Friday, August 7, 2015

The Original One and Only Rebel Girl—Part 1

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn at 16.
Note:  This story is too big for even a long single blog post.  Tune in tomorrow for Part II of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s Story.
There have been many pathfinder heroines of the American labor movement—organizers, orators, rank-and-file militants, writers, and agitators.  All but a handful languish in obscurity to all but the most dedicated labor historians, often overshadowed by men they worked alongside of and frequently surpassed in effectiveness.  In popular imagination just two names stand out—Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.  Their careers overlapped but never connected.  They were both Irish but spent much of their time working with Eastern and Southern European immigrants toiling near the bottom of Industrial Age wage slavery.  They could both be fiery, defiant of authority, fearless, and the worst nightmares of the bosses who opposed them.
Yet they were in many ways very different.  Age was only the most glaring example.  Mary Harris Jones did not begin her work until she was widowed and lost her children not long after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the Great Railway Strike of 1877.  She was already in her 50’s.  Her most famous exploits came in her grandmotherly 70’s and 80’s.  By contrast Flynn was a mere slip of teenage girl when she became a full time, credentialized organizer and orator for the Industrial Workers of the World and would take part in her most famous work by the time she was 30, although her long career stretched for decades after.

But the differences were deeper than the candles on their birthday cakes.  Jones was, by her own admission, an agitator and hell raiser more than an organizer.  Although dedicated to “her boys” in the mines and long associated with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), she fought battles more than built the union and would clash with union leaders who saw her as a dangerous loose cannon.  Flynn was every inch an organizer, attentive to the details of union building and a strategic strike leader even where circumstances worked against establishing long term job control.  Her loyalty was to her union, which she viewed as hope of the working class making her something of an institutionalist. 

Mother Jones.
Despite her militancy, Jones was not deeply radical and held no vision of transformed society. Her battles were ad hoc and practical—duking it out with bosses and their government supporters to win specific concessions and reforms—raised wages, shorter hours, improved safety, an end to child labor.  She did not envision overthrowing the system or the replacement of private enterprise with some other arrangement.  She believed in American democracy and was a life-long Democrat even when many contemporaries were committed Socialists.  Likewise she was always a practicing and loyal Catholic.  Flynn, from her very earliest days, was committed using the labor movement to overthrow capitalism and create a fairer and more equitable system.  What that system would look like evolved for her over her lifetime, but commitment to revolutionary change never did.
Jones was neither a feminist nor a suffragist.  Although she famously and repeatedly mobilized the wives of strikers to take up the battle when their husbands were jailed or barred from action by injunctions and police power, it was in the context of supporting their men and most of all the family unit.  In her brief brushes with work in the eastern textile mills where women were a huge part of the workforce, she was the ally of the working girls, but believed that their time in the mills should be limited to before establishing families.  She wanted to guarantee high wages for men so that their wives could stay home.  She opposed women’s suffrage, partly because she saw the middle class women at the heart of the movement were indifferent to the plight of working families.  Flynn was from the outset a suffragist and feminist.  She supported the rise of women and the assertion of their rights in all aspects of society.  For her the causes of the working class and of women were inseparable.
Mother Jones remains a beloved and respected figure, a continuing inspiration for her audacious courage.  Flynn’s legacy is less distinct and muddied for many by her years as a leading Communist after 1936.  But it should be no less inspiring.
Flynn was born to a working class Irish family in Concord, New Hampshire on August 7, 1890.  She was what would later be called a red blanket baby.  Her father was a member of the old Socialist Labor Party and her mother was one of the relatively rare working class suffragists.  The family were also confirmed free thinkers.  Concord was just one stop on a tour or New England mill towns where the family lived while their father looked for work.  By her early teen years they had moved to the Bronx probably because her father was effectively black balled up north.
Elizabeth quickly became involved in New York City's active radical circles while still a student.  Quick witted and glib she gave her first speech at the Harlem Socialist Club when she was just 16.  Her topic was What Socialism Will Do for Women?  Not only was it well received, but it so impressed her elders that she was soon on the platform for a number of meetings and rallies and was attracting crowds with street corner orations.  She was first arrested in 1906 for blocking traffic at just such street meeting in the Theater District in support of the old AFL Actor’s Union, an early fore-runner of Actor’s Equity.
The press was taking notice of the tiny orator—less than 5’2 with shining near black hair, large clear blue eyes, and fashionably pale completion.  A Philadelphia reporter took note of her effect on the street crowds that gathered round her.  They were, he wrote, “frowning when she frowned, laughing when she laughed, growing earnest when she merely grew moderately so.”
She was either kicked out of Morris High School for her activities or voluntarily quit—her own accounts varied.  Probably a combination of both—a mutual parting of the ways.  She later said she regretted cutting her education short, but she had plenty of company.  Few working class youth of the era even entered high school and fewer girls than boys.
At the age of 17 Flynn was a touring speaker for the Socialist Party.  In 1907 she met J.A. Jones, a local IWW organizer on the Minnesota Iron Range.  The two fell love and were quickly married.  The couple had two children, John Vincent, named for IWW General Secretary Treasurer Vincent St. John who died in infancy and Fred Flynn who was born in 1910 after the marriage failed and who was given his mother’s surname.
Thanks to her growing reputation and through her husband’s union connections, Flynn was hired as a full time organizer for the IWW at age 17 and electrified the General Convention that September with her maiden speech.
Her first campaigns were back on the Iron Range where she worked with largely Finnish, Hungarian, and Italian hard rock miners. 

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn on the platform.
 But in 1909 the IWW was having success organizing timber workers and migrant agricultural laborers in the Pacific Northwest.  Key to the success of these drives were street meetings held on the Skid Roads—the districts of cheap hotels and rooming houses where the pool of itinerant   workers congregated between jobs and where the labor sharkswork gang contractors—set up shop to send men into the woods or field.  This was right up Flynn’s alley and she was dispatched to the region where she became a major attraction.  

 The timber bosses and local authorities responded by breaking up street meetings and arresting speakers.  The IWW countered with a series of Free Speech Fights in which footloose Wobblies were invited to flood the cities and town and be arrested, one after another until the jails were filled to overflowing and the nearly bankrupt towns had to allow street meeting to resume unmolested.  The fights also attracted national attention to the militant union.
These fights made Flynn a real star.  She was twice arrested and jailed, most famously in Spokane, Washington where in order to keep speaking she chained and locked herself to a street lamp and kept talking until bolt cutters could be located so she could be hauled away.  To top it off she created a nationwide sensation when she charged in an article in the western IWW paper the Industrial Worker that sheriff’s deputies and guards were operating a bordello out of the jail using coerced female inmates.  Outraged and panicked authorities tried to seize all copies of the Spokane produced paper.
Still only 19, Flynn wrote, “I will devote my life to the wage earner.  My sole aim in life is to do all in my power to right the wrongs and lighten the burdens of the laboring class.”
Another Wob, a rank-and-file Swedish immigrant who went by the moniker Joe Hill was setting new lyrics to the tunes that the Salvation Army bands played to try to drown out the speakers.  His catchy ditties including The Preacher and the Slave were being printed the Industrial Worker, on penny song cards, and in the first edition of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, better known as the Little Red Songbook.  It is uncertain if their paths ever crossed then, although they had to be aware of each other.  In likelihood Hill at least heard Flynn speak, although he was so notoriously shy that he usually let pals like Haywire Mac McClintock sing his songs in public.
The next few years were busy ones as Flynn became one of the top organizers for the IWW particularly admired by General Secretary Treasurer William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, the already legendary big, blind-in-one-eye former cowboy and hard rock miner who flamboyantly led the union.  She most often worked in the east in industries that employed lots of women and immigrants, but she was also deployed to the Montana copper mines.  She handled hard bitten miners just fine, but really shown while working with women including Pennsylvania garment workers and restaurant workers in New York City.  Theodore Dreiser described her as “The East Side Joan of Arc.”
Flynn famously exhibited that quality in the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike.  In January workers spontaneously walled out of the giant mills after their pay was cut when a new Massachusetts state law reduced the standard fifty-six hour workweek to fifty-four hours for women and children.  The IWW had maintained a small, but influential local there.  Now the worker turned to the union for help with the strike.  IWW organizers quickly arrived.  They helped the strikers organize an effective large, multi-lingual strike committee which arrange details of daily rallies and picketing in addition to support work like operating a soup kitchen and an infirmary, child care, and publishing a daily strike paper in half a dozen languages. 
Early on the Mill Owners had succeeded in getting the intervention of the Massachusetts National Guard which virtually occupied the city.  Clashes between the guard and marches of American flag carrying strikers and on mass picket lines were common.  Photos of the Guard menacing strikers with bayonets shocked the nation.  Inevitably the violence would lead to tragedy.  On January 29 a police officer shot blindly into a crowd of mostly women pickets killing 34 year old Anna LoPizzo.  Using the logic that LoPizzo would not have died if she had not been on strike two Italian IWW organizers Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti and a rank-and-file strike committee member were charged with her murder.  Martial law was declared and public gatherings and picketing was forbidden.

Flynn, center, and Big Bill Haywood escort children returning to Lawrence after victory in the 1912 strike.
Haywood and Flynn rushed to the scene to take leadership of the strike.  Haywood actually spent most of his time touring other New England mill towns to rally support for the strikers and raise much needed strike relief funds.  He was very successful at both enabling the strikers to hold out while raising fears among employers about a possible spread throughout the region.  Flynn spoke almost daily where she could help to keep up morale, but she also provided hands-on strategic leadership.
It was she who came up with the idea of sending the children of strikers, who faced hunger and violence, away to the safety of welcoming union families in other cities.  Children were sent to Philadelphia and New York City where they were greeted by large crowds and paraded in the streets.  Publicity around the exile children was so favorable to the union and embarrassing to the mill owners that they had children and their mothers attacked at the Lawrence train station to prevent more from leaving.
Despite all of the difficulties the strikers held together.  Faced with mounting losses and the threat of the strike spreading, in March one by one the major mill owners capitulated followed by the smaller operators and granted virtually all of the strikers’ demands—except recognition of the IWW.  The union felt that it did not need official recognition, but that it could exert job control from the shop floor by direct action.  In the long run, the IWW local was not able to sustain membership and the Mill Owners invited the “respectable” AFL craft unions in.  Within a few years the IWW was nearly gone from the mills.  None the less at the time the victory was hailed as “the most significant victory in American labor history and a turning point.”
With the strike over Haywood and Flynn both turned their attention to the defense of Ettor, Giovannitti, and Joseph Caruso who were still languishing in jail awaiting trial.  A massive defense campaign was ramped up.  Haywood threatened a general strike in the textile industry unless the men were freed thundering, “Open the jail gates or we will close the mill gates.”  Flynn concentrated on the nuts and bolts of the campaign which raised $60,000 in small donations out of workers’ pockets and staged demonstrations across the country and in Europe.  It was her first experience in the defense work that would later become something of a specialty for her.
At trial that November all three defendants were able to prove that they were miles away from the shooting of LoPizzo. Ettor and Giovannitti each made lengthy, impassioned appeals to the jury, Giovannitti’s becoming a poetic classic that was often later performed on the stage as The Cage.  All three men were acquitted.

IWW leaders of the Patterson Silk Strike, Patrick Quinlan, Carlo Tresca, Adolph Lessing, Bill Haywood.
Flynn and Haywood hardly had time to rest on their laurels.  In February 1913 thousands of silk workers in Patterson, New Jersey struck for the eight hour day and called in the IWW.  Haywood and Flynn were joined in Paterson by three other top organizers, Patrick L. Quinlan, Adolf Lessing, and the Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca.  As in Lawrence they helped set up a democratic and multi-ethnic strike committee which actually directed the course of the strike with the IWW organizers providing advice, support, and assistance.  And as in Lawrence, local authorities rallied around the mill owners with massive force against the workers.
At Patterson authorities turned to mass arrests while the IWW tried to maintain peaceful mass picketing.  Over 1,600 arrests were made straining local jails and causing authorities to improvise bullpens in wretched conditions.  Both Flynn and Haywood were swept up in the arrests.  Flynn was arrested early on February 25 and charged with inciting violence through radical speech.  Her speech had urged the strikers to maintain solidarity across racial and ethnic divisions.
As the strike dragged on, Socialist journalist Jack Reed and his New York Bohemian friends got the idea to “bring the strike to the City.”  Reed had himself been arrested while covering the strike for The Masses.  He enlisted the financial backing of art patron and noted limousine liberal Mabel Dodge and artists like as John Sloan, who painted a ninety-foot backdrop depicting the silk mills.  Eugene O’NeillReed's pal and rival for the affections of Louise Bryant, reportedly wrote dialogue.   Reed rented Madison Square Garden and erected an enormous electric sign over it depicting a naked-from-the-waist-up worker with an up-stretched arm emerging above the mills.   Hundreds of actual strikers were brought from Patterson to reenact the strike on a massive stage.  Flynn reprised one of her street orations.  The Patterson Pageant was a big propaganda success, but a financial failure with expenses far outstripping ticket purchases Reed left town for Europe the day after the Pageant leaving the IWW holding the bag for the losses.
Ultimately the strike ended in failure in July with workers returning to their jobs and identified IWW rank and file leaders effectively black balled.  It was a bitter defeat and spelled the beginning of the decline of the IWW in all of the eastern textile industries.
Elsewhere, however, there were continued opportunities and Flynn was ready for them.
During the strike Flynn began a relationship with Carlo Tresca, a tall, handsome, intense man with a 19th Century goatee.  Since the breakup of her marriage Flynn had embraced the free love espoused by Emma Goldman and freely practiced by the Greenwich Village leftist Bohemian intellectuals like Jack Reed and his set.  Unlike Goldman, she did not advocate free love on the platform, understanding that it would shock and offend the mostly immigrant women with whom she often worked.  Tresca would also have an affair with Flynn’s sister and father a child by her.  For her part, she would have other relationships, usually discretely, with both men and women.  Tresca also became her regular partner in many organizing campaigns.
In these pre-World War I years Flynn was arrested at least ten separate times, but never convicted.  Not only did she usually benefit from the best legal talent that the IWW could afford, she also eloquently and compellingly presented herself sympathetically in court.  And perhaps judges were less harsh on as an attractive young woman than they might have been with a grizzled veteran male organizer.
Joe Hill.
In January 1914 the young itinerant Wobbly songwriter who had crossed Flynn’s path in the Pacific Northwest five years earlier was arrested and charged with murder in the failed robbery of a Salt Lake City grocer.  By this time Joe Hill had become a famous man in his own right, having written dozens of widely circulated songs and contributed cartoons to the Industrial Worker.  He was known to pop up on picket lines or for Free Speech fights all over the West.  He was an almost legendary phantom.  Now IWW leaders were convinced that Hill was being framed by the Copper Bosses because they feared he was in town to stir up trouble.
For his part, Hill did not seem to have been in Salt Lake on any kind of union business, but in pursuit of a romance with the daughter of his rooming house landlord, who happened to be engaged to a fellow Wobbly and best friend.  Apparently said friend shot him one evening in a quarrel over the girl.  Hill, a forgiving fellow, lent his erstwhile pal the money to quietly blow town.  We finally know all of this because meticulous research by writer William M. Adler published in The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon in 2011.  But at the time Hill clammed up to protect both the girl and the pal when he visited a doctor for his wound on the same night of the botched robbery.
Despite the refusal to provide an alibi, there was plenty of reason to doubt the alleged connection of Hill to the robbery—he didn’t come close to matching the physical description of the robber by an eye witness, the bullet hole in his coat indicated that he had both hands in the air when shot, and the fact that he showed up wounded at a doctor’s office across town before he could have arrived from the crime scene.  Perhaps the temptation to put away a famous Wobbly was too good an opportunity for authorities to pass.
At IWW Headquarters in Chicago, Haywood determined to ramp up a major defense effort to save Hill’s life.  He turned to the reliable Flynn who had demonstrated talent for such things, to spearhead much of the effort.  Flynn organized protest meetings across the country, collected petitions to anyone remotely concerned, and raised significant funds.  In the process she made Hill even more famous and set him up as an almost Christ like martyr to the bosses and the state.  After his conviction Adler concludes that he came to view himself as potentially more valuable to the movement as a dead martyr than a live song writer.
As Hill sat in his cell waiting for fruitless appeals the wind their way through the courts, Flynn famously visited him.  Much has been made of the meeting and in fictional accounts Hill is painted as falling in love with Flynn and perhaps she with him.  It is possible.  Hill had a deep romantic streak and he had long admired Flynn.  Here she was, still a lovely young woman speaking gently to him through the bars of his cell.  And it is not inconceivable that she was drawn to the gaunt but handsome Swede with the piercing blue eyes and bashful countenance.  We do know that after the meeting Hill wrote one of his most famous songs inspired by her.

Sheet music cover of Hill's The Rebel Girl.
The Rebel Girl

There are women of many descriptions
In this queer world, as everyone knows.
Some are living in beautiful mansions,
And are wearing the finest of clothes.
There are blue blooded queens and princesses,
Who have charms made of diamonds and pearl;
But the only and thoroughbred lady
Is the Rebel Girl.

That's the Rebel Girl, that's the Rebel Girl!
To the working class she’s a precious pearl.
She brings courage, pride and joy
To the fighting Rebel Boy.
We’ve had girls before, but we need some more
In the Industrial Workers of the World.
For it’s great to fight for freedom
With a Rebel Girl.

Yes, her hands may be hardened from labor,
And her dress may not be very fine;
But a heart in her bosom is beating
That is true to her class and her kind.
And the grafters in terror are trembling
When her spite and defiance she’ll hurl;
For the only and thoroughbred lady
Is the Rebel Girl.
—Joe Hill
Hill went to his death by firing squad on November 19, 1915.  His funeral in Chicago was said to be one of the largest in the city’s history.  In accordance with his famous poetic Last Will his ashes were divided into packets and distributed to IWW branches in “every state but Utah” to be scattered in the wind.  Flynn was devastated by the death and forever after associated with Joe Hill’s song.
The following year found Flynn on familiar ground, back on the Minnesota Iron Range once again working with the miners there.  She was working with Joe Ettor, her old fellow worker from the Lawrence Strike.  They were responding to calls for assistance from a mass strike against the mines dominated by U.S. Steel and joined organizers Carlo Tresca, Flynn’s sometimes lover, and Frank Little who were already on the scene.  It was a brutal strike with routine company gun thug violence.  Little was kidnapped and badly beaten before he managed to escape.
In what seemed like a side action to the strike, deputized company guards raided a home occupied by  immigrant strikers who were supposedly operating an illegal still.  A gunfight erupted and one deputy and a bystander were killed.  Despite pretty clear evidence that the deputy was killed by wild firing from his own party and the bystander was likewise hit with one of their stray bullets, the men inside the house were charged with murder.  Flynn and Ettor were also arrested and charged in the case.  Prosecutors on no evidence whatsoever alleged that they had ordered to men in the house to lure the guards into a fatal ambush.
With the Minnesota courts in hostile hands, the outcome for all of the accused looked grim.  Haywood once again mobilized the IWW defense apparatus and secured the services of his favorite lawyer, Judge Orin Hilton, who had represented Haywood’s co-defendant William Pettibone in their famous trial for the assassination of a former Idaho Governor with a bomb, as well as Vincent St. John, and Joe Hill.  Haywood was convinced that Hilton could secure a not guilty verdict for all of the defendants. 
Things looked different to Flynn and Ettor and other IWW organizers on the scene.  They felt that they would be acquitted in the absence of any real evidence against them but that Montenegrin miner Philip Masonovich,  his wife and three immigrant boarders would be convicted and likely given long sentences or the death penalty. Flynn an Ettor encouraged the other defendants to accept a plea bargain to lesser charges with a one year sentence while charges would be dropped against them.  When Haywood heard of the deal, he was furious and accused Flynn and Ettor of sacrificing the workers that they were supposed to represent and protect in exchange for their own safety.  When prosecutors reneged on the terms of the plea deal and sentenced the men in the case to 5 to 20 years,  Haywood was sure of a tainted deal.  He blasted the pair publicly in the IWW press and stripped both of their organizer’s credentials.  He would later claim in his autobiography that they were both expelled from the union.  Although Ettor did leave the union, Flynn did not.  She would never again work for the General Organization, but she continued to be called upon by IWW locals and was occasionally employed as an organizer for individual Industrial Unions out of the reach of Haywood’s wrath.
Flynn turned to spending more time on the lecture platform to support herself.  When the U.S. entered World War I, she was not shy in her vocal opposition.  She urged workers not to enlist and to resist the draft, and shun patriotic appeals to suspend strike actions in basic industries like copper mining.  Her outspokenness resulted in her being charged in 1917 with many suffragists and pacifists.  Most women faced minor charges such as disturbing the peace, but Flynn was charged with a felony for violating the newly enacted Federal Espionage Act.  She fought the charges for nearly two years but the government never demonstrated any actual spying or sabotage of the war effort.  She stoutly defended herself on her Constitutional right to free speech.  Charges were dropped before trial after the war ended.

But soon after she was in the clear virtually the entire leadership of the IWW was swept up in nationwide raids fueled by the post-war scare of a Bolshevik revolution in the States.  Haywood and the entire Executive Board were among 101 Wobblies put on trial in Chicago.  Flynn once again turned her attention to defense work, speaking and raising money.  All of the defendants were convicted and given long sentences.  Haywood, out on bail secured by mortgages of IWW members’ homes skipped the country and fled to Russia to avoid prison.  Many, maybe most Wobblies, never forgave him for betraying the trust of his fellow workers—exactly the charge he had leveled against Flynn.

Continued tomorrow.

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