1917 the Bisbee (Arizona) Loyalty League rounded up 1,200 IWW and American Federation of Labor organizers and strikers at gunpoint, tried them by a "kangaroo court," and exiled them on a cattle train to the New Mexico desert. After being beaten and deprived of food and water for several days, the men were transported to a federal stockade. That same year, in Montana, the Butte copper companies' "hired guns" dragged a Wobbly agitator behind a car for several miles and hung him from a railroad trestle.
In December 1918 and January 1919 Nevada's newspapers reported extensively on IWW activity in neighboring states, convincing local citizens that a radical takeover was imminent. The Sacramento trial of forty-six Wobblies for violation of the Sabotage Act elicited widespread comment. The Reno Gazette's editor denounced these agitators as cowards who "attack in the dark, . . . stab in the back, and . . . murder from ambush." The Carson City Morning News advocated a "few legal hangings" to eliminate "murderers, bomb throwers, and sabotage followers"; the Daily Appeal asked, "Why not begin at home?" The press also reported strike activity in Jerome, Arizona, where IWW laborers closed down the town's mines and in Seattle where sixty thousand workmen, including 3,500 I.W.W.s, called a general strike. Nevada's newspapers also denounced the Butte, Omaha, San Francisco, Kansas City, Winnipeg, and New York City Wobblies, labeling them an "un-American bunch of reptiles" and "rattlesnakes," and "one big union -- of idlers." In 1919, Nevada's newspapers contain numerous descriptions of the Wobblies as "rattlesnakes," "vipers," and "reptiles."
The Reese River Reveille urged, "Now that we have a big army fully equipped and spoiling for a fight, wouldn't it be a good time to test out this Bolshevic (sic) IWW crowd and see . . . how far they will go." Other Nevadans suggested that the ultimate solution to the Wobbly problem was to "line them up against solid walls and perforate their hides with lead.'' As Nevadans became increasingly intolerant of America's two radical movements, the Socialist party and the Industrial Workers of the World, many Nevadans demanded drastic measures to combat "the red flag of anarchy and Bolshevism" and to destroy "IWWism."
Nevadans had experienced difficulties with the turbulent Industrial Workers of the World prior to World War I. At Goldfield between 1906-1908 and at McGill in 1912 clashes had erupted between IWW-led miners and the mine operators' "guards." Several deaths resulted, leaving a residue of extreme bitterness. The state's citizens also remembered Idaho Governor Frank Stuenenberg's assassination in 1907, the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times building in 1911, and the bombing deaths of ten people during a San Francisco parade in 1916. These three incidents were blamed on IWW agitators; Nevadans, like most Americans, were appalled by the radical union's flagrant acts of violence.
In January 1919 emotions ran high, and Nevadans feared Wobbly violence would soon spread to their state. Legislators responded by preparing punitive legislation designed to stifle Wobbly activity in the State. In early January a "Red Flag" bill was introduced to prohibit the "wearing or displaying of a red flag." Samuel Platt, a prominent politician, noted, "The only place for a red flag . . . is over a sewer." (By 1921, thirty-three states had enacted "Red Flag" laws.) Two weeks later the Senate proposed a Criminal Syndicalism bill, which declared any "doctrine which advocates or teaches crime, sabotage, violence or unlawful methods of terrorism, as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform," a felony punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment. Although Nevada's organized labor opposed the Criminal Syndicalism bill, there was virtually no opposition from legislators or newspapers. Indeed, the press hailed it as "a very drastic measure'' that would "squelch any attempts to spread IWW Bolshevism in Nevada . . . and make hard going for the adherents of the red flag." The Reese River Reveille believed the law would "curb the activities of the violent dynamiting, barn burning lawbreakers," and purge the "evil doers" from organized labor's ranks. The Criminal Syndicalism Law passed both houses of the legislature with only one dissenting vote; the Senate tabled the "Red Flag" bill. (During the Red Scare, twenty-three states enacted criminal syndicalism laws.)
Legislators also introduced a compulsory Labor Arbitration bill, outlawing employer lockouts and employee strikes; a three-member investigation board would mediate labor disputes. The press endorsed the bill "to protect the public from exploitation by both selfish employers and dangerous agitators." It was, however, doomed from the start. "Big Business" resented forced negotiations with workers, and organized laborers wanted to retain their right to strike. In a rare example of agreement, Nevada's large mine companies and labor unions soundly defeated the Labor Arbitration bill in the Senate.
The last punitive measure designed "to curb the activities of Bolsheviks in Nevada" was the death penalty. Citizens fully expected the radical Wobblies to commit heinous crimes, and capital punishment would provide Nevadans appropriate retribution. Governor Emmett Boyle vetoed the bill in January, and although the legislators sustained his veto, they reintroduced the measure the following month. The bill was again passed, and the governor, bowing to public pressure, allowed capital punishment to become law. Ironically, in January 1919 little IWW activity existed in Nevada. Wartime repression had driven most IWW members "underground," and no significant Wobbly directed conflicts had occurred since an Ely strike in 1917.
Several minor labor incidents occurred in early January 1919. Although the IWW did not initiate these disputes, Nevadans, keenly aware of the IWWs disruptive potential, feared Wobbly infiltration and domination of the strikes. When Nevada Consolidated Copper Company laid off one thousand mine workers at Ruth, Ely, and McGill, and reduced wages, over a hundred employees walked off the job in protest. The miners subsequently agreed to return, but Nevada Consolidated managers flatly refused to reinstate the higher wages. The dispute remained unresolved months. Ely's Nevada Northern Railroad employees simultaneously demanded an increase of their four to five dollars daily wage, which was not much higher than that paid the Comstock miners during the 1870s. The railroad officials refused to meet the union representatives and continued laying off workers and reducing wages.
The corporations' uncompromising attitude produced much criticism from Nevada's press. The Tonopah Daily Bonanza believed the operators were helping "to breed a generation of anarchists and invited a reign of Bolshevism" in the state. Many Nevadans were hostile toward the state's large mining and railroad industries, considering them "outsiders" who had shown little social concern for the local community. They believed "Big Business'' was basically anti-union, suppressing the workingman's attempts to organize and strike by utilizing scabs, state police and federal troops. Many newspapers observed that the majority of Nevada's workers were "honest men," "steadfastly on the side of law and order," who had every right to strike for higher wages or better working conditions.
In fact, unlike most western states, Nevada supported traditional labor unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Realizing that law-abiding workers who desired fair wages and improved working conditions initiated most walkouts, local citizens supported many legitimate strikes. A typical case was the successful strike of Reno Traction Company employees who wanted increased pay and a reduction in their twelve-hour work shift. Another involved the Reno Bell Telephone operators who, in addition to work- ing long hours, had not received a wage increase since 1917. Both occurred in June 1919 and enjoyed widespread public support, even though they paralyzed city services for a month. Las Vegas citizens demonstrated their pro-labor sentiments during a nationwide railroad tie-up by detaining a trainload of "strikebreakers" headed for Los Angeles. No violence resulted but union members did taunt the "strikebreakers" and parade them through the downtown streets.
To combat the state's pro-union posture, "Big Business" branded all labor activity and strikes as Wobbly inspired. Newspapers sympathetic to the capitalists' cause also attempted to convince citizens that labor agitation in Nevada was the work of the IWW or Bolshevists. The conservative press labeled anyone who undermined industrial conditions in Nevada a "yellow dog," and felt that in times of economic crisis workers should take pay cuts. They also compared strikes to "a small revolution." Nevadans, reading daily national accounts of "looting, destruction, and devastation, began expecting the state's labor tensions to explode into "bloodshed."
In reaction to the corporations' anti-IWW campaign, unions did everything possible to divorce themselves from the Wobbly stigma. The Reno and Sparks Labor and Trade Councils and the Sparks Railroad Brotherhoods resolved to "fight IWWism and Bolshevism" in Nevada. Since over seventy-five percent of the states labor force were non-union workers and highly susceptible to IWW agitation, labor leaders struggled to quickly organize as many industries as possible. Unions were formed to represent miners, cooks, waitresses, carpenters, and cowpunchers, and their representatives established a State Federation of Labor. By 1921 Nevada had one hundred non-IWW labor organizations with 6,337 members.
While Ely's mining and railroad conflicts remained unresolved, other disputes erupted involving sheepshearers, electricians, waitresses, and newsboys who demanded higher wages and an eight-hour day. Their requests were far from "radical"; still, Nevada's paranoia increased with each disturbance. Furthermore, after the nationwide radical bombing and "Red" riot frenzy during the spring of 1919, many citizens quickly equated the state's industrial strife with the worldwide Bolshevik conspiracy. For many Nevadans in 1919, the words "Wobbly" and "radical" automatically carried the implication of dynamite, and conjured visions of a person with "wild-eyes, bushy unkempt hair, and tattered clothes, holding a smoking bomb in his hands.'' Nevadans condemned this use of the "cowardly assassin's bomb" to gain drastic social and economic reform, and advocated swift punishment for these "enemies of society" who "conspire to murder and to overthrow the best government in the world." Newspaper editors seemed to agree that tossing them "back into the sea" was one way to rid the country of agitators with "mishapen [sic] heads and . . . distorted morals." Having fought to make the world safe for democracy, Nevadans now had "to make it unsafe for criminal conspirators who . . . undo the good work" of America's soldiers. The bombings made Nevadans suspicious of all reforms and retarded organized labor's cause in the state.
Their nerves tightly drawn, Nevadans envisioned "anarchy spooks" in every shadow and concluded that the IWW represented Bolshevism in Nevada and was attempting to takeover the state. During the summer of 1919 local law enforcement officials made the Wobblies the chief target of an antiradical purge. Elko's constable expelled fifteen Wobbly "agitators" from the county, with an order not to "come back." He sentenced several others who refused employment to fifty days in jail. Reno's police invited "all Anarchists, I.W.W.s, Bolshevists, Radicals, Government Destroyers, Cooties, and Murderers" to "go to hell where you belong," and arrested one agitator for admitting he was a card-carrying Wobbly and "proud of it." In Goldfield, state police apprehended their first "Criminal Syndicalism" violators after searching the residences of eight alleged Wobbly organizers and uncovering "radical" literature. No IWW membership cards were found however, and after a week the district attorney ordered the charges dismissed. Nevadans perceived the Wobblies as a threat to "the American way of life," and with the occurrence of each turbulent national event, their intolerance and harassment of this "un-American bunch of rascals" increased. Skepticism of IWWs eventually crystallized when a rash of labor strikes erupted throughout the state. Conditioned by the tumultuous national scene, many Nevadans became convinced that "I.W.W.ism in short . . . must be crushed. "
Through the summer and fall of 1919 Nevadans witnessed still further labor-management conflicts. Ely's Nevada Consolidated Copper and Nevada Northern Railroad employees finally walked off the job in July, protesting repeated wage cuts, layoffs, and the high cost of living. In August, miners at Virginia City, Goldhill, and Tonopah demanded six dollars a day and an eight-hour shift. In a ten-day strike at Battle Mountain, copper miners demanded a fifty-cent daily increase. In each case company officials threatened to close down their operations and leave the state. They also attempted to discredit the strikers by branding the disputes the work of the IWW. While the miners repeatedly stated that "there is no Bolshevism in our action," the press denounced the strikes as "abominations," "unreasonable," and "serious social disturbances credited to . . . greed. "
The state's most serious strike occurred at Tonopah in August 1919 and triggered a fervent anti-Wobbly campaign. On August 17 Tonopah and Divide miners walked off the job, demanding a dollar per shift increase plus an eight-hour day. A power struggle developed between the mainstream "conservative" miners and a minority of Wobblies; both groups presented different wage demands and disagreed over strike strategy. Tonopah and Divide mine operators feared any slowdown would impede the silver boom prosperity and discourage shareholders' investment. To combat the IWW influence they enlisted the help of Governor Boyle and the state police. In the first days of the strike, state police deported three Wobbly agitators and arrested several others for syndicalism violations. Governor Boyle also played an integral part in settling the dispute by convincing the majority of the miners to oust the Wobblies and compromise with company officials.
Several times the "conservative" miners called off the strike, only to have IWW picketing prevent the workers from returning to the mines. Finally, to prevent Wobbly picketing, the governor secured a court injunction from Judge Mark Averill prohibiting "all persons from publishing the statement that a strike exists, or that Tonopah or Divide camps are unfair or circulating any libelous or false statements concerning Tonopah or Divide." Wobblies who continued to intimidate or coerce returning miners by picket lines were arrested; as a result, miners returned to work in November. The judge's action had infringed upon the IWW's right to freedom of speech and assembly. Averill justified his actions by declaring that "the right of free speech and free assembly guaranteed American citizens by the Constitution does not apply to unnaturalized foreigners." Tonopah's press praised Judge Averill's "patriotic stand" and declared that "no un-American gathering can fall back on the Constitution" when attempting "to foist soviet rule on the land.'' Nevada's editors and civic leaders had repeatedly warned against" unbridled and absolute freedom of speech," and "unwarranted" criticism. (Tonopah's press, like most Nevada newspapers, suppressed reports of IWW activity in the state. The Bonanza's editor also wanted to suppress reports of national events to prevent his readers from getting "all riled up" and spoiling their digestion. Civic leaders denounced all criticism of Nevada and the United States as "harmful" and "inexcusable," believing that "Defamers of Old Glory" and "knockers" of the state could not be punished "too severely." Certainly many Nevadans agreed with one paper's inculcation that "the right of free speech is assured but speech must be 'right'.")
Tonopah's agitation infuriated Nevadans, and the Carson City Appeal press labeled the actions of the IWWs "second only to treason," declaring, "It is our duty if we are American . . . to resist this domination by the One Big Union, of our government and institutions and stand for Americanism.'' Tonopah's Wobbly problem heightened public awareness of potential IWW "invasions" in other Nevada communities. Patriotic organizations like the American Legion demanded that Governor Boyle call a special legislative session to enact stronger anti-IWW measures as well as "prohibit for all time the use of foreign language in any and all public, private, and secret gatherings within the State of Nevada." Many Nevadans, however, saw the futility of such action and urged Boyle to disregard the suggestion.
While the United States Justice Department in December 1919 rounded up domestic radicals for deportation, Nevada's law enforcement officials with the assistance of the American Legion managed to find their own "alien reds." On a tip from an Episcopal minister and Legionnaire, Reno police arrested Thomas Degan after finding four suitcases full "of the reddest books and pamphlets in existence" in his hotel room. This "veritable IWW nest" also contained a Bible and Mormon Church brochure. During Degan's trial, Reno postal officials discovered a package- "bomb" addressed to the Episcopal minister. A test, however, proved the "infernal machine" harmless, but it was an ironic twist for Degan's charges were eventually dismissed, prompting the Reno Evening Gazette to remark, "Degan's a harmless old man," and Nevada "is not in the least endangered by the fanciful doctrines of a few . . . hare-brained lunatics." Reno authorities also arrested a Mexican laborer, Miguel Lopez, who had just stepped off the train wearing an IWW button. A confused Lopez told the judge he thought the button was for "goodluck." The skeptical judge replied with a three-month sentence in the city jail, advising Lopez to thereafter wear "a good American flag." In Tonopah, state police raided the cabins of three Wobbly leaders, and after discovering radical literature arrested two for violating the Criminal Syndicalism Act. The Wobblies' trial lingered on for months, and Judge Averill finally dismissed the charges and ordered the agitators to leave town.
Strikes in 1919 alone had cost Nevada over four million dollars. Nevada continued experiencing numerous strikes throughout 1920 and into 1921. These labor disputes involved painters, barbers, copper and silver miners, railroad switchmen, and other workers, who were still concerned about the rising cost of living and demanded higher wages and reduced hours. IWWs played a significant role in a strike at Elko and another at Tonopah. Tonopah's Wobblies successfully closed down the mines twice in 1920. The town's mine operators and business community responded by organizing the "Committee of 100," a "patriotic" vigilante group headed by former state policeman private detective William J. Otts. After much fanfare and widespread publicity "Billy" Otts launched a "Wobbly wrecking program" and declared war on Tonopah's IWWs. The "Committee of 100" branded all strike activity as "un-American," and with the help of the American Legion, set Tonopah as well as Nevada on the road to permanently eliminating the Industrial Workers of the World.
Compared with other western states such as Washington or California, Nevada experienced minimal IWW agitation during America's postwar Red Scare. Nevada's support of mainstream labor and the fact that few Wobblies resided in the state explain why Nevadans never resorted to wholesale arrest and deportation of IWWs, radicals and "Huns." But even given these factors, Nevadans harshly denounced IWW activity in the state or nation, and passed repressive legislation to combat the IWW "menace." Moreover, citizens had occasionally allowed their anti-radical passions to color their attitudes toward all labor and denounced legitimate strikes as Wobbly-directed or "un-American." Nevada's IWW, and any labor groups that could be associated with it, had suffered the fate common to immigrants, Socialists and all those branded "un-American."
(For treatment of Wobblies in other western states see: William Preston, Aliens and Dissenters; Robert Murray, Red Scare; Patrick Renshaw, The Wobblies; Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All; Robert L. Friedheim, The Seattle General Strike; Roger Sale, "Seattle's Crisis, 1914-1919," Hugh T. Lovin, "Idaho and the 'Reds', 1919-1926," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, July 1978; Philip L. Cook, "Red Scare In Denver," The Colorado Magazine, Fall 1966.)
All Rights Reserved, 1979, 2002 by Ted DeCorte.