|The Missoula IWW General Membership Branch logo for today's Centennial observations in Butte, Montana.|
This morning out in Butte, the old Montana coper mining town where a good slice of often violent labor history went down, Wobblies from the Missoula General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World and other folks will gather at the grave of Frank Little in Mountain View Cemetery and then caravan to a picnic area near the Milwaukee Bridge where the tough as nails union organizer was lynched exactly 100 years ago. They will go out on the trestle where his tortured body was left dangling and lay a wreath. My old friend and Fellow Worker working class troubadour Mark Ross who lived for a good many years in Butte has returned to town for the event and will no doubt sing—try and stop him.
The story of Little and his violent demise would make a hell of a great movie. That one has never been made is testimony to the suppression and erasure of labor history from popular culture. Instead his memory is preserved as a Wobbly folk hero, enshrined alongside other martyrs of the One Big Union like Joe Hill, the victims of the Centralia Massacre, and Westly Everet who was lynched in his Doughboy uniform.
In an effort to change that Little great-grand niece Jane Little Botkin, has written the now definitive book on her ancestor, Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood that Stained an American Family.
|Jane Litle Botkin's new book about her great grand uncle details the last 13 days of Frank Little's life in Butte and his murder.|
Little was born in 1879 in Indian Territory, modern Oklahoma. By his account his father was white and his mother was a member of the Cherokee Nation. Other than that almost nothing was known about his family life and education until Botkin’s research and book. Botkin disputes the Native American lineage chalking it up as a good yarn. Like many of the itinerant young workers Little left family and much of his identity behind when he hit the rails looking for work sometime in his teens.
Those from Texas and Oklahoma often did some cowboying and joined the huge bands necessary to follow the wheat harvest north across the plains all the way in to Canada. He might have headed to the Pacific Northwest to lumberjack and harvest fruit, hit the docks at San Pedro and other California ports, joined railroad construction gangs, and maybe even washed dishes in a skid road eatery. Frank certainly was at home among these kinds of men, the dispossessed, mobile working class who would make up the core of the IWW in the West.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, Little found himself working in one of the most important industries in the West—hard rock metal mining. This was brutally hard labor and among the most dangerous work in world.
The mining industry had evolved from small owner operated claims around boom towns to huge industrial scale operations often owned and operated by Eastern financial interests. Big companies bought up—and sometimes outright stole—small operations and then gobbled up local and regional operations and near monopolies in gold, silver, lead, and copper mines. The companies demanded 12 and 14 hour days of back breaking labor six days a week. Safety of the miners was hardly a consideration as workers could be replaced by a “reserve army of the unemployed.” As in the coal industry, there were company towns and pay in script that could only be redeemed for over-priced goods at a company store.
Conditions fostered labor rebellion, at first largely spontaneous and unorganized. From the 1870’s onward in the territories and states of the west barely beyond the frontier era where civil law was absent or purchased outright by mine owners, brutal, violent strikes were the hallmark of the industry.
By the 1890’s The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) were lending militant leadership and organization to the class war in the mines. Little joined sometime around 1900 and was soon a rising organizer in the field.
In 1905 the WFM became the largest founding organization of the radical new IWW, which aimed to bring the muscular industrial unionism of the miners to all industries. Steeped in the open warfare of the West, the WFM brought a particularly pugnacious variety of bare knuckle direct action to an organization also founded by parlor intellectuals like Daniel DeLeon of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), mainline Socialists like Eugene V. Debs, and “home guard” industrial unionists from the East.
The WFM’s Charles Sherman was installed as the first—and only—President of the IWW. But his high handed top-down exercise of executive authority was at odds with the already growing culture of shop-floor democracy of the union and he clashed with DeLeon and other intellectuals in the movement. After a year, Sherman was gone and the WFM disaffiliated from the new union.
But many WFM leaders and a lot of the rank and file, including William D. “Big Bill” Haywood and Vincent St. John, stuck by the IWW. With Heywood on trial for the bombing murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, St. John took on the job of General Secretary-Treasurer of the union. Heywood followed after he was cleared in the famous trial in which he was defended by Clarence Darrow.
Little was proud to transfer his loyalties to the new revolutionary union. For the next several years he seemed to be everywhere across the West in the thick of IWW strikes and battles in a number of industries. In addition to his continued work with miners, he organized lumber workers in the Northwest, oil field workers in the boom towns of Texas and his native Oklahoma, and California fruit pickers. He was noted for his fearlessness.
He was part of the Free Speech Campaigns in Missoula, Fresno, and Spokane. The IWW relied on street corner orators like Little to reach migrant workers in the skid roads of towns. From these areas of shoddy rooming houses, hotels, bars, and whore houses, bosses recruited workers for the lumber camps, mines and harvests. In order to enforce strikes on those jobs, the IWW had to organize the transient workers who would otherwise become a pool of scabs. Town after town attempted to shut down the street corner meetings by arresting speakers. The IWW developed a tactic by which they would send out a call for “footloose Wobblies” to flock to the towns and overflow the jails by mounting their soapboxes one after another. These successful free speech fights worked because eventually towns went near bankrupt feeding and housing the hundreds of defiant IWW members that they rounded up.
Little either helped organize the campaigns, or blew into town to take his place in the disobedience. In Spokane he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for reading the Declaration of Independence.
Little was widely respected by the rank and file for his sheer fearlessness. In 1915 in the company of James P. Cannon, much later the founder of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, Little came to Duluth, Minnesota, the Iron Range port, in support of strike of ore-dock workers against the Great Northern Railway. Little was kidnapped by company “detectives” and held prisoner in a remote cabin outside of town. Rank and file members got wind of where he was being held and staged a daring rescue mission.
In 1916, Little was elected to the IWW General Executive Board. The Board was embroiled already in controversy over how to respond to the increasingly likely event of American intervention in World War I. Little was elected as a radical among radicals, backing open and fervent opposition to the war and a possible draft as the only possible response for an organization dedicated to solidarity of the world wide working class.
Ralph Chaplin, cartoonist, illustrator, pamphleteer, and author of the labor hymn Solidarity Forever became editor of Solidarity, the IWW English language newspaper in the East in 1917. He led a board faction that argued against any overt anti-war agitation by the IWW for fear that it would excuse the unleashing of a massive government repression, “un-like anything we have ever seen.” The majority of the Board led by Haywood—radicals but also practical union men—were against general opposition but supported continued action in “essential war industries” even if strikes would disrupt war production. Little was in the small minority who demanded opposition to the war on principles. “Better to go out in a blaze of glory than to give in,” he said. “Either we’re for this capitalist slaughterfest or we’re against it. I’m ready to face a firing squad rather than compromise!”
After war was declared in April of 1917, Little headed back out to the field where “essential war production” was exactly the target of a major campaign in the copper industry that year. There was hardly any more critical industry in that year than copper, which was essential in the manufacture of brass for millions of rifle and machine gun cartridges, and artillery shells. It was also needed for the miles of telephone wire that would be strung along the front, electrical wiring, and automobile parts for an increasingly mechanized Army.
Little arrived in Bisbee, Arizona where IWW organized Metal Mine Workers Union No. 800. Union presented a list of demands, most of them safely related, to the management of the largest mining company in the area, Phelps Dodge. Despite his personal militancy, Little discouraged calling an immediate strike on because the union had not laid enough ground work. But when the rank-and-file voted to go out against the company on June 29, Little stood by them. He soap boxed and helped bring out the largely unorganized workers at two other large operations idling 3,000 miners and shutting down 80% of local production.
In his speeches, Little was not shy about asserting his opposition to the war. When accused of being a German agent, he told Arizona Governor Thomas Edward Campbell, “I don’t give a damn what country your country is fighting, I am fighting for the solidarity of labor.”
|Frank Little just missed the Bisbee Deportation. He was on his way to Butte for another confrontation with the copper bosses.|
On July 12 an army of over 2000 “special deputies” swarmed across Bisbee and near-by towns rounding up all know IWW members and strikers. Little had been called out of town on other union business just before and missed being one of 1,300 men were held at the point of machine guns and loaded into cattle cars. Over a day and a half in blistering heat and virtually no food or water they were hauled more than 200 miles away to tiny Hermanas, New Mexico where they were dumped and told they would be shot on sight if they returned to Bisbee.
Undeterred by what became known as the infamous Bisbee Deportation, Little wasted no time making his way to Butte where a resurgent IWW was aiding a strike against Anaconda Copper, operator of the world’s largest open pit mine. Once again he fearlessly tied the worker’s cause to the broader war. His fiery rhetoric included calling American Doughboys preparing to go the France as, “scabs in uniform.”
Predictably the local press, controlled by Anaconda, had a field day accusing Little and the IWW of being German agents. They openly called for vigilante “justice” against the “traitors.”
Meanwhile the town of Butte was infiltrated by Pinkerton Detectives charged with silencing the leaders and crushing the strike. One of those agents was Dashiell Hammett who became so disgusted by the work that he became a lifelong radical. He became the pre-eminent writer of hard boiled detective fiction. His character, the nameless Continental Op, was based on his Pinkerton experience and his first novel Red Harvest was based on his Butte experience.
In the early hours of August 1, Little was seized in his rooming house bed by six masked men. The beat him, tied him behind an automobile and dragged him out of town to railroad bridge. There he was beaten again, and by some accounts castrated, before being hung from the trestle. A note was pinned on him written in red crayon reading, “Others Take Notice. First and Last Warning,” and including the initials of several other IWW men and strike leaders. The note was signed 3-7-77, the code used by the Virginia City Vigilance Committee more than four decades earlier.
The event was staged to look like it was the spontaneous act of outraged citizens acting in a time honored Western tradition. Local police made no attempt to locate or identify the masked men and no charges were ever brought. There is, however, considerable circumstantial evidence that the lynching was the well planned work of the Pinkertons at the bidding of the Copper barons and that the motive was not patriotism but as Big Bill Haywood said, “…because there is a strike in Butte, and he was helping to win it.”
|Frank Little's death mask.|
It turned out that Ralph Chaplin’s predictions were to come true. After Little’s murder Montana declared martial law in Butte. Union leaders and “traitors” were rounded up and arrested. Both the strike and the IWW local were smashed.
And that was just the harbinger of sweeping action against the IWW and its leadership across the country. Halls were raided, including the IWW General Headquarters in Chicago, which was ransacked. IWW newspapers and pamphlets were banned from the mails. Foreign born members were seized and deported under the infamous Alien Acts, the legacy of John Adams’s long past crusade against the Jeffersonian Republican enemies.
|Frank Little open and defiant anti-war stance was controversial even in the radical union. But that was just an excuse to justify his murder. It was his war on capitalism that got him killed.|
After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which IWW leaders like Heywood openly admired, a Red Scare carried the repression on even after the war. In 1919 101 IWW leaders were arrested and charged with sedition in Chicago and another 40 at Leavenworth, Kansas. That included virtually the entire leadership of the union including Haywood and Chaplain. Heywood would notoriously skip bond and go to the Soviet Union to avoid trial, for which old time Wobblies never forgave him. Chaplain, who had foreseen it all, was among those who spent years behind bars.