Lydia Beidel Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Lydia Beidel

Famous American Labor Trials

The United States vs. William D. Haywood et al.

(September 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 37, 13 September 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Sentenced to jail in United States Penitentiaries in August, 1918

Twenty-nine members of the Socialist Workers Party and of Motor Transport and Allied Workers, Local 544-CIO, are today awaiting trial in St. Paul on an indictment brought against them by the Department of Justice at the instigation of the warmongering national administration and some of the reactionary leaders of the American Federation of Labor. The developments in this Minnesota case bring strikingly to mind many of the similar circumstances surrounding the famous case reviewed below.

“We are not criminals and not in prison because we committed crimes or conspired to commit them. From the beginning justice has been denied us and the truth of our case withheld from consideration of the public ... We are working men, conscious of our position in society and guilty only of championing the cause of the class to which we belong ... Our imprisonment was the starting-point of the open-shop drive of the movement toward establishing the Industrial Court, the Landis Award, and the recent wage-cut, union wrecking campaign of the militant employing class ... Liberty is sweet to any man in prison, but not sweet enough to us to be purchased at the price of principle.”

Open Letter to President Harding, signed in
August 1922 by 52 I.W.W. defendants at Leavenworth
Penitentiary, refusing to apply for individual amnesty

Background of the Case

President Wilson and the Congress of the United States had declared ,war on Germany. “Civil peace” was necessary, and that meant terrorizing the working class into acceptance of the war regime.

At the same time shrewd little Samuel Gompers, boss of the AFL, pledged his organization to 100% support of the war and rushed to Attorney-General Palmer of the Department of Justice with a proposition: Smash the I.W.W.

Gompers had tried vainly for years to combat the fighting philosophy of industrial unionism. Here was his chance to get rid of a rival and build himself up as a war-mongering “patriot”.

Palmer agreed, and a wave of Department of Justice assaults began, aimed primarily at the I.W.W. but hitting an untold number of militant workers belonging to other organizations or simply fighting for decent working conditions.

The climax came on September 5, 1917, when, in more than 50 cities, Department of Justice men invaded I.W.W. headquarters and the homes of individuals with warrants which the courts later declared “void and illegal”, and confiscated “several thousand pounds” of printed material. A few days later 166 members of the I.W.W. were arrested and on September 28 indicted for “criminal conspiracy”.

The Indictment

The indictment contained five counts, charging the defendants with having:

  1. “unlawfully and feloniously conspired, combined, confederated and agreed together ... by force to prevent, hinder and delay the execution” of laws covering the the Selective Service Act, the Espionage Act, the act declaring a state of war against Germany, certain war-time appropriation bills and sections of the Penal Code;
  2. conspired to “injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate a great number of citizens of the U.S.” (employers of labor) in the free exercise of their right to profiteer on sales of war supplies to the government;
  3. attempted to induce 10,000 draft eligibles (not one was ever named or brought into court to testify!) not to register and to persuade 5,000 draftees (nobody ever saw one of these either) to desert;
  4. conspired to “cause insubordination, disloyalty and refusal of duty” in the armed forces of the U.S. in a time of war;
  5. conspired to execute a “certain scheme and artifice to defraud the employers of labor” by mailing propaganda materials (2,020 crimes – one for each piece mailed!).

17,020 crimes were charged against each one of the 166 defendants!

The Trials

Trials of the 166 I.W.W.’s took place in the .Federal Courts of Chicago, Sacramento, Wichita, Omaha and San Diego, the largest number (113) going before a jury in the court of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in Chicago.

In Sacramento the defendants, in protest against an obvious frame-up, refused to defend themselves, remaining mute while witness after witness poured out perjured testimony. Their silence was broken only once when, upon hearing sentence read, they arose and sang the International.

At Chicago, the trial displayed every evil and farcical aspect of a political frame-up. It began in April 1918 and continued for five months. Defense witnesses were intimidated and arrested for admitting membership in the I.W.W. The newspapers wallowed in lurid stories of I.W.W. “crimes”. A bomb went off mysteriously in the Federal Court House itself. Influential people concerned with the defense were told “in secrecy” that the Departrnent of Justice was in possession of evidence against the defendants “too important to be presented at the trial.”

Washington interceded early in the case and set the tone for the trial. The first prosecutor was removed and supplanted by a hand-picked agent of Palmer. The first jury, upon suggestion of the Department of Justice, was summarily dismissed before completed and a new one of “better” composition selected.

Although the prisoners were theoretically on trial as individuals and not as members of an organization (the U.S. Department of Labor itself having found the I.W.W. to be a legal organization devoted to economic ends), every shred of evidence submitted dealt with the program and policies pf the I.W.W. Judge Landis justified this procedure by claiming that the documents indicated the “frame of mind” of the defendants.

It was proven that the I.W.W. had conducted strikes; that it had sent $3,000 in strike relief to Bisbee, Arizona; that a pamphlet by Pouget entitled Sabotage had been circulated; that one of the organizers had suggested “a general strike” in defense against vigilante and government terror; that Bill Haywood had authorized a strike by telegram; that the defendants were almost all members of the I.W.W.

The fifth count of the indictment was stricken out at the opening of the trial and the other four were completely ignored so far as proof of guilt was concerned.

Two prisoners (one an Oxford graduate) went insane as a result of torture; one died before the trials began.

The Defense

The General Defense Committee of the I.W.W. had to face as vicious a battle outside as the defendants did inside the courts. Mail from its headquarters was arbitrarily marked “Nixie IWW” and confiscated without warning or explanation. The express companies were persuaded to refuse to handle defense literature shipments.

On December 17, 1917, U.S. marshals and detectives invaded Defense Committee headquarters and occupied them for 12 days. When, at the end of that time, a court order commanded their withdrawal, they left in a ten-ton truck loaded with defense literature, envelopes, collection blanks and even a considerable – and to the Defense Committee, valuable – quantity of blank paper. But the Defense Committee persisted and succeeded in raising a magnificent defense fund.


The Sacramento defendants were all found guilty and given heavy jail sentences. Some of the defendants in other cities were dismissed.

In Chicago, the case went to the jury on August 17, 1918. The twelve “good men and true” examined the 15,000 documents introduced by both sides as well the the 40,000-page record – and returned in 25 minutes with a verdict of “guilty on all counts”.

On August 30, Judge Landis passed sentence. Like sledgehammer blows came the terms: 20 years, 10 years, 20 years, 5 years, 20 years, 1 year, 20 years, 10 years – an aggregate of 878 years in jail for all the Chicago defendants!

Two prisoners – each having received the minimum of 1 year and 1 day – muttered in protest against the ghastly terms meted out to their comrades. Whereupon Judge Landies summarily changed their sentences to 20 years each. “The U.S. has seen fit to make me the judge in this case,” was his retort to the storm of indignation raised by this action.

The defense promptly entered a motion for appeal. The judge countered with a speed equalled only by his brazenness and slapped fines ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 on the prisoners – a sum, with court costs, totalling $2,570,000! – and cancelled bail pending the appeal.

Subsequent Development of the Case

On July 28, 1919, Bill Haywood was granted bail and bonded out, leaving the country for the U.S.S.R. where he remained until his death.

The case was appealed to the Federal Circuit Court and on December 9, 1920, the sentences and fines on Counts I and II were struck out although a new trial was denied. In the same year, 44 convictions were reversed and the misconduct of the public prosecutor and Judge Landis denounced by the higher courts.

In April, 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a plea for a new trial.

Most of the prisoners served from 4 to 5 years until released by a general post-war amnesty extended to political prisoners and C.O.’s.

The Question of Individual Amnesty

As a move to break the morale and solidarity of the I.W.W. prisoners, President Harding in 1922 offered them freedom if they petitioned him individually. The prisoners at Leavenworth Penitentiary consulted among themselves. Sixteen of them capitulated; three others, all dying of tuberculosis, were reluctantly persuaded to request amnesty on the grounds of health; the 52 remaining prisoners drew up and submitted to President Harding an Open Letter explaining why they disdained his offer.

They denied they were criminals and declared that, having been condemned as an organization and not as individuals, they would remain in jail until all could leave together. Four concepts, they said, were sacred to them and could not be denied:

  1. the class struggle;
  2. the international solidarity of labor;
  3. the criticism of the so-called “rights of private property”;
  4. the conviction that wars “are largely the result of capitalist intrigues for plunder and spheres of influence”.

Their reply was a long one and at the end it turned from President Harding, president of the plutocracy, to the class which knew that 166 men had served long sentences in jail and some had died because the class struggle was their first thought and first devotion:

“To those who know the truth, we say: ‘Go, traveller, to Sparta, and say that we lie here on the spot at which we were stationed to defend our country.’”

Lydia Beidel Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers’ Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 23 May 2016