Yesterday, I forgot that it was the anniversary of the lynching of Industrial Workers of the Word (IWW) organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana in 1917, the 95th anniversary of that atrocity. Then my friend the Wobbly troubadour Mark Ross, who lived for some years in Butte, posted a great graphic memorial on Facebook. I shared it with my friends, but the full story of Fellow Worker Little, who is virtually unknown outside IWW folklore, deserves to be told.
Little was born in 1879 in Indian Territory, modern Oklahoma. His father was white and his mother was a member of the Cherokee Nation. Other than that almost nothing is know about his family life and education, if any.
Like many young men in the west, if he did not stand to inherit the family farm some day or had trouble of some kind at home, Little probably hit the road sometime in his teens to join the mobile army of itinerant workers who did a little of any kind of work they could find. 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 sometime outright stole—small operations and then gobbled up local and regional operations building enormous companies, and sometimes 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 back east, 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 strike 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 town went near bankrupt feeding and housing the hundreds of defiant IWW members 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 even 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 the 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 need 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 the grounds that 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.”
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, including Frank Little. 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 to tiny Hermanas, New Mexico where they were dumped and told they would be shot on sight if they returned to Bisbee.
Undeterred by his treatment in what became known as the infamous Bisbee Deportation, Little wasted no time making his way to Butte where a resurgent IWW was helping a strike against Anaconda Copper. 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 even 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.
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 attempts 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.”
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 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.
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.