Today in Labor History – July 17th

July 17 marked the beginning of Seattle’s Potlatch Riots in which soldiers and sailors brawled with members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) during Seattle’s Potlatch Festival. Alden Blethen, publisher of the “Seattle Times,” who hated free speech and feared “radical elements,” had been fanning the flames of reaction against the IWW and local activists. He was highly critical of liberal Mayor Cotterill for allowing IWW organizers and anarchists to speak publicly in downtown Seattle. His red-baiting led to violence, as soldiers and sailors ransacked IWW and Socialist headquarters. The riots that followed were essentially an attempt to suppress free speech and labor organizing and were a harbinger of the nationwide red scare leading up to and following World War I. In response to the riots, Mayor Cotterill declared an emergency, took control of the police, shut down saloons, banned street speaking and attempted to temporarily shut down the Times. – 1913

The Justice Department instructed its attorneys and special agents to keep tabs on local Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) to determine their plans, sources of income, and any evidence that might link them to anti-war or pro-German activity. No incriminating evidence ever surfaced. – 1917

Two ammunition ships exploded at Port Chicago (now known as the Concord Naval Weapons Center), California, killing 322 — including 202 African-Americans assigned by the Navy to handle explosives. The explosion was so large that it could be seen 35 miles away in San Francisco, across the Bay. In response, 258 African-Americans refused to return to the dangerous work, initiating what would be known as the Port Chicago Mutiny. 50 of the men were convicted. – 1944

The death of a missile mechanic at Cape Canaveral sparked a successful 4-day walkout that won improved local health and safety programs. – 1958

The Great Potlatch Riots

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The Port Chicago Disaster: The History of America’s Deadliest Homeland Incident during World War II

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