Part 6 - Autocracy vs. Unionism
This unprecedented struggle was really a test of strength between industrial autocracy and militant unionism. The former was determined to restore the palmy days of peonage for all time to come, the latter to fight to the last ditch in spite of hell and high water. The lumber trust sought to break the strike of the loggers and destroy their organization. In the ensuing fracas the lumber barons came out only second best-and they were bad losers. After the war-fever had died down-one year after the signing of the Armistice they were still trying in Centralia to attain their ignoble ends by means of mob violence.
But at this time the ranks of the strikers were unbroken. The heads of the loggers were "bloody but unbowed." Even at last, when compelled to yield to privation and brute force and return to work, they turned defeat to victory by "carrying the strike onto the job." As a body they refused to work more than eight hours. Secretary of War Baker and President Wilson had both vainly urged the lumber interests to grant the eight hour day. The determined industrialists gained this demand, after all else had failed, by simply blowing a whistle when the time was up. Most of their other demands were won as well. In spite of even the Disque despotism, mattresses, clean linen and shower baths were reluctantly granted as the fruits of victory.
But even as these lines are written the jails and prisons of America are filled to overflowing with men and women whose only crime is loyalty to the working class. The war profiteers are still wallowing in luxury. None has ever been placed behind the bars. Before he was lynched in Butte, Frank Little had said, "I stand for the solidarity of labor." That was enough. The vials of wrath were poured on his head for no other reason. And for no other reason was the hatred of the employing class directed at the valiant hundreds who now rot in prison for longer terms than those meted out to felons. William Haywood and Eugene Debs are behind steel bars today for the same cause. The boys at Centralia were conspired against because they too stood "for the solidarity of labor." It is simply lying and camouflage to attempt to trace such persecutions to any other source. These are things America will be ashamed of when she comes to her senses. Such gruesome events are paralleled in no country save the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm or the Russia of the Czar.
This picture of labor persecution in free America-terrible but true-will serve as a background for the dramatic history of the events leading up to the climactic tragedy at Centralia on Armistice Day, 1919.
WHILE IN WASHINGTON...
All over the state of Washington the mobbing, jailing and tar and feathering of workers continued the order of the day until long after the cessation of hostilities in Europe. The organization had always urged and disciplined its members to avoid violence as an unworthy weapon. Usually the loggers have left their halls to the mercy of the mobs when they knew a raid was contemplated. Centralia is the one exception. Here the outrages heaped upon them could be no longer endured.
In Yakima and Sedro Woolley, among other places in 1918, union men were stripped of their clothing, beaten with rope ends and hot tar applied to the bleeding flesh. They were then driven half naked into the woods. A man was hanged at night in South Montesano about this time and another had been tarred and feathered. As a rule the men were taken unaware before being treated in this manner. In one instance a stationary delegate of the Industrial Workers of the World received word that he was to be "decorated" and rode out of town on a rail. He slit a pillow open and placed it in the window with a note attached stating that he knew of the plan; would be ready for them, and would gladly supply his own feathers. He did not leave town either on a rail or otherwise.
In Seattle, Tacoma and many other towns, union halls and print shops were raided and their contents destroyed or burned. In the former city in 1919, men, women and children were knocked insensible by policemen and detectives riding up and down the sidewalks in automobiles, striking to right and left with "billy" and night stick as they went. These were accompanied by auto trucks filled with hidden riflemen and an armored tank bristling with machine guns. A peaceable meeting of union men was being dispersed.
In Centralia, Aberdeen and Montesano, in Grays Harbor County, the struggle was more local but not less intense. No fewer than twenty-five loggers on different occasions were taken from their beds at night and treated to tar and feathers. A great number were jailed for indefinite periods on indefinite charges. As an additional punishment these were frequently locked in their cells and the fire hose played on their drenched and shivering bodies. "Breech of jail discipline" was the reason given for this "cruel and unusual" form of lumber trust punishment.
In Aberdeen and Montesano there were several raids and many deportations of the tar and feather variety. In Aberdeen in the fall of 1917 during a "patriotic" parade, the battered hall of the union loggers was again forcibly entered in the absence of its owners. Furniture, office fixtures, Victrola and books were dumped into the street and destroyed. In the town of Centralia, about a year before the tragedy, the Union Secretary was kidnapped and taken into the woods by a mob of well dressed business men. He was made to "run the gauntlet" and severely beaten. There was a strong sentiment in favor of lynching him on the spot, but one of the mob objected saying it would be "too raw." The victim was then escorted to the outskirts of the city and warned not to return under pain of usual penalty. On more than one occasion loggers who had expressed themselves in favor of the Industrial Workers of the World, were found in the morning dangling from trees in the neighborhood. No explanation but that of "suicide" was ever offered. The whole story of the atrocities perpetrated during these days of the White Terror, in all probability, will never be published. The criminals are all well known but their influence is too powerful to ever make it expedient to expose their crimes. Besides, who would care to get a gentleman in trouble for killing a mere "Wobbly"? The few instances noted above will, however, give the reader some slight idea of the gruesome events that were leading inevitably to that grim day in Centralia in November, 1919.
WEATHERING THE STORM
Through it all the industrialists clung to their Red Cards and to the One Big Union for which they had sacrificed so much. Time after time, with incomparable patience, they would refurnish and reopen their beleaguered halls, heal up the wounds of rope, tar or "billy" and proceed with the work of organization as though nothing had happened. With union cards or credentials hidden in their heavy shoes they would meet secretly in the woods at night. Here they would consult about members who had been mobbed, jailed or killed, about caring for their families--if they had any--about carrying on the work of propaganda and laying plans for the future progress of their union. Perhaps they would take time to chant a rebel song or two in low voices. Then, back on the job again to "line up the slaves for the New Society!"
Through a veritable inferno of torment and persecution these men had refused to be driven from the woods or to give up their union--the Industrial Workers of the World. Between the two dreadful alternatives of peonage or persecution they chose the latter--and the lesser. Can you imagine what their peonage must have been like?
Next page: Part 7 - Sinister Centralia