Charles Scontras’ History of the IWW in Maine

The following has been copied from Charles Scontras’ history of the IWW in Maine, pp. 161-186, and posted here for educational purposes.

“No more are the [Maine] lumberjacks content with beans three times a day and working from dark to dark, but are organizing to better conditions, and do away with the parasites who are exploiting us to the limit of human endurance” (Industrial Solidarity, 1924 April 3).

“Tell the boys not to worry about us, but keep up the good work of educating and organizing the slaves. […] Don’t be afraid of this place as it is better than the woods in this state — Let’s organize and turn all class war prisoners loose.” — Message from IWW organizers in the Thomaston [Maine] State Prison, convicted on a charge of conspiracy (Industrial Solidarity, 1924 October 15).

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which brought its spirit of solidarity and ideology of class conflict and revolution to the workers of Maine in the early years of the twentieth century, lingered on the political and economic landscape. While never of any numerical significance, or economically effective in the state, their advocacy of industrial unionism and the abolition of capitalism as necessary conditions for the emancipation from “wage slavery” widened the boundaries of debate and opinion on the issue of the relationship between capital and labor, and undoubtedly influenced the thinking of some workers.

The IWW, which proclaimed that its “historic mission” was the destruction of capitalism, was always in the background, and in the public mind was synonymous with everything un-American. It first reached Maine when it organized Pioneer Local No. 379 in Skowhegan in 1906. The militant labor organization conducted its first strike in the textile industry when weavers of that community left the Marston Worsted Mills demanding a wage increase. The “Wobblies” were also active in Rumford where, in 1912, Lithuanians of Rumford, who were also attracted to radical ideas relative to the economic and political order, formed an IWW union in that city and listened to IWW orators proclaim their message in their hall. The IWW also appeared to have had a fleeting existence in Lisbon Falls where weavers employed at the Farwell cotton mill went on strike when one of the weavers was not permitted to operate looms on which he had labored for twenty years. The striking weavers called for an IWW organizer from Lewiston to lead the strike. The efforts of IWW organizers may explain the formation of a local weavers’ union in that community.

In the summer of 1913, IWW organizers could be found in the Auburn-Lewiston area. While it is not clear what was accomplished by the preliminary work engaged in by the IWW organizers in the shoe shops in those communities, in the fall of that years they were called to Auburn to assist striking shoe workers of the Lunn & Sweet Shoe Company. Workers had organized a Turn Worker Local during the strike that was endorsed by the Shoe Workers’ Protective Union of Massachusetts. The Workers’ Protective Union, which was reported to be “a strong labor organization” with locals in Haverill, Lynn, Wakefield, Marblehead, Salem, Beverly, and Newberryport, assumed control of the strike. National IWW organizer Joseph J. Ettor joined John Bowmen, business agent of the Shoeworkers’ Protective Union, in offering assistance to the local strikers, and prepared plans for the general organization of all shoe workers. Ettor, along with Arturo Giovannitti were charged with being accessories to murder because their speeches had advocated picketing the mills of the city. Ettor and Giovannitti were miles away from the scene at the time. A massive protest in the form of parades and demonstrations occurred throughout the nation on their behalf. An expression of that protest reached Maine in the form of circulars produced by The Ettor-Giovannitti Defense Committee entitled, SHALL OUR BROTHERS BE MURDERED. After serving in jail for several months, Ettor and Giovannitti were acquitted by a jury and declared free.

The excitement surrounding the arrival of Ettor and his plans to organize the shoe workers “did not precipitate a riot as some had feared.” Ettor was greeted by “a large crowd” when he arrived in Auburn. He addressed an open meeting in the Auburn-Lewiston Central Labor Union headquarters in which he condemned the use of the “blacklist” in the shoe industry and reprimanded workers, who had engaged in ethnic conflict during the strike, that their enemies were not those of a different ethnic background, but capitalists. The true dividing lines were economic, not ethnic: “slaves against slave drivers.” Ettor produced an envelope which was used to advertise Auburn as “Maine’s fastest growing city and largest shoe manufacturing town in the east,” and which contained inducements such as “Cheap labor and no labor troubles” to lure firms to locate in the city. Ettor remarked that:

These reasons ought to appeal to capital. Capital advertises this humiliating fact and labor dares not rebel. Who is this labor that is cheap? Can you guess whom the capitalists mean? And yet you dare not resent this insult to labor because of the blacklist.

Ettor was reported to be “wrought up” over the refusal of the authorities of the twin cities to permit him access to public property for speaking purposes — not an usual experience for “Wobblies.” Ettor promised that after attending to labor problems in Massachusetts and Connecticut he would return and “thoroughly organize” the shoe workers of Auburn. Ettor, however, who had triumphantly entered the “open shop” community, was no match for the imported “detectives” who “shadowed” strike leaders. The local appeal of Ettor as a spokesperson for some partisans of organized labor was also reflected in the plans of representatives from the Bath Iron Works who had visited Lewiston in the hopes of meeting the labor leader and securing his services for the workers in the shipbuilding center of the state.

…more excerpts to come soon…