For May Day — We give you Big Bill Haywood

Bill Haywood (in Derby hat) leading strikers in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1912.

Happy May Day, Comrades. Remember back when Red States had nothing do to with Republicans and May Day had nothing to do with trees and birds and the environment?  Red meant RED, as in communist or socialist, and May Day was for Revolution.

Ninety-two years ago today, on May Day 1919, Socialists staged Red Flag marches in every major American city. It was American socialism was at its peak. Almost a million US workers went on strike against The Capitalist Enemy, led by radicals like William Z. Foster and Louis Fraina.  Bolsheviks had just taken power in Russia, and Eugene Debs would soon win almost a million votes for President in 1920 running from a prison cell on the Socialist ticket. The Red Scare was at its peak, and Emma Goldman still scared the socks off complacent American bourgoisie

Bill Haywood, circa 1910.

And of all the prominent lefties, the emblematic leader was Big Bill Haywood, president of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) — the biggest, baddest, toughest, roughest leftiest labor leader of them all.

Haywood wanted his IWW to be “One Big Union” for the entire American working class to battle the Corporate Plutocrats of J.P. Morgan’s Gilded Age.  IWW organizers faced lynching or murder by company detectives. Strikers faced beatings, blacklists, and trumped-up prosecutions.  Still, the IWW attracted some 300,000 members at its peak. 

Bill Haywood himself — a former cowpoke and miner — didn’t hesitate to push back,  He used sabotage or strong-arm tactics where needed. In 1905, he faced murder charges for the death Idaho governer Frank Steunenberg, blown up after a bitter mining strike.  This set the stage for one of America’s  great courtroom dramas.  Idaho prosecutors, backed by Pinkerton detectives, blamed Haywood for the killing, and famed Chicago lawyer Clarance Darrow traveled to Idaho to defend him.  He won Haywood an acquittal.

During the World War I, Federal agents under direction of President Woodrow Wilson launched a sweeping crackdown of the IWW.   His Justice Department arrested over 100 Wobblies and in 1918 tried them en masse for Espionage. Haywood, convicted and facing prison, fled to Bolshevik Russia for his final years.

So this May Day, forget the flowers and trees. Forget the Red States and Blue States. Let’s all wear Red, sing The Internationale, shake our fists at the Power Structure, and toast Big Bill Haywood, a socialist’s socialist, a radical’s radical, a Red’s Red — as American as apple pie.   

Here is Joan Baez singing her famous version of the ballad to Bill Haywood’s best-known IWW organizer, Joe Hill.  Enjoy– 

The best book on Bill Haywood is his own autobiography, published in 1929.


Louis Brandeis on “Too Big to Fail”

A quick thought this morning on reading the latest plea from Detroit for a $20 billion taxpayer handout to keep General Motors and Chrysler from bankruptcy:

Before joining the Supreme Court in 1916, Louis Brandeis, one of the true great minds of Twentieth Century America, wrote a wonderful rant against the big money powers of his time called Other People’s Money: And How the Bankers Use It. In it, Brandeis described what he called the “Curse of Bigness,” which was his way of describing the big monopolistic banks, railroads, and steel companies that threw their muscle around back then to intimidate Washington, Main Street, and the public. “Size, we are told, is not a crime,” Brandeis wrote. “But size may, at least, become noxious by reason of the means through which it is attained or the uses to which it is put.”

Brandeis’s book became a big seller in 1913. It earned him the lasting hatred of Wall Street tycoons like J. P. Morgan, but it also helped create public demand for a Federal Reserve System. Brandeis’s political hero was Theodore Roosevelt, who as President happily used the new Antitrust Laws to fight “bigness” by busting trusts when he saw fit.

Today, in our modern fiscal collapse, Brandeis’s “curse of bigness” has come back to haunt us under the guise of a new doctrine: Too Big to Fail. We now see a dizzying, growing list of malefactors hiding behind its skirts:

Wall Street banks are too big to fail;
Main Street banks are too big to fail;
Detroit automakers are too big to fail;
The $700 billion bailout package was too big to fail;
The drug-taking third baseman for the Yankees is too big to fail.

Who’s next? What’s next? What kind of monster have we created?

Louis Brandeis got it right back in 1913. Bigness can be a curse, and we are paying for it now. What ever happened to the Antitrust laws? They made perfect sense to Theodore Roosevelt. Maybe it’s time to bring them back.