Big Bill Haywood
“Roughneck” by Peter Carlson
By Richard E. Noble
“Roughneck”, the life and times of Big Bill Haywood, by Peter Carlson; this is another one of those books that I picked up for a dime at a local yard sale. I picked it up because on the back of the book in a blurb by Studs Terkel, my hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts was mentioned. Come to find out Big Bill Haywood had been to my hometown. Big Bill was a labor leader for a group called the I.W.W. (The Wobblies), and he was in my hometown “agitating” or “defending” twenty thousand textile workers who had walked off their jobs.
During his life Big Bill was the U.S. governments number one most wanted and hated labor “consultant”. He makes John L. Lewis and Samuel Gompers look like choirboys – actually Lewis was a Republican and Gompers was a kiss-ass and a sycophant to the established power structure. Haywood’s life, on the other hand, was dynamite - and you can take that literally or figuratively.
He was a miner, first associated with the W.F.M. (Western Federation of Miners). He led a storybook life, but the book wasn’t Alice in Wonderland. He was in and out of prison for political purposes all his life. He had an 0. J. Simson like murder trial for his life, with none other than Clarence Darrow as his lawyer. He could list among his enemies people like J. Edgar Hoover, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Some people loved him and wanted his autograph and others lingered in the crowd with weapons waiting for an opportunity to gun him down.
Big business men had contracts out on his life but yet he died a natural death. If you consider dying in a hotel room in Moscow – a fugitive from American justice - a natural death for a former cowboy, silver prospector and son of a Pony Express Rider from the Rockies.
The I.W.W. was the most Left-wing, radical, labor movement in America. They thought Socialism was Right-wing. They called the Socialist - “Slow-cialists”. They were Communists or Syndicalist in philosophy even before the “conversion” of Russia.
Big Bill was sitting in a jail cell in prison charged with “conspiracy to overthrow the government” when he heard about the Russian Revolution. The I.W.W. believed in revolution and not evolution. They believed in the democratization of industry. If democracy could work in the political system, why couldn’t it work in the economic system? The workers would make the decisions - all the decisions. There would be no more wealthy; everybody would join the ranks of the weary workers and it would be wonderful. All wealth was the result of labor, and consequently it should be the laborer’s property. All capital goods were simply surplus value, garnered from the rank and file. Your watch, tooth brush and dirty underwear were your own but nobody had a right to own a textile mill, cattle ranch, or tobacco plantation. It was the toughest most radical philosophy of the day but yet millions and millions around the world and in the United States believed that it was not only possible but would work if given the chance.
I don’t know what makes people like Big Bill Haywood tick. To get even a glimpse of the man, I think I have to learn more of the times, when, for example, the vast majority made six dollars a week, and men, woman and children were literally worked to death - and in some cases in a year or two. I’m proud and grateful to say that due to the courage of men like Big Bill Haywood, I find the whole situation beyond my comprehension.