In American history, there have been several trials that have produced labor martyrs. The case involving Tom Mooney in San Francisco is only one example. The trial arising from the Armistice Day massacre of 1919 in Centralia, Washington would be on many lists of the most important cases arising from labor and management clashes. It was, at the time, considered one of the most important labor management cases in the United States. The incident was on the front page of the New York Times. William “Big Bill” Haywood, head of the radical union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was concerned that several of his members would be found guilty and sentenced to death. It seemed to some that the case might be as notorious as the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Some felt it would rank with the famous Haymarket case of 1886 in Chicago in which four men received the death penalty and were, in fact, executed.
The county in which Centralia is located was a significant center for organized labor. At that time, seventeen unions comprised the Central Trade Council. This council in turn represented an estimated 3,000 union members. The power of organized labor was evident in the Labor Day Parade on September 1st, 1919. The unions staged a parade described as “the biggest parade ever held in Centralia.” Timber workers, coal miners, barbers, printers, carpenters, retail clerks, and railway brotherhoods all took part in the parade. Plans were announced about that time to build a new labor temple.
The Centralia case arose as a result of deaths and injuries following gunfire near the union hall of the radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, whose members were called “Wobblies.” The IWW is an international union founded in Chicago, Illinois, in 1905 by a few hundred socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists. Its radical nature is shown by its chief goal: the abolition of the wage system and control of the workplace by the workers.
Conflict between labor and management had a violent history in the Northwest timber industry. IWW union halls were raided and pillaged again and again. Members of this radical union were frequently beaten and tarred and feathered and forced to leave town. In 1918, the IWW had a union hall which was located a few blocks from the union hall used by them in 1919. That hall was attacked and wrecked by participants in the 1918 Red Cross Parade. The members inside were maltreated and driven out of town.
The union members were thus very much aware of the dangers that the 1919 parade posed to them. Both the secretary of the local and the proprietress of the hotel in which the union headquarters was located in separate meetings sought the protection from the chief of police prior to the parade. The police chief was not at all reassuring, and both parties left the meetings feeling they would be without police protection during the parade.
Moreover, the usual turn-around point for a parade was a block and a half south of the union hall. This parade was going to turn around, according to the local newspaper, two blocks farther north, which would place the paraders in front of the union hall. Why would the parade route be changed, the members wondered, other than to raid the hall? Their attorney, Elmer Smith, had been told by a friend that the raid would occur. He advised the local union secretary accordingly.
The union was so sure that the raid would occur that it printed one thousand leaflets and delivered them door to door in Centralia. The leaflet pointed out that a raid was going to occur and asked the citizens to do what they could to try to prevent this from happening.
The IWW union members had a meeting and discussed what to do. The local union secretary consulted Elmer Smith, their attorney, who advised them that the union hall was, in a sense, their meeting place, and, to fact, a secretary of the IWW union local lived there. Many of the members spent a great deal of their time in the union hall on weekends or between jobs. Therefore, Elmer Smith said, the union members had a right to defend themselves in the hall against attack threatening bodily injury or injury to their property, even if such defense necessitated the use of firearms.