By Lindsay Mimir

On November 11, 1919, during the first celebration of Armistice Day following the conclusion of the First World War, a violent confrontation between the American Legion and the IWW occurred in the logging town of Centralia, Washington. The various accounts of the event—dubbed either the Centralia Massacre (by the Legion) or the Centralia Tragedy (by the IWW)—have been hotly contested, showing in miniature the cultural, social, and political battles that were fought in the US between labor, radicals, and reactionaries.

The American Legion, a group made up of World War I veterans, had a powerful presence in Centralia. The IWW—which also counted numerous veterans in its ranks—had been trying to organize loggers in Centralia throughout the 1910s. The IWW had established a fierce reputation in the area, and their presence provoked strong reactions from local business leaders and politicians. The IWW had been thrown out of town at least twice before the Centralia Tragedy, leaving members beaten and bloodied by reactionaries led by the logging magnates. The IWW had also been evicted from its union hall in 1917, and its second hall was looted in 1918. When the IWW returned in 1919, they began organizing out of Centralia’s old Roderick Hotel.

The IWW returned each time because the loggers and workers of Centralia were working in dangerous and unforgiving industries. Logging in the early-twentieth century was one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. IWW members in the timber industry launched several successful strikes and actions across Washington in the 1910s.

According to both the Legion and the IWW, on November 11, tensions were high. IWW members barricaded themselves inside the hotel as well as in surrounding buildings. Centralia’s American Legion planned to march through town accompanied by other Legion posts from nearby. The American Legion marched up to the Roderick Hotel, halted, turned towards the hotel, and charged the door. The Wobblies inside the hotel fired at the Legionnaires, killing three and wounding several others. Then IWW member and WWI veteran Wesley Everest ran from the hall, pursued by Legionnaires. Everest killed one during his escape, but was captured. Later that night, Everest was lynched by a vigilante mob that broke into Centralia’s jail.

Reports from the town in the immediate aftermath show that the IWW was marked as a threat to the existing social order. The sheriff wired Washington’s governor to tell him that those captured after the shooting were Wobblies carrying membership cards and propaganda. The American Legion had helped shut off the electricity to the jail and had ordered cars to extinguish their headlights to mask the entrance of vigilantes into the jail. The state’s Attorney General L. L. Thompson, who was also a member of the American Legion, wrote that the IWW was the only subversive organization in the state with any power, and he spent the next four years helping to criminalize union activity and imprison IWW members.

Centralia remains a critical part of the IWW’s history. Like other violence that came before—for instance Everett, Washington in 1916, when IWW members were shot by police and vigilantes, or the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 when 1,300 striking miners and many IWW members in Arizona were marched through the desert and deported to Mexico—Centralia is still relevant to the current political context in which we are organizing, both against reactionary terrorism and state repression. Following Trump’s election, a Seattle IWW and GDC member was shot by a right-wing fanatic; IWW members were arrested en masse on January 20, 2017 in Washington D.C. and accused of rioting, while their union membership was used as evidence against them. It’s also true that the citizens of Centralia continue to pick sides regarding the Centralia Tragedy, and merely asking about the event can earn you cold stares and bad treatment.

History can and should inform our decisions in the present. We know from the history of the twentieth century that the local, state, and federal governments will always act against the interests of Labor and especially militant labor organizers. This informs how we choose to organize now: we avoid violations of labor law, for example, while still maintaining a militant and solidarity-based organizing model. We rely on direct action and will always use it to win gains on the shopfloor because we understand we can’t appeal to the government to protect us from our employers. We also know that the only way we can protect ourselves from repression is to build an organization large enough to withstand the constant challenges we face from the government, corporations, and reactionaries.

But this also raises an important point about how we can organize around members of the working class who hold reactionary beliefs and who act on behalf of the bosses. The thugs and soldiers and cops who beat, arrested, shot, and lynched IWW members did not belong to the capitalist class. They were workers who saw an advantage in siding against other workers. This problem is pervasive in our contemporary culture and a major barrier to working-class organization.

Centralia offers a salient lesson in building solidarity within the working class—and the results that can occur when we are not prepared to withstand repression. And yet our organization is so small now that any government crackdown, widespread vigilante actions, or a combination of the two would seriously cripple us. We are left with few options that can actually protect us.

One clarion call from within the IWW has been for increased “community defense.” The implication is that we must make preparations against fascism, reactionaries, and government repression by organizing in communities outside of the workplace. And on the surface, these demands are both necessary and correct. However, in practice, this community defense has not been enough. Community defense can’t protect us if it is divorced from labor organization, and especially if the community’s “defenders” do not actually belong to the community they claim to defend. However, because community members also do labor, and because laborers are always members of some community or another, these efforts must necessarily be interlocked.

The only thing that can protect us is widespread solidarity within both our communities and our workplaces. That solidarity begins with labor organization because that is the nexus of the working class’ power as well as the goal of the Industrial Workers of the World. We can undermine reactionary politics by creating formidable working-class organizations at our workplaces which can marginalize and isolate bigots, reactionaries, and fascists. We can undermine efforts to repress us by organizing campaigns that are well-positioned within industries and which are united by inter-industry alliances, which is perhaps the most important aspect of the Industrial Workers of the World organizing model, which seeks to bring together all the members of the same industry into one union without parceling them out according to craft. We can only undermine reactionary opposition to us if we are large enough to do so, and the only sustainable model for growth is to reach the millions of unorganized workers, not the small pockets of leftist activists.

Most workers are not reactionaries. Most workers are aware of their own economic oppression and want to take action to fix it. Most workers have been tricked into thinking that action should be organized by the Democrats or the Republicans or the National Rifle Association or the American Civil Liberties Union. Most workers can be brought into the IWW through intentional, targeted, strategic recruitment within workplaces by illustrating how worker self-organization, direct action, and solidarity can be used to win significant short-term gains in the workplace and significant long-term gains in the economic and political spheres.

Capitalism will not be defeated as long as its foot soldiers continue to march at the behest of the employing class. So the organization of the working class must address how these foot soldiers arm themselves, organize themselves, and act for capitalist interests. Why did thugs hired by the timber companies ransack the Centralia IWW’s hall? How were they recruited, hired, organized, and given orders? How could the IWW have organized around them or against them? And why didn’t the other workers in Centralia—affiliated with neither the IWW nor the American Legion—defend their fellow workers in the IWW?

How can the fascists of the Pacific Northwest be effectively challenged and beaten?

Strategic and deliberate recruitment that builds power beyond political allegiances is what gives us the ability to take action to defend ourselves. Empowering workers to take action they otherwise would not have taken transforms workers into revolutionaries. And once workers are ready to take action on the job against their bosses, they can be made ready to withstand state and vigilante repression. This is a decades-long, arduous, difficult process that can only be undertaken with a serious understanding of the long term. If the IWW grows to the same size it was in 1919, we will face state repression again. We need to learn from the repression of the past to understand how to adapt to an uncertain future. For instance, what differentiated the IWW of 1919 from the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) of 1936 Spain, which won significant victories against the Spanish fascists and organized Spanish cities and vast tracts of countryside under an anarchist federation? The CNT and Spanish radicals had spent more than seven decades slowly and steadily building class consciousness, radical unionism, and anti-authoritarianism into the mainstream ideology of numerous Spanish communities.

So we are presented with the central question which plagues all radical organizations: how can we build class consciousness despite the overwhelming presence of reactionaries, right-wing ideology, and working-class ambivalence? The story of Centralia teaches us that we must combine intentional and strategic industrial organization with dedicated and labor-focused community defense which can slowly but realistically build class consciousness, which will stand against reactionaries in solidarity with workers and revolutionaries.

If we are to fulfill the IWW’s Preamble and join in the working class’ historic mission to destroy capitalism, then we must make serious attempts to organize the working class as workers, at the point of production and in their workplaces, so as to present a multi-faceted, diverse, widespread, and united movement. Only then can we hope to prevail against state repression, vigilantes, fascism, and the other threats which will inevitably attempt to crush our pursuit of liberation.

[This post was published in the February 2019 issue of the Seattle Worker]

One thought on “The Centralia Tragedy and the Lessons of the Past

Leave a Reply to Allan Poobus Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s