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PETER FROST celebrates the leading lights of the International Workers of the World, founded 110 years ago this week

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BIG Bill Haywood was one of the most important and colourful leaders of the US and international working class. He led important labour battles from the 1890s until the 1920s.

Born in 1869 in Mormon Salt Lake City, Utah, by the age of nine he was working in the mines to help support his family. He helped organise the militant Western Federation of Miners (WFM), eventually becoming its general secretary.

In dozens of strikes Big Bill and the WFN battled court injunctions, state militia, private armies, government intervention, imprisonment, deportation and even lynchings.

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The WFM was one of the major forces in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, just as the workers of Russia were engaged in their first revolution.

The IWW’s long-range goal was a general strike of the whole working class that would lead to the takeover of industry and the economy.

In 1906 Big Bill was accused of killing the former governor of Idaho. The trial was a government frame-up, engineered by the well-known anti-union Pinkerton detective agency. While in prison, Haywood ran for governor of Idaho. He was acquitted of all charges.

In 1910 he went to Europe, where he helped to organise strikes in Ireland and South Wales. At a conference of the Second International he met Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg and other revolutionaries.

He led the IWW’s Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912 strike of textile workers — the famous Bread and Roses strike. These strikers, mostly recent immigrants and nearly all women, underlined two key target groups of the IWW strategy.

During WWI, the US government launched a witchunt against left-wing unions and radical organisations. Big Bill and the IWW were prime targets. He was once again on trial.

In 1918 he was found guilty and faced 20 years in jail and a huge fine. He jumped bail and headed for Moscow to join the Communist International Trade Union Bureau. Just before he left he helped found the US Communist Party.

He died in Moscow in 1928 but the name of Big Bill Haywood is still remembered whenever working people fight to defend their rights.

Joe Hill from Sweden was the greatest songsmith of the Wobblies.

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We have a special reason for remembering Joe this year because it was 100 years ago, in November 1915, that he was executed on a fitted-up murder charge by the copper mine bosses in Utah.

He learned English during the early 1900s, while working various jobs from New York to San Francisco.

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As an immigrant worker he frequently faced unemployment. He became a popular songwriter as well as a cartoonist for radical publications.

His most famous songs include The Preacher and the Slave; The Tramp; There is Power in a Union; The Rebel Girl, written as a tribute to Elizabeth Gurney Flynn, and Casey Jones — the Union Scab.

In 1914 two men shot dead John G Morrison, a Salt Lake City area grocer and former policeman, and his son.

Hill was convicted of the murders in a controversial trial. Following an unsuccessful appeal, political debates and international calls for clemency from high-profile figures and workers’ organisations, Hill was executed.

His famous last words, “Don’t mourn, organise” were immortalised in a number of songs. His life and death have inspired songs, books and poems.

Joe Hill was part of what was always an important IWW tactic, the use of song. In the famous Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the mainly female and mainly immigrant strikers spoke over 50 languages. They could all understand and join in with the labour anthems they found in the IWW publication the Little Red Songbook. The Lawrence action became known as the singing strike.

In the 1960s, the US folk music revival brought a renewed interest in the songs of Joe Hill and other Wobblies. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie sang many Wobblie songs from the Little Red Songbook.

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However there is no doubt that the song that still has the power to inspire workers more than any other is I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire.

By the age of 15 she made a public speech on women under socialism. She began making speeches for the IWW and that activity got her expelled from school. She was soon a full-time organiser for the Wobblies.

Flynn fought for free speech for IWW speakers and helped at strikes, including the huge Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and another at Paterson, New Jersey.

When WWI started, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other IWW leaders opposed the war. Flynn, like many other war opponents at that time, was charged with espionage.

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Charges against her were eventually dropped. Flynn defended immigrants like anarchist Emma Goldman, who were being threatened with deportation for opposing the war.

In 1920, Flynn helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

She was active in raising support and money for Sacco and Vanzetti, and she was a key figure in trying to free labour organisers Thomas J Mooney and Warren K Billings.

For many years ill health restricted Flynn’s activism but in 1936 she joined the American Communist Party. In 1941, Flynn was elected to the Communist Party’s central committee, and the next year she ran for Congress, stressing women’s issues.

After the war ended, as anti-communist sentiment grew Flynn again found herself defending free speech rights for radicals. In 1951 she and other communists were arrested for conspiracy to overthrow the US government, under the Smith Act of 1940. She was convicted and served a prison term from January 1955 to May 1957.

In 1961 she was elected national chairman of the Communist Party, making her the first woman to head that organisation. She remained chairman of the party until her death on a trip to Moscow in 1964. She was given a state funeral in Red Square.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 1 July 2015

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