You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Class-war prisoners--Haymarket to today

by PAUL D'AMATO | August 31, 2001 | Page 15

IN SOUTH Carolina, five longshoremen--members of ILA locals 1422 and 1771--are under house arrest, awaiting trial for allegedly causing a riot on January 20, 2000. In reality, 600 riot cops, with dogs, snipers, helicopters and armored vehicles, attacked union dockworkers picketing a nonunion shipping company.

The union members--and the local--are being targeted by politicians and employers in South Carolina to keep the state a low-wage, nonunion haven for global corporations. They cannot allow a powerful, relatively well-paid, mostly African American union to set an example for other workers.

This kind of legal repression--or criminalization of dissent--is not new. The history of class struggle in the U.S. is, in part, a history of trumped-up legal cases designed to go after the labor movement. To list just a few: the Haymarket tragedy, the Mooney-Billings case, Joe Hill's murder trial, the Moyer-Haywood-Pettibone case, Sacco and Vanzetti, and so on.

The most famous is the tragic 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. On May 1, 1886, 340,000 workers were involved in strikes and protests across the country for a shorter workday. Chicago was the hub--65,000 workers struck there.

The employers counterrattacked. On May 3, 200 police attacked a group of strikers at the McCormick Reaper works, killing four.

In protest, 3,000 workers gathered in Haymarket square the following day. As the protest was breaking up, someone, a police agent or an angry individual, tossed a bomb into the police ranks.

Police then went on another rampage, killing several workers and injuring hundreds. Four working-class radicals--August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer and Louis Engel--were tried and executed for their alleged involvement in the bombing, even though there was no evidence connecting them to it.

But that didn't matter to the employers, politicians and their press. As leaders in the labor movement, anarchists and socialists all, an example had to be made of them.

August Spies' last words still ring powerfully today: "If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement...then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out."

Though less known today, the Tom Mooney case is instructive. Mooney was a militant trade unionist and socialist in San Francisco.

When he set out to organize the streetcar workers, the employers set out "to neutralize him," according to a New York Times report.

Mooney, his associate Warren K. Billings, and three other trade unionists were arrested after a bomb killed 10 people at a pro-war "preparedness" parade in San Francisco on May 22, 1916.

Immediately after the bombing, the local employers' Law and Order Committee immediately began circulating a petition to outlaw picketing. Wrote left-wing cartoonist Robert Minor, "The prisoners are in the hands of men who consider labor unionism itself a crime. They are now proving this by making peaceful picketing a prison offense."

The case against the five was based entirely upon what was revealed to be perjured testimony by so-called "eyewitnesses." As Mooney pointed out, he and others were being victimized for being "some of the most aggressive fighters in labor's cause," not for committing a crime.

The campaign was part of an effort, in the words of one sympathetic investigator, "to crush trade unionism in the Pacific Coast metropolis."

After Mooney was sentenced to death, a worldwide campaign of demonstrations and petitioning--as well as the threat of hundreds of protest meetings and a national strike in the U.S.--prompted President Wilson to intervene in the case.

Mooney's execution was indefinitely stayed, twice, commuted to life in prison in 1918, and after years of protest he was eventually pardoned in 1939.

Today, the Charleston Five case has some parallels to the Mooney-Billings case. And like that case, it must be taken up by the whole labor movement.

Home page | Back to the top