Big Bill Haywood’s Big Trouble

The labor movement in America is in trouble. Saddled with a reputation for laziness and corruption, stripped of their powers by pro-business “right to work” laws, membership declining and political power waning, unions are at their lowest ebb in a century. In the face of a coordinated assault by the forces of capital and their willing executioners, a posture of despair and defeatism would be understandable. However, with union organization ongoing at Nissan and Westjet, among others, it is important to keep up hope for the future. One way to do this is to look to the past. The days of the Pinkertons and Blair Mountain are over. Unions have faced longer odds and harsher opposition than today, and they won.

The essence of the union is solidarity. As workers, we have only our labor. It is our livelihood, our tool, and our weapon — to be raised only in self-defense. No worker is bigger than the union. That’s important, too — we can have leaders, organizers, representatives, but they ultimately serve the union and their comrades. History will always immortalize a few figures, but the most successful ones are those who live and work and fight and die for the union, for their brothers and sisters, and for solidarity.

Which brings me to Big Bill Haywood. In these trying times I think it is important to share stories of the labor leaders who have gone before. They fought for our rights, for the weekend and the minimum wage, for workplace safety and the right to organize. They remind us that we are not alone, and that victory is possible: that we have gone down this road before and won, against terrible odds and in the face of seemingly omnipotent foes.

Big Bill Haywood grew up in the West, mining in Utah and Idaho. He watched as infiltration destroyed the Molly Maguires, as the Haymarket affair sent comrades to the gallows, as the Pullman Strike and the ARU showed the depths to which capital would sink to defend their hegemony. He joined the Western Federation of Miners and began to organize. By the time the Colorado Labor Wars broke out in the early 1900s, Haywood was a member of the execute board, a powerful leader in the labor movement.

The Labor Wars were a brutal series of strikes and reprisals conducted by miners and mill workers. Opposed by mercenaries, private investigators, and strikebreakers, as well as the National Guard, they faced violence and sabotage, but persevered and demanded their rights as workers. The violence flowed in both directions, with union members allegedly sabotaging and destroying equipment, but due to the presence of infiltrators and provocateurs the exact provenance of much of the pro-union violence is disputed. Regardless, eventually the WFM was beaten back, with much of its leadership arrested or deported.

Haywood was resentful that the unionized railroad workers, members of the AFL, had not supported the miners. He took from this that unions alone were not sufficient to stand up to capital. He dreamed of “one big union,” a cross-trade solidarity movement that would link all the workers in an industry together. In pursuit of this goal, he helped found the International Workers of the World in 1905. His speech opening the First Convention of the IWW declared his goal: “to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism.” The IWW quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the labor movement.

That same year, Frank Steunenberg, the governor of Idaho, was killed by a bomb planted by his mailbox. Suspicion immediately fell on unions, as Steunenberg had clashed with the WFM on more than one occasion, and local WFM member Harry Orchard was arrested and confessed. Under interrogation by James McParland, a Pinkerton agent who had infiltrated the Molly Maguires, Orchard was threatened with hanging unless he helped deliver the WFM leadership. He signed a confession admitting to a number of labor-related crimes, and implicated Haywood as the mastermind behind Steunenberg’s death.

The local prosecutor drew up papers calling for Haywood’s extradition to Idaho, alongside fellow WFM organizers Charles Moyer and George Pettibone. All three men were arrested in Colorado, held without access to lawyers, and then escorted by the state militia to a train which extradited them to Idaho without consulting the Colorado courts. Unions around the nation were outraged at this kidnapping, though the Supreme Court denied the appeal on habeas corpus grounds and ruled that the arrest was legal.

Once the trial began in Idaho, Haywood was defended by Clarence Darrow. Darrow exposed Orchard’s history as a paid informant and his connections to the Pinkertons. Darrow’s summation was a defense not only of Haywood, but of the entire labor movement:

I am here to say that in a great cause these labor organizations, despised and weak and outlawed as they generally are, have stood for the poor, they have stood for the weak, they have stood for every human law that was ever placed upon the statute books. They stood for human life, they stood for the father who was bound down by his task, they stood for the wife, threatened to be taken from the home to work by his side, and they have stood for the little child who was also taken to work in their places — that the rich could grow richer still, and they have fought for the right of the little one, to give him a little of life, a little comfort while he is young. I don’t care how many wrongs they committed, I don’t care how many crimes these weak, rough, rugged, unlettered men who often know no other power but the brute force of their strong right arm, who find themselves bound and confined and impaired whichever way they turn, who look up and worship the god of might as the only god that they know — I don’t care how often they fail, how many brutalities they are guilty of. I know their cause is just.

Haywood and Pettibone were acquitted and the charges against Moyer were dropped. The trial made him a national hero and a celebrity, and he used his increased platform to agitate fearlessly for labor.

After leaving the WFM, Haywood devoted his time to the IWW, helping striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. His tactics included soliciting host families to care for the children of striking workers, a move which stirred up tremendous sympathy for the strikers. When the authorities tried to prevent some of the children from leaving for their host families, the ensuing violence destroyed their moral high ground and led to their capitulation in the face of overwhelming public opinion.

After the success of the Lawrence strike, Haywood continued his political activism, campaigning for Eugene Debs’s 1908 Presidential run and acting as a delegate at the Second International. His commitment to Marxism alienated some more moderate American socialists, and after being recalled from the Socialist Party’s National Executive Committee, he devoted the remainder of his life to direct action alongside workers.

Haywood was arrested in 1918 under the newly-passed Espionage Act. He was convicted of “conspiring to hinder the draft” among other charges and sentenced to twenty years in prison. While his supporters were organizing his appeal, Haywood fled to Russia to advise the Bolsheviks. This led to his disawoval by the IWW. In Russia, he lived unhappily as an emigre who did not speak the language and missed his home. Before he could return, he died of a stroke; his ashes were split between the Kremlin Wall Necropolis and the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument.

Haywood’s life and death were difficult and fraught. He struggled with both capitalist bosses and his socialist comrades, many of whom disapproved of his tactics. Despite this, he remained committed to the idea of solidarity. Haywood understood that individually, workers are weak and subject to the predations of capital. Only together do they have power, and the more of them that unite, the more power they have. That is the lesson we should take from his life. We may not always agree with our comrades, but they are our comrades, and we should stand shoulder to shoulder with them when the time comes. Solidarity is the only weapon we have, but it is a powerful one. Remember Haywood and the IWW. What he did once, we can do again.