“Boys, who’s your leader?”
Sheriff McRae stood on the dock at Everett, Washington, at the head of a mob of over two hundred vigilantes. The steamboat Verona rocked quietly on the gentle ocean waves.
Then, suddenly, laughter broke out among the Industrial Workers of the World “timber-beasts” aboard the boats. Three hundred strong, mainly unarmed, they had traveled up from Seattle to stand in solidarity with the striking shingle workers in Everett.
“We’re all leaders!” one of the lumberjacks cried out.
Another Wobbly started to push out the gangplank, as his comrade grabbed the coil of rope lying nearby.
“You can’t land here!” screamed McRae.
There was a brief pause.
Finally, another stepped forward. “The hell we can’t!”
Before the words were fairly out of his mouth, a shot was fired. Then another, and another.
The workers rushed to the other side of the boat, breaking the rail. Some drowned — no one knew how many. As the bullets whizzed overhead, someone began singing:
“Hold the fort, for we are coming.
Union men, be strong!
Side by side we battle onward;
Victory will come.”
When they’d finished singing that, another struck up the traditional anthem, Solidarity Forever:
“When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
For the Union makes us strong.”
Singing, the Wobblies were shot down where they stood. After ten minutes, at least five workers lay dead on the deck of the ship. Two of the sheriff’s deputies lay dead — shot in the back by other vigilantes.
The boat would sail back to Seattle — where seventy-four Wobblies would be rounded up and tried for murdering the deputies (after months, they were finally acquitted). McRae and his vigilantes were never held accountable for their crime.
Today, on November 5th, 2016, one hundred years later, let us remember the struggle and sacrifice of these early fighters for human rights and social justice, and live up to their ideal of solidarity. The battle for unionization is far from over. Strikes, around the country and around the globe — from the Philadelphia public transportation system workers, to Harvard University’s cafeteria workers, to the I.W.W.-organized prison strike, to Hyundai manufacturers in South Korea — are being waged, and won, through the exercise of the same discipline and principle these loggers showed on board the Verona. Today, let us commit to ensuring that these struggles are successful — that the Wobbly heroes did not die in vain.
Note: Special thanks to my friend Lew Smith, a Mississippi union man, who alerted me to the imminent anniversary of this tragedy.