By 1917, the Industrial Workers of the World were 150,000 strong, growing in power and numbers, and generally considered, by the usual suspects—the federal, state, county and city governments, capitalists of all stripes, law enforcement agencies large and small, and most of the American bourgeoisie, both petit
—to be the most dangerous and repellent and sinister and loathsome and scrofulous thing to come down the domestic pike. Ever. (The Huns filled the bill overseas.)
Why? In essence, the IWW saw the working class, not the employers, as the rightful managers of production. In essence, they wanted to abolish wage labor and crush the capitalist insect. They were also violently opposed to American involvement in the Great War. The organization was, to the good burghers of 1917, the equivalent of SDS, Communist Party, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, Move On, hippies, and ISIS combined.
A diminutive Oklahoman, Frank Little, was the IWWs most effective organizer. The summer of 1917, Little arrived in Butte to organize miners in opposition to the penurious wages and inhuman working conditions of the Anaconda Copper Company.
On August 1, 1917, Little was abducted from his boarding house by persons unknown, gagged, beaten, dragged behind a car for two miles, and hanged from a railroad trestle. His funeral remains Butte’s largest ever, by several thousand.
His grave, at Mountain View cemetery, comprises a headstone (“Slain By Capitalist Interests For Organizing and Inspiring His Fellow Man” it reads), a cement rectangle surrounded by a low, handsome iron fence, and many mementos: a rusted pair of pincers, a shot glass, a turquoise/silver earring, a candle, a rusted railroad spike, a tee-shirt (“Solidarity Can’t be Beat”), a blanket with the International Association of Machinists logo, wood-carved letters (I W W), a pair of machine-gun shells, bouquets of carnations, bouquets of roses, an evergreen wreath from the Seattle chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World, many single carnations, and one candle stub.
The grave lies in the eastern third of Mountain View, the old pauper’s patch: shadeless, bone-dry, knapweed-ridden, hard by a chain link fence and the airport. Many of Little’s neighbors lie beneath no-longer-marked or no-longer-legible gravestones. Some of them don’t: William W. Wells (Feb 18, 1917, Aged 5 Weeks), Helen Patiske (Age 26 Days) and Grady (July 15, 1916-July 25, 1916).
On the 100th anniversary of Little’s murder, one hundred-plus folks attended a memorial service organized by local IWW chapters. One of the attendees pointed to the non-pauper section of Mountain View—verdant, thick-shaded, and safely west of Little’s grave. She was past retirement age and wearing a T-shirt that read: Fellow Worker/Frank Little/Murdered by Copper Trust/We Will Never Forget.
She blamed the employing class for relegating Little and the paupers to neglect and desolation.
Another person (they could have been sisters) harrumphed. Do you think Frank would have wanted to be anywhere else
for even a minute, let alone eternity?
A third person (probably a husband) pointed out that Frank was an atheist, and eternity would hardly have been in his vocabulary.
Besides, said a fourth (I’m guessing another husband), pointing past the trees to Harrison Avenue. The irony would have been too much, he said. Frank Little right across the street from Walmart?
The aggrieved voices rose in the smoky air.
Ah, Butte, sweet Butte. You stick around here very long, things are gonna heat up.
I couldn’t wait.
Just then the memorial began to stir. White-hairs and close-to-white hairs outnumbered the young three to one. The mourners took a few last selfies and formed a rough horseshoe around the grave.
Two men held a large banner: One Big Union
. They had traveled from Bellingham, Washington.
Another banner read: An Injury to One is An Injury to All
. It was red and white and in the background was a snarling, back-arched black cat. A young fellow, all the way from Philadelphia and with a bandana around his neck, told me the cat represented Wildcat Strikes and that its unofficial name was “Sabo-Tabby.” He didn’t give his last name. “I go by Eric,” he said, looking suspiciously at my Moleskine.
Someone passed out buttons that read I stand for the Solidarity of Labor
Someone passed out single long-stem red carnations.
Someone passed out condensed copies of the Wobbly Song Book.
The first speaker quoted Mother Jones: “Pray for the Dead; fight like hell for the living.”
The second speaker said Frank Little believed in a world where the working class isn’t managed like a herd of cattle.
The next speaker read the Preamble to the IWW Constitution. It is a wonderfully imprecise and rousing document. Here’s part of it: 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 the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Much clapping, some yay-ing, and a few raised fists.
The next speaker invited anyone interested to attend Missoula IWW meetings. (Later he told me he had quit his job at a convenience store in Missoula. He had been working there seven years and was still only making $9 an hour. I told him he needs a Frank Little. He agreed.)
The keynote speaker was Jane Little Botkin, Frank Little’s great-grandniece, whose book, Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood that Stained an American Family
, is recently published by University of Oklahoma Press.
She pointed to a nearby monument commemorating the victims of the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine disaster, which killed 168 men earlier the same summer as Little’s murder. “There was no monument, just fresh grave after fresh grave, when Frank was laid in.”
She said that Little was bone-weary and about ready to hang up his organizing hat. But he came to Butte anyway, because he was needed, even though he knew there was every chance he might meet his death there.
She said his close relatives dared not bring him home to bury because they were afraid his body would be dug up and desecrated anew. She said they wouldn’t even speak of him in public they were so afraid of retribution. She laid six yellow carnations on the grave. She said they represented his immediate family, which she called the silent generation of Littles.
She said Butte is where Frank Little belongs.
Someone read a poem from one of Little’s relatives.
Bring out the whitewash.
Spread it as thick as you can.
Bring out the whitewash.
Bring out the whitewash.
We murdered another working man
The crowd clapped wildly. Two dozen fists shot high in the air.
Someone led the crowd in six or eight ragged-but-loud verses of “Solidarity Forever.”
More wild clapping. More fists thrown toward heaven.
The crowd milled again and talked about how choking the forest-fire smoke was and took more photos and began to disperse when a young woman from Butte, lovely and wild-seeming as the wind, with fierce dark hair and a black tank top and red swirly skirt, tied a white ribbon to the grave fence and sang another verse, by herself, loud. It began: We wash the dishes…
She said “Solidarity Forever” has dozens of verses, hundreds. This was one of the few about women, she added, firmly.
I followed a Volvo and a Subaru out of the cemetery. I went to Maloney’s Bar. It was cool and dark and empty of customers except for two guys getting slowly and quietly drunk a few stools down.
They talked about Social Security and how to cook rattlesnakes and left me alone. I got to brooding. I wondered if I would have, at age 38, walked into what might well be the last town I’d ever see, to do a job. Walked slowly and with a limp from a broken ankle and a double hernia. Walked thick with exhaustion. Walked homesick to get back to my beloved Oklahoma and farm maybe, to be with family, to live quietly.
And I knew I wouldn’t have. I knew I would have scoffed at the idealism of One Big Union, of the likelihood of overthrowing capitalism. The impossibility of it. Humans were just too ornery and contrary and selfish—given half a chance—to keep propping up their fellow man for long.
I knew, deep down, I was no Frank Little. No Wobbly.
But, maybe, neither were the others I stood with that morning. Who did they think they were, indulging in some comfortable, century-quilted nostalgia. Danger? No one, these days, would abduct and drag and hang a Wobbly. They wouldn’t even steal his car, not even his bike. I doubted they’d even butt in line ahead of one.
Sincerity came out of their ears. Passion, too. But to what end? They are ignored. Invisible. Ineffectual. Laughable. Harmless. No different, finally, than Tridentines, or railroad buffs or stamp collectors or jazz lovers. The world would go along just as it wished, with or without them. They weren’t going to change a thing, not in a hundred years. A thousand.
Bandanas and buttons and T-shirts and banners? You know what these folks are, I told myself: a bunch of re-enactors.
But they sang so loud and hearty. They cheered so lustily. They mourned so deeply. They believed. And maybe, maybe, that was, finally, what really mattered.
I had wrung myself into a right contradictory mess. It was time to leave Maloney’s. This was no place for a person such as I: inferior and small and doubting, compared to those sweet and true people I had spent the morning with, those idealists.
It was time to leave Butte, head for home.
I stopped at a convenience store. The young clerk seemed to enjoy her job. She asked me, sounding as if she actually wanted to know, what was exciting about my day.
I told her. I told her who Frank Little was. I told her how he died, and why. I told her he was a hero to many, and why. “Wow,” she said. “I’m gonna Google him after work.”
In the parking lot I ran into someone from the memorial. I told him about the clerk.
He nodded. “Good,” he said. “Did you happen to tell her the working class and the employing class have nothing whatsoever in common?”