This week marks the passage of a century since the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) led a strike of several thousand workers. The IWW (often called the Wobblies) called the May Day 1923 General Strike with a primary demand: the liberation of all political – often called “Class War” – prisoners. As a center of IWW strength, Pacific Northwest lumber and maritime workers led the way as thousands of loggers, sawmill and longshore laborers, and sailors poured off the job.
But like so many early 20th century labor conflicts, bosses responded to the strike with violence. At the Bay City mill in Aberdeen, Washington, a company gunman murdered a striking IWW lumber worker named William McKay. On May 8, more than a thousand workers paraded through the streets of Aberdeen, carrying banners and waving red flags, in a striking show of solidarity to commemorate their fallen fellow worker.
The vast group of Wobblies and sympathizers who turned out to pay tribute to McKay was impressive—working people who refused to be buffaloed by a violent employer class who’d spent decades terrorizing the area’s unionists and left-wing activists.
McKay’s funeral-goers also turned out to speak a message to the future—or so they thought. At the graveside memorial for the murdered Wobbly, stood beside a large sign reading “Fellow Worker William McKay, Murdered by Capitalist Gunmen of the Bay City Mill Company Thursday, May 3; We Never Forget?”
The question has long haunted me as it’s clear historians and history buffs prefer to feature other stories in retelling Northwest and even Wobbly history. But it’s perhaps not surprising that so many have forgotten McKay’s murder and the events that led up to it. After all, McKay paid with his life while daring to strike on May Day—International Workers’ Day—the world’ most widely celebrated holiday and one with roots in the United States. But it’s a day whose radical roots have been buried for some of the main reasons that McKay’s life—and his death remain little known.
On May Day 2023, a full century since the strike to free class war prisoners and McKay’s murder, I’m delivering a talk in Hoquiam, Aberdeen’s “twin city,” not far from where McKay took his last breaths. It’s hosted by the Chehalis River Mutual Aid Network, a grassroots group dedicated to assisting the victims of capitalism; in some ways the mutual aid network are the descendants of the radical activists who so directly challenged the dominant socioeconomic system a century ago. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first time in a century where McKay’s life and murder have received this type of attention. Unfortunately, it seems as if the funeral-goers’ sign asking whether we would ever forget can be answered in the negative. I hope to use the opportunity to bring attention to IWW’s history, McKay’s life and death, and to get at some of the reasons why this event – so significant a century ago – forgotten, written out of Pacific Northwest and even labor history?
By the 1890s, May Day had spread to communities across the globe. Northwest workers joined the growing sea of May Day protests, and by the early 20th century workers in several Northwest communities celebrated May Day with parades and protests – delivering anti-capitalist messages to thousands of working people who labored in the country’s northwest corner. Many thousands of these laborers had a first-hand view at the darkest sides of America’s socioeconomic system. Each year, tens of thousands of U.S. workers paid with their lives for working in the world’s most dangerous industrial nation. And then, as now, the lumber industry (by far the Northwest’s largest employer) ranked atop the list of biggest killers.
The lumber towns of Grays Harbor—site of McKay’s death in 1923—were some of the country’s emerging early 20th century centers of labor leftist activism. Thousands of workers—from longshoremen to cooks—took out union cards in the early years of the twentieth century. A similar number went further. They condemned capitalism and its inherent violent character, and organized vibrant left-wing movements to challenge the system and those it enriched. Notable among anti-capitalist movements was the IWW—a revolutionary industrial union movement that has, for more than a century, sought radical transformation of the capitalist socioeconomic order. Thousands of working people joined or otherwise supported the IWW during the first four decades of the twentieth century, and the IWW remains a fighting working-class organization in North America and beyond.
Both Wobblies and socialists turned out in force to celebrate the First of May. Grays Harbor socialists planned an elaborate series of activities for May Day 1911, including a parade led by the “Red” Finn band, a series of street meetings and hall orations, a public feast, and an evening of dancing and socializing at the “Red” Finn Hall. Northwest Wobblies had likewise commemorated the workers’ holiday by declaring strikes and making demands on employers and the state. On May 1, 1912, after enduring months of street-level vigilantism led by Aberdeen and Hoquiam businessmen, Wobbly writers took to their main western newspaper, the Seattle-based Industrial Worker, which ran an 8-page commemorative May Day issue calling upon Wobblies to “Drop Your Tools—Show Your Power” in a front-page headline.
Through strikes, street demonstrations, and other shows of worker power, the IWW threatened the power and profits of Northwest lumbermen—the region’s wealthiest and most powerful group. And lumbermen and their allies responded as did their friends and fellow bosses across North America – by passing repressive legislation, spying on workers’ meetings, and jailing and beating hundreds of militant workers.
In Grays Harbor and beyond, employers used violence to curb worker organizing—as the men who resided in the Northwest’s mansions brought down the iron fist upon labor activists. These “Capital’s Terrorists,” to use the term coined by historian Chad Pearson in his brilliant 2022 book, had little interest in discussion or compromise with workers. Instead, violence—with a policeman’s club, the strikebreaker’s pistol, and the state’s prison cell—were American elites’ weapons of choice to curb the labor movement.
Violent persecution of labor activists has long been a feature of American life—anti-union groups killed between 500-800 strikers in the U.S. between 1872 and 1914, while approximately 30,000 U.S. workers died on the job annually during the early 20th century—both figures dwarfed those of “similar” industrial countries in western Europe. Countless thousands of U.S. unionists caught jail and prison sentences during this era. Police and vigilantes turned up the heat during World War I and its aftermath—another Red Scare of repression against all those who fought for a less exploitative, less violent future.
By the dawn of the 1920s, hundreds of labor activists languished in American jails and prisons – that era’s additions to the long list of political prisoners in a country that supposedly has none. Authorities arrested Wobblies and suspected Wobblies on charges of criminal syndicalism after state legislatures passed these notorious laws at the behest of business interests. Criminal syndicalism laws in Idaho (1917), Oregon (1917), Washington (1919), and several other states criminalized membership in, and support for, the IWW. Northwest cops and vigilantes rounded up hundreds of Northwest labor activists between November 12, 1919 and 1923.
Much of the IWW’s post-World War I program focused on the support and defense of those class war prisoners. Wobblies wrote educational pamphlets, collected donations for the defense fund, and sponsored speaking tours. But the IWW preferred direct action to other methods of carrying out change. Thus, few could have been surprised when, during October 1922, the IWW General Executive Board decided to call for a general strike to free all class war prisoners.
The IWW conducted an energetic months-long campaign around the issue. In the early Twenties, Grays Harbor Wobblies hosted a dozen or more events per month—making good use of IWW halls—and those run by “Red” Finns. These workers formed IWW locals – lumber and maritime workers, construction laborers and food service workers – joining hands into One Big Union of all workers. Letters poured in from the towns and camps of the Harbor throughout 1922-1923, and IWW membership around the nation climbed precipitously. In late-1922 the IWW laid an ultimatum at President Warren G. Harding’s doorstep: release all class war prisoners held in federal and state penitentiaries or face a general strike beginning May 1, the Global Labor Day.
As winter turned to spring and as thousands came into the IWW’s ranks. Sensing their potential power, the Wobblies felt the opportunity to pry open the prison doors through collective action rather than by begging elites. In Aberdeen on April 15, IWW delegates from the Grays Harbor district voted to coordinate the strike with their fellow workers in the Puget Sound, all while making it clear that “the main issue in this upcoming strike shall be the release of the class war prisoners.”
In the last week of April, the dam burst and thousands of workers – many who labored in Washington’s Coastal regions – struck. On April 25, 1923, the Industrial Worker ran a front-page headline reading: “Strike One –Strike All!” Many workers across the nation had already begun to pour off the job. Three-thousand dock workers struck in San Pedro, and striking workers tied up shipping along the east, west, and Gulf coasts. By the end of April, Portland-area loggers closed thirty Portland-area logging camps.
Grays Harbor was one of the centers of strike activity. Within days of the strike’s inception, loggers had shut down at least forty camps. IWW organizer James Pezzanis wrote that there were “30 or 40 men in each mill, distributing hand bills and talking to the workers as they come off the job.” In all, between four and five thousand Grays Harbor mill workers, loggers, longshoremen, and clam diggers struck to free class war prisoners in late April and early May 1923. Wobbly songwriter Dublin Dan penned the poem “One Hundred Thousand Strong,” to commemorate the tremendous scale of the strike:
Did they come out? I’ll say they did;
One hundred thousand strong,
“Release the Class-War Prisoners”
Was the title of their song;
In lumber camps, construction jobs,
And even on the sea,
Events will now be dated from the
Strike of — ‘23
In the spring of 1923 William McKay’s work brought him to Grays Harbor County. An Irish immigrant, he worked his way west to British Columbia joining an army of migratory workers who worked in western forests. And like so many loggers, McKay was drawn to the radical message of the One Big Union—a revolutionary organization that spoke in clear terms about the fundamentals of capitalism, declaring: “The working class and employing class have nothing in common.”
The IWW’s militant message and efforts to unionize the world’s most exploited workers made McKay and other fellow workers potential targets of the wrath of the timber bosses, who themselves organized into “Unions Against Unions.” James Rowan, another Irish immigrant logger and one of the founders of the IWW lumber workers’ union, in fact, described Pacific Northwest lumbermen as “the One Big Union of the bosses in the timber industry.”
William joined the IWW during its first big organizational push in British Columbia between 1906 and 1910. He was very active in the agitation surrounding the Vancouver Free Speech Fight of 1912; mounted police ran down and beat several Wobblies during the free speech campaign. Following the conclusion of the fight, McKay traveled along the BC coast, working as a logger and organizing for the IWW. For his agitation during the Canadian Northern Railroad strike of 1912, bosses marked McKay an “agitator” and blacklisted from employment in the BC woods.
In early 1923, McKay worked and organized for the IWW in Grays Harbor. After the great successes shutting down local mills and camps and docks in the waning days of April and the First of May, McKay joined his fellow workers in picketing notorious Grays Harbor Commercial Company in Cosmopolis, a mill widely known as the “western penitentiary” for its oppressive employment practices.
After Commercial Company laborers joined the strike, picketers marched on the Bay City mill in Aberdeen. When McKay and his fellow workers arrived at the gate, E.I. Green, a hired gunman for the Bay City mill, confronted the strikers. Green had a long history of violent activities. He was a military veteran, and according to the Southwest Washington Labor Press “was known as a man quick to use a gun and had done time because of it previously.”The picket line confrontation escalated quickly. One witness to the shooting recalled that Green “was standing a short distance away [from the pickets], loudly taunting the crowd of men with abuse and vile language, including in his remarks something to the effect that no one belongs to the Industrial Workers’ Union but foreigners who cannot speak English.”
Outraged at the gunman’s bigoted taunt, McKay stepped forward, shouting “Do you mean that for me?” During the quarrel, Green pulled his revolver and McKay, seeing the weapon, ran for his life. As McKay fled, Green twice pulled the trigger—firing two shots in the Wobbly activist’s direction. One of the bullets struck McKay in the back of the head, killing him. Gunman Green did what gunmen do—he used his weapon to kill McKay’s and disperse the picket line.
At the coroner’s inquest later that day, three doctors and six community members confirmed some of the horrific details of the killing. According to the autopsy, McKay died from a single bullet that entered two inches above his right ear, “traversed through brain substance,” and bounced between many parts of his skull.
The Wobblies celebrated McKay’s life on the streets and in print. More than 1,000 Wobblies and supporters turned out on the streets, marching defiantly through Aberdeen to Fern Hill cemetery in a massive funeral parade. This parade was no small feat given the region’s long history of violently quelling worker demonstrations—especially after having just witnessed a gunman take one of their fellow worker’s lives.
Photographs of the parade were reprinted as post cards and widely distributed around the United States. Articles on McKay’s life and his murder followed for weeks thereafter in the radical and labor press. But the Wobblies did not march or write in McKay’s honor merely to celebrate his life. Instead, they attacked the arbitrary and authoritarian power of American capitalists that made the murder possible—and they demanded radical change. At McKay’s graveside, Wobbly Tom Waldon delivered a lengthy, passionate speech about the need to organize unions to preserve working-class lives.
At the center of the cemetery gathering, two young Finnish girls stood in front of a towering sign that: “Fellow Worker McKay: Murdered at Bay City Mill by a Co Gunman May 3rd 1923. A Victim of Capitalistic Greed. We Never Forget?” The question mark in their sign appears to be a challenge. Sadly, we have mostly forgotten the lives lost and struggles waged by working people across this nation. After receiving a few short blurbs in the mainstream press, McKay’s death went unmentioned in book after book of IWW and May Day history. Unfortunately, his name has been lost to posterity.
Local Wobblies and the union’s press demanded that Green’s prosecution and imprisonment—standard treatment for a man who murdered another in full view of witnesses. They urged fellow workers to “Be ready for trial,” of “the gunman who murdered Fellow Worker McKay.” But like so many workers’ organizations, the IWW had no illusions about the American “criminal justice” system. They had long noted that jails and prisons filled with working people arrested and prosecuted for crimes of poverty like vagrancy and trespassing, as well as “thought crimes,” notably the criminal syndicalism laws that made belonging to the IWW a serious offense. Wobblies of McKay’s era understood that American courts and elections usually served as tools to crush worker dissent; nonetheless, they held out hope that authorities would prosecute Green for his crime.
But in a decision that some workers compared with the “Centralia frameup,” members of the coroner’s inquest refused to affix blame for the murder and thus “tacitly condoned the killing by holding that Green was ‘on duty.’” Grays Harbor County Prosecutor, A. E. Graham, declared that he would prosecute Green for the murder. Yet after an initial hearing, the gunman was freed on bail and escaped punishment for taking McKay’s life.
Employers and their allies on the Right had won again. Reacting to McKay’s murder with a callousness that might have shocked the readers of more mainstream organs, the right-wing Hoquiam American opined that, “A man who listens to the talk of an IWW is on a par with the man who looks down the muzzle of a loaded gun while fooling with the trigger.” Lumbermen to hire and arm belligerent gunmen to patrol their property. Shortly after McKay’s death, a Grays Harbor Company mill guard named Jackson gained notoriety for strutting about the mill flashing his gun at any man who walked by, proclaiming, “If my son joined the I.W.W. I would shoot him.” Considering this context, it is fortunate that more picketers did not end up like McKay.
When McKay’s graveside questioned whether their working-class descendants – us included – would remember pay tribute to McKay’s life and recall the lessons of his death, they issued a challenge to the future. There’s hope, though, that during the next century, we can do better by placing his name alongside the other Wobblies who paid with their lives and freedom while fighting to dump the bosses off our backs. If anything, we should remember that McKay and his fellow workers struck to liberate political prisoners—and those responsible for McKay’s death, including Green and those who hired the gunman, escaped punishment.
One IWW writer recalled McKay saying: “I would rather die fighting the masters than be killed slaving for them.” As we reach the 100-year anniversary of this dark event, it’s critical that McKay’s—and the wider IWW’s—legacies of “fighting the masters” not be forgotten.