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James T. Farrell

What the Case of the Eighteen Means to the Labor Movement

Novelist James T. Farrell Appeals
for Support for Victims of Gag Act

(May 1944)

From Labor Action, Vol. 8 No. 18, 1 May 1944, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

James T. Farrell, noted novelist, who is chairman of the Civil Rights Defense Committee, discussed, on Radio Station WEVD on April 15 the Case of the eighteen Trotskyists and leaders of the Minneapolis Truckdrivers Union, Local 544-CIO, who are now serving federal prison sentences under the Smith “Gag” Act which makes the expression of opinion alone a crime, in an address entitled Free Speech and Labor’s Rights. Excerpts from the speech follow:

Practically all sections of the labor and liberal movement in this country have expressed alarm over the mounting tide of reaction. Today this threat is not distant; it is immediate. And inevitably, the major purpose of reaction is that of destroying the independence of the labor movement, and thereby of being free to forge new chains for the workers. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to abrogate civil liberties, and most especially the precious right of freedom of speech.

Freedom of Speech Abrogated

Freedom of speech and freedom of labor are integral. That is why the fascist dictatorships of Europe, when they achieved, power, immediately crushed the labor unions and imposed rigid censorships. And in, the last few years there have been a whole series of attacks both on the labor movement and on the Bill of Rights. Congress, largely under the inspiration of poll-tax legislators, has passed the vicious Smith “Gag” Act and the Smith-Connally anti-strike bill. The Smith “Gag” Act, a peacetime sedition law, is in flagrant contradiction with that provision of the Bill of Rights which state unconditionally that Congress shall pass no law abridging freedom of speech. According to this law, freedom of speech has not merely been temporarily suspended in the name of an emergency; it has, in essence, been abrogated. As a result of this law, it is possible for American citizens to be convicted and jailed, merely for the expression of opinion. In fact, this has happened as we will see in a few moments.

The passage of this act was opposed by both the AFL and the CIO. Speaking against it, Representative Geyer of California declared: “This bill is an attempt to put an end to real democracy. It is an attempt to break the labor movement.” Representative Martin of Colorado said: “It is enough to make Thomas Jefferson turn over in his grave. It is without precedent in the history of labor legislation. It is an invention of intolerance contrary to every principle of democracy.” After it was passed, the American Civil Liberties Union pleaded with President Roosevelt to veto it, charging that it violated the Bill of Rights.

Unfortunately for the cause of free speech, the prediction of the American Civil Liberties Union was fulfilled. As a result of a trade union conflict between Minneapolis trade unionists, who were also members of the Socialist Workers Party, and Daniel J. Tobin, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Minneapolis labor case has become an item in the history of free speech and of the American trade union movement The Minneapolis leaders opposed Daniel J. Tobin’s attempts to impose his authority over their local. Then, after a democratic and almost unanimous vote of nearly 4,000 members of their local, they disaffiliated from the AFL and joined the CIO. Daniel J. Tobin made representations to President. These were not ignored, for the New York Times of June 14, 1941, tells us that Stephen Early, secretary of President Roosevelt, told the press: “When I advised the President of Tobin’s representations this morning, he asked me immediately to have the government departments and agencies interested in this matter notified.”

Significantly enough, the government department which seemed most interested in this matter was the one which is described by the word – Justice! Shortly after Mr. Early made this statement, agents of the Department of Justice raided the headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party and also of the newly formed Motor Transport & Allied Workers Industrial Union, Local 544-CIO.

What Constitutes “Conspiracy”

The government indicted twenty-nine persons, charging them with a conspiracy to commit acts to overthrow the government, and with the expression of opinion for the same purposes. The first of these charges was based upon an antiquated. Civil War law, directed against supporters of the slave owners’ rebellion. The second was based on the Smith ‘Gag’ Act. Concerning the political motivation of this prosecution, the American Civil Liberties Union has stated: “It seems reasonable to conclude that the government interjected itself into an inter-union controversy in order to promote the interests of the one side which supported the administration’s foreign and domestic policies.”

In the government prosecution of this case, one of its attorneys, Victor A. Anderson, argued that in order to gain a conviction it was not necessary to prove that the defendants had committed overt acts: mere expression of opinion was enough. Thereby, this case was raised to the level of becoming an important constitutional trial concerning freedom of speech. In passing, one of the proofs presented by the prosecution was The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 by Karl Marx.

The jury threw the first charge out of court and convicted eighteen of the defendants on the second count. The conviction was sustained in the Circuit Court and then carried to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court three times refused even to hear the appeal on this case, despite the fact that it was the first one which tested the constitutionality of the Smith Act. With this action of the highest court in the land, the case is just about closed as far as the government is concerned. As a final action, evidence in the case, such as the seized literature written by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, was burned.

However, for the labor and liberal movements, this case cannot be closed.

The History of Fascism

The history of fascism teaches us that the first attacks made by reaction are against the labor movement, and usually against its extreme left wing. This has happened in the Minneapolis Case. Further, the force of law and the police power has now been substituted for the use of reason, persuasion, argument, in the case of those who defend the historic ideas of Marxian socialism. It should be clear that this kind of an attack against socialist ideas, this jailing of socialist leaders, can only help pave the way that makes it so much the easier for fascism. This kind of governmental action further has the effect of making men fearful, of helping further to spread that paralysis of will, of morale, of intellect which is already much too apparent in the present period of history.

When the penalty of open thinking is a cell in jail, fewer men will dare to think. Under such conditions, political argument is made more and more the province of those who are unprincipled, who are dishonest and unscrupulous. For such men have no need to try and tell the truth: they have no need to state what is their real conviction. They can, thereby, evade all such laws as these. But those whose political actions are principled cannot take this course. They must either be silent, or risk punishment. This is one of the most significant ways in which laws such as the Smith Act, and prosecutions such as the Minneapolis Case destroy the very moral fiber of men.

The eighteen defendants in this case refused to sacrifice their views and convictions, even at the price of their freedom. If those of us who are outside of prisons do not continue our struggle in their defense it is not at all impossible that they will have company in their confinement.

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Abraham Lincoln, remarked: “The fight must go on. The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one or even one hundred defeats.” Tonight I wish to reaffirm this sentiment. The Minneapolis Case has become the major focus in the fight for civil liberties in America.

The Civil Rights Defense Committee, authorized representative of the eighteen Minneapolis victims, is now conducting a campaign to appeal to the President for pardon. It is asking the entire labor and liberal movement to support it in this campaign by signing its petitions for a pardon and by writing directly to President Roosevelt, asking that this pardon be granted. The defense of the Minneapolis victims is, in itself, an attack on the Smith ‘Gag’ Act. And this law remains hanging over the head of labor like the pendulum over the head of the victim in Edgar Allen Poe’s story. The defense of labor’s rights, the defense of free speech, the defense of all of us against the danger of fascism, require that this pendulum be put into a museum.

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