In 1917, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a series of raids on offices around the nation belonging to the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the the IWW, or the “Wobblies”), an international labor union that was alleged to have had ties to socialist, syndicalist, and anarchist organizations. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the FBI labeled the IWW a domestic enemy for its staunch opposition to involvement in the conflict. Their powerful influence over workers in crucial wartime industries, particularly copper mining and lumber, made the IWW a target of FBI agents seeking to prevent workers’ strikes and any efforts that could disrupt the flow of production. Between 1917 and 1921, the FBI raided every office of the IWW looking for evidence to deport immigrants with alleged connections to anarchism, communism, and Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. These have since been called the “Palmer Raids” after then Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer who directed them, and they were considered the beginning of the First Red Scare, which began during and peaked after World War I, and was followed by the Second Red Scare, which followed World War II and lasted well into the the 1950s and ’60s. Both targeted not just organized labor, but also people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQIA+ people for their social activism. Both had a huge impact on our neighborhoods.
On November 15th, 1919, the FBI raided the IWW Headquarters in New York City, then located at 115 East 10th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, in what is now the St. Mark’s Historic District. Here’s how it was described and illustrated in a local socialist magazine:
We’ve found little additional information about the raid, but we do know that FBI agents took samples of everything in the office, from furniture to paper clips. It is speculated that the intent was two-fold: to deprive the chapter of the basic necessities for running the organization, and to aid in collecting evidence to prosecute its leadership and force the IWW chapter to close. We know they had some success in this regard, as by 1920 the IWW were no longer listed at this address, though around this same time they also had offices (also sometimes referred to as “headquarters”) nearby at 27 East 4th Street and 116 University Place (both have since been demolished).
Labor organizations have had a long-standing legacy in our neighborhoods, particularly in an area South of Union Square. This area housed several influential organizations, including the International Worker’s Order, a fraternal organization that fought for racial equality, fair treatment for immigrants, and social equity from 80 Fifth Avenue between 1930 and 1954. 112 Fourth Avenue hosted the Workingmen’s Cooperative Publishing Association, which printed the first newspaper associated with the Socialist Party of New York, The New York Call, from 1908 to 1923. 70 Fifth Avenue housed the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Union Against Militarism, the League for Industrial Democracy (founded by Upton Sinclair), and the National Civil Liberties Union, now known as the American Civil Liberties Union. This area’s rich contributions to our country’s labor and progressive movements are remarkable, and you can learn more about the area’s legacy by exploring our interactive Leftist and Labor Virtual Tour. To read more about the history of other buildings in this area and our preservation efforts there, we encourage you to also visit our South of Union Square Advocacy Campaign.