September 2012 Bar Bulletin
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September 2012 Bar Bulletin

The Union of Civil Liberties and Labor

By Doug Honig


Labor issues were much on the minds of the small group of people who began meeting in Seattle in 1920 to discuss civil liberties violations in Washington. After all, this was the year after the famous (or infamous, depending on one's politics) five-day Seattle general strike, the first general strike by labor unions in a U.S. city.

Moreover, the whole area was a hotbed for radical activism. The militant Industrial Workers of the World - better known as the Wobblies - had a regional office in Seattle and was organizing strikes in logging camps and lumber mills. The previous year also had seen another high-profile event that labor activists called the "Centralia Massacre." On Armistice Day of 1919, American Legionnaires attacked the Wobbly hall in Centralia. One Wobbly was lynched and seven received lengthy prison terms, but no Legionnaires were prosecuted for their role in the tragedy.

Anxiety over labor and social unrest had fueled a backlash from the political establishment. Department of Justice officials seized the plant of the Union Record, Seattle's labor-backed newspaper, and arrested staff members. The Legislature gave legal teeth to the Red Scare in 1919 by passing a criminal syndicalism law. This broad, vague legislation made it a crime to advocate, teach, publish or further any doctrine promoting force as a way of bringing about social change. Eighty-six people were convicted under the law during its year on the books.

The people who met in Seattle felt the need for an ongoing group to protect basic rights. They hoped to establish a local branch of a newly formed national organization, the American Civil Liberties Union. Their first recruitment letter expressed their concerns in dramatic terms:

Continued violation of the Constitution and breaking of laws, together with forgery, perjury, and assault, are charged against the Department of Justice and the U.S. ... This lawless disregard for human freedom and constitutional rights turns to mockery our boast of a free America.

It would be another 15 years before a Washington branch of the ACLU was founded. Defense of free speech, assembly and organizing rights for labor activists remained high on the agenda.

An ACLU team investigated the use of the National Guard during a 1935 strike at Tacoma's lumber mills. "To say that the city is an armed camp of terror is not an exaggeration," reported a team member. During the bitterly fought Newspaper Guild strike in 1936 against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the ACLU acted to protect peaceful picketing and mass meetings.

Two successful early campaigns completed work from the days of the Red Scare. The ACLU began lobbying to repeal the criminal syndicalism law. In 1937, supporters of repeal led by Sen. Mary Farquharson, an ACLU chapter founder, maneuvered the bill out of committee. With the clock stopped to avoid ending the session and the bill the last measure of the day to be considered, the state Senate voted to repeal the law. The governor signed the measure.

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