Spokane IWW office is raided, leaders are arrested, and martial law is declared on August 19, 1917.

  • By Ross Rieder and the HistoryLink Staff
  • Posted 7/02/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7363

On August 19, 1917, the Spokane office of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies) is raided, leaders are arrested, and martial law is declared. The military authority is the National Guard, controlled by the U.S. War Department. This occurs in reaction to a demand by IWW leader James Rowan that all prisoners of the "class war" (he means Wobbly strikers and strike leaders involved in a statewide lumber strike) be released or Spokane would face a general strike. The repression of the democratic, radical union in Spokane and across the state takes place in the context of the ongoing, Wobbly-led loggers' and sawmill workers' strike for the eight-hour day and sanitary conditions in the camps. The IWW is militant, radical, and consistently and vocally nonviolent. The larger context of the repression of the union is war hysteria, combined with employer opposition to union demands. The nationwide suppression of the IWW during the war will include physical violence, vandalism, and the imprisonment of hundreds of union members and leaders.

Going to (Class) War

In March, April, and May 1917, the United States War Department gave orders empowering the Army to "suppress civilian acts of seditious intent." In the Northwest "seditious intent" was easily interpreted as participating in the lumber strike. In Washington the repression and suppression of the IWW was carried out by cities, counties, the State, the United States War Department (which, due to the war, controlled the National Guard), the United States Immigration Service (targeting immigrant laborers for deportation), and by vigilantes. In July 1917, Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) proposed a statewide organization of vigilantes, a "Patriotic League" to quell the IWW.

In Spokane, the IWW responded to the arrests by calling a general strike (to support the ongoing strike in the lumber industry), but this effort was an immediate failure. Yet even though Rowan's "general strike" in Spokane failed, martial law continued. National Guard Troops under the command of Major Clement Wilkins patrolled streets and enforced a military order banning street speaking, except for the religious and patriotic Volunteers of America.

Unlawful to Be a Wobbly

A few days after the August raid, Major Wilkins released a few of the prisoners. Rowan and other prisoners still held petitioned the Washington State Supreme Court for writs of habeas corpus. The court denied them on the grounds that it had no jurisdiction over prisoners held by the military. James Rowen issued a lengthy statement from his cell explaining that "there is nothing unlawful about demanding clean and sanitary conditions in [lumber] camps" (Tyler).

Across the state Wobblies were arrested for carrying the red union card and for walking down the street. Vigilantes, soldiers, police, and various deputies swept passenger trains and seized union members.

Specific actions in Washington state included the following:

  • Seattle: On June 16, 1917, soldiers and sailors attacked the Seattle IWW office. Rather than arresting the vandals and protecting the union office, police arrest 41 Wobblies.
  • North Yakima (later renamed Yakima): On July 9, 1917, Oregon National Guard troops stationed in Washington raided the IWW hall and arrested 30 Wobblies. By mid-July the troops had detained 74 Wobblies, and erected a temporary stockade to hold them.
  • Pasco, Wenatchee, Cle Elum, Ellensburg, and Easton: In early July 1917, in these and other towns Wobblies were arrested en masse and detained without charge. In Congress, U.S. Senator Wesley Jones (1863-1932) reported on how unmanageable jailed union members were in Wenatchee, pounding on the bars and nearly tearing down the jail. The National Guard arrived and turned fire hoses on them. Historian Robert Tyler notes that Senator Jones revealed no awareness "of the gross violation of due process of law in having the Wobblies imprisoned without charges by the military and without recourse to counsel" (p. 131).
  • Spokane: On August 19, 1917, the IWW office was raided, Wobblies were arrested, and martial law was declared.

The Back-to-Work Strike

By late August 1917, given the arrest of IWW leadership and hundreds of members across the state, and given the closure and/or wrecking of many Wobbly offices, the IWW leadership called on the membership to "continue the strike on the job" (Thompson and Murfin, p. 121).

This meant going back to work, but working only eight hours. Wobblies did so. They worked inefficiently, quit en masse to soon be rehired at another camp, burned filthy bunkhouses, and in other ways continued to strike while working. High wartime demand for lumber and the large number of "strikers" made this action possible.

The Nationwide Manhunt

Across the nation, on September 5, 1917, United States Justice Department agents raided Wobbly offices with warrants branding the entire leadership (some 200 men and women) as subversives. The major trial took place in Chicago and, according to historian Joyce Kornbluh, "virtually the entire first and second tier of past and present leaders were sentenced to federal prison terms of from ten to twenty years..." (Kornbluh).

The attacks against the IWW continued across Washington state. Other instances include:

  • Seattle: The September 5, 1917, raids by the U.S. Department of Justice on the IWW across the nation included Seattle. In Seattle federal agents invaded Wobbly offices and homes under, according to historian Melvyn Dubofsky, "perhaps the broadest search warrants ever issued by the American judiciary," seized minute books, correspondence, furniture, typewriters, and even paper clips (Dubofsky, 406). Following this the leadership of the national organization was indicted.
  • Seattle: In January 1918, the Seattle arm of the Immigration Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor arrested a hundred immigrant laborers who were members of the IWW. Historian Robert Tyler writes that the Immigration Bureau offered its services to employers who pointed out particular employees they wished to have arrested. During this era, the Immigration office did not need to provide any court with evidence to initiate deportation proceedings (it was considered simply that "hospitality was withdrawn") and the "legal" documents of this action refer to the Wobblies as "yeggs" and "scum of the earth" (Tyler, 142). However, as the Bureau was thinking in terms of 5,000 arrests, the U.S. Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson (a former coal miner) "stipulated in an astonishing memorandum that mere membership in the I.W.W. would not constitute sufficient reason for deportation" (Tyler, 142).
  • Seattle: In January 1918, a vigilante group calling itself the Minutemen raided the Pigott Printing Co., which printed the IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, and destroyed all equipment in the shop.
  • Aberdeen: In April 1918 a mob broke into the IWW hall, dragged out four cartloads of papers and furnishings and made a bonfire of them in the street.
  • Aberdeen: Two days later (April 1918) a different mob captured six Wobblies, beat them, and made them kiss the American flag.
  • Tacoma: In September 1918 authorities raided the IWW hall and arrested 33 Wobblies.

According to historian Robert L. Tyler, the 1917 lumber strike was the IWW's last real display of power in the Northwest. This strike for sanitary conditions in the camps and for the eight-hour day:

"... produced an angry and determined manhunt that ended only years after the war. For two or three years the story of the I.W.W. is a story of dreary and repetitive raids and arrests, trials and appeals, fund-raising for defense committees and recriminatory pamphleteering. The attack of the 'master class' jolted the I.W.W. and forced it to turn all of its energies and resources to its own legal defense. The I.W.W. really ceased as a labor union of any kind and became merely a harried victim, its actions marked not by the élan of the prewar years but by the desperate preoccupations of a cornered animal" (Tyler).

Yet the Industrial Workers of the World continued to exist (it still exists today), and its democratic ideals and Direct Action strategies came to life in other forms: most notably in the sit-down strikes of the 1930s and again in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.


Robert L. Tyler, Rebels of the Woods: The I.W.W. in the Pacific Northwest (Eugene: University of Oregon, 1967), 133-153; Fred Thompson and Patrick Murfin, The I.W.W.: Its First Seventy Years, 1905-1975 (Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 1976), 116-117, 121; Greg Hall, Harvest Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World and Agricultural Laborers in the American West, 1905-1930 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001), 119-133; Joyce L. Kornbluh, "Industrial Workers of the World" in Encyclopedia of the American Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

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