Vigilantes attack Hoquiam IWW Hall on November 16, 1917.

  • By Aaron Goings
  • Posted 10/19/2008
  • Essay 8783
See Additional Media

On November 16, 1917, vigilantes calling themselves the "Black Robes" attack the union hall of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also called Wobblies) in Hoquiam. Grays Harbor County is gaining national attention for its citizens' violent activities against the radical labor group. The Black Robes begin issuing threats to tar and feather Hoquiam Wobblies. They break the window out of the IWW headquarters with a threatening note attached to a brick. The Wobblies, tossed out of their hall, are forced to congregate at the Aberdeen hall or in local pool rooms.

One Big Union

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in June 1905 as both an industrial union (a term that contrasted with "craft union" and meant a union that included unskilled workers as well as skilled craft workers) and a revolutionary organization.  The IWW (often called the “Wobblies”) hoped to organize all workers, regardless of race, sex, or skill, into the “One Big Union.”

In the Wobblies view, employers and wage laborers had an inherently oppositional relationship. The preamble to their constitution reads:

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.  There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”

In Grays Harbor County the Wobblies organized primarily among lumber workers. The first IWW local in Hoquiam was established in early 1907. At that time its small membership and limited influence paled in comparison with that of its later years.

Organizing Aberdeen

The radical unionists gained their first major toehold in the region during the Aberdeen free-speech fight of 1911-1912, in which the Wobblies successfully overturned a local ordinance designed to prohibit street speaking by radicals.  Close on the heels of the free-speech fight was the so-called “Greek Strike,” which began in March 1912, when 200 Hoquiam mill hands walked off the job and joined the IWW.  Between March and May of that year, approximately 8,000 mill hands and loggers from Grays Harbor, Willapa Harbor, and the Puget Sound joined the strike, eventually shutting down dozens of operations throughout Western Washington. 

The Wobblies were at their high point in strength in Grays Harbor between 1917 and 1923. In the cities, logging camps, and beach communities, they organized domestic workers, loggers, construction workers, clam diggers, mill hands, longshoremen, and sailors. As was the case throughout much of the northern regions of the United States, the IWW in Hoquiam gained its largest following among the large Finnish American population. The names of several hundred Finnish Wobblies from the Grays Harbor region appeared in the pages of the Industrialisti, the Finnish-language newspaper of the IWW, between 1917 and 1921.    

The Lumber Strike

In the midst of World War I, the Wobblies struck again.  Seeking to force employers to grant the eight-hour day and improve working conditions, IWWs and other unionists struck and paralyzed the Pacific Northwest lumber industry. In Grays Harbor all but one firm -- the Grays Harbor Commercial Company at Cosmopolis -- was closed up tight by the massive strike.   

During the struggle, representatives of the lumber firms and their "law enforcement" and other allies in the towns fought the strikers with threats, arrest, and violent assaults. Picketers were arrested and beaten for the threat they posed to wartime profits and the war effort itself. Striking loggers were forced to remain in large congregations to avoid being assaulted. Bill Amey, an IWW camp delegate, gained notoriety for riding his motorcycle from camp to camp to avoid confrontations with police and vigilantes.

The Black Robes' Attack

On the evening of November 16, 1917, members of a mysterious vigilante club called “The Black Robes” tossed a club through the window of the Hoquiam IWW headquarters.  A warning tied to the club read:

“Remember the boys in France.  Feathers are light and tar is cheap.  This is for the I.W.W.”  

Warning of “Another Tulsa?,” the Wobblies’ Defense News Bulletin reprinted an article from the Chicago Post that informed its readers of the Black Robes’ message.  The reference to Tulsa was to the breakout of anti-Wobbly vigilantism that had swept throughout Oklahoma during World War I.

In Grays Harbor County, too, Wobblies had been frequent victims of brutality. Throughout the war, the Aberdeen and Hoquiam IWW halls were raided, their literature and records destroyed, and several members were made to “run the gauntlet.”  Others were tarred and feathered by businessmen and members of the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (4Ls), a military-company union labeled the “Four Hells” by the IWW (Industrial Worker, January 5, 1918).

H. D. McKenney, one of the many labor spies hired to watch over and report on the Grays Harbor Wobblies during World War I, investigated the incident between the Black Robes and IWW.  His inconclusive findings led him to suggest that the attack had been self-inflicted as a means of arousing public sympathy for the radical workers.

Eviction from Hoquiam  

If the Wobblies had committed the act to gain public sympathy (highly unlikely), their efforts backfired. Fearful that his property was to be destroyed, their landlord evicted the Hoquiam Wobblies shortly after the Black Robes’ threat was issued. Unable to convince other property owners to rent them a hall, Hoquiam IWWs were forced to congregate in pool halls, the Finnish Workers’ Hall, and the IWW hall in Aberdeen.  The lockout achieved great success. From early-1918 until the 1930s, the number of Hoquiam Wobblies was always far fewer than that of Hoquiam’s sister city, Aberdeen.

The Black Robes's attack was far from the final outbreak of the “Wobbly Horrors” in Grays Harbor County. Throughout 1919 and 1920 a wave repression against labor radicals, called variously the Palmer Raids and White Terror, swept over the nation. 

In Grays Harbor County, the trial of the Wobblies prosecuted for killing four members of the American Legion during an American Legion raid on the Wobbly hall in Centralia (November 11, 1919) took place in the county seat, Montesano.  Local citizens armed themselves, buying out the entire stock of guns, ammunition, and rope from local hardware stores in Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Cosmopolis.

In May 1923, Wobbly activist and logger William McKay was shot in the back of the head by a hired gunman while picketing at the Bay City Mill in Aberdeen.  One year later, IWW James Rowan’s car was run off the road by Grays Harbor businessmen.  He only narrowly escaped lynching by the timely interference of a farm family and a deputy sheriff.

Sources: “Another Tulsa?,” Defense News Bulletin, November 24, 1917, Industrial Workers of the World Collection, box 181, Accession No. 130, Wayne State University College of Urban, Labor, and Metropolitan Affairs, Detroit, Michigan; James Green, Grass Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), 345-395; Fred Thompson, The I.W.W.: Its First Fifty Years, 1905-1955, (Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 1955); Letter from F. B. Stansbury to Edmund Leigh, December 27, 1917, War Department Records, Record Group No. 165, Box 2, file No. 540B, National Archives-Pacific Alaska Region, Seattle;  Philip J. Dreyfus, “The IWW and the Limits of Inter-Ethnic Organizing: Reds Whites, and Greeks in Grays Harbor, Washington, 1912,” Labor History Vol. 38, No. 4 (Fall 1997), p. 450-470; Aaron Anthony Goings, “Free Speech and Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Grays Harbor, Washington, 1910-1912” (master’s thesis, Central Washington University, 2005); Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 4: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1909-1917 (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 220-225; “Mob Shows Teeth: Centralia Publicity Speaker, James Rowan, Attacked Outside Montesano,” Industrial Worker, May 14, 1924, p. 1; Tom Copeland, The Centralia Tragedy of 1919: Elmer Smith and the Wobblies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993), 65; Industrial Worker, January 5, 1918; Industrial Worker, April 8, 1918; Aaron Goings, “IWW Lost A Fellow Worker in 1923,” The Daily World: A Century of Service, 1908-2008 (Aberdeen, WA: The Daily World, 2008); Robert E. Ficken, "The Wobbly Horrors: Pacific Northwest Lumbermen and the Industrial Workers of the World, 1917-1918," Labor History, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summer 1983), p. 325-341; Walter L. Stout to Spruce Production Division, Signal Corps, U.S.A, November 27, 1917, War Department Records, Record Group No. 165, Box 2, file 573, National Archives-Pacific Alaska Region, Seattle; F. B. Stansbury to H. D. McKenney, February 23, 1918; H. D. McKenney to F. B. Stansbury, March 8, 1918. War Department Records, Record Group No. 165, Box 2, file 573, National Archives-Pacific Alaska Region, Seattle; Daily Washingtonian, February 12, 1918, p. 1; Industrialisti, December 15, 1920, p. 32; Walter Horace Margason testimony in the Industrial Workers of the World Collection, United States v. Haywood, et al., July 1, 1918, p. 5761, Box 110, Folder 3, Wayne State University College of Urban, Labor, and Metropolitan Affairs, Detroit, Michigan.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You