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The First Red Scare Comes to Town: the 1919 IWW Headquarters Raid

The East Village and Greenwich Village have long been bastions of progressive thought and hotbeds of radical social movements. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies” as they are also known, found a home for its radical vision of industrial unionism in the East Village. The November 15, 1919, raid on the IWW headquarters located at 115 East 10th Street, not only marks a pivotal moment in the history of the IWW, but also weaves into the broader tapestry of labor struggles in the neighborhood and the country at large during this transformative period.

Labor union cartoon from early years of the IWW

The IWW, founded in 1905, aimed to unite all workers, irrespective of skill or industry, under the common banner of industrial unionism. It rejected the traditional model of craft-based unions and advocated for the overthrow of the capitalist system. The organization’s radical ideals and commitment to direct action made it a target for both corporate interests and government authorities. The birth and the growth of the IWW was part of a broader tapestry of fast-moving historical developments leading up to the 1919 raid.

Domestically, the start of the twentieth century saw a growing anti-immigration sentiment, agitation by labor movements for better working conditions, and fears of what were perceived by some potentially destabilizing political ideologies. Many political movements were lumped together as ‘anarchists,’ with fears about their actions ranging from lone actors to mass organized violence, such as the series of mail bomb attacks against government officials across the country in the spring of 1919. As a result, tensions were running high nationally. A few days before the government raid on IWW in the East Village, on November 11, 1919, there was a violent clash between World War I veterans and IWW members in Centralia, Washington, that left several people dead. News of this clash overshadowed the events of November 15, which came in the midst of what came to be known as the first “Red Scare,” lasting from 1918 to 1920.

IWW ‘stickerette’ from 1920

The two years immediately before the 1919 raid witnessed the American entry into World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the start of the Spanish Flu pandemic. As the echoes of World War I faded, the United States found itself grappling with economic uncertainty, inflation, and widespread labor strikes. Workers, emboldened by Bolshevik and communist revolutions across Europe and inspired by socialist ideals, demanded better wages, improved working conditions, and the right to organize. The government, in turn, responded with increasing suspicion and fear, viewing radical labor movements as potential threats to the established order.

The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 provided legal tools for suppressing dissent, and the IWW became a prime target. The authorities, driven by anti-radical sentiments, sought to quell the rising tide of labor activism, viewing the IWW as a threat to the established social and economic order. Woven into this was the growth of xenophobia and racism, which included a re-segregation of the Federal workforce under President Woodrow Wilson.

June 4, 1919 newspaper image from New-York Tribune depicting sites of mail bombings that occurred between April-June 1919.
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer

While exact details of the raid remain limited, it was executed under the pretext of national security concerns, citing the organization’s alleged ties to subversive activities. The East Village raid was part of a wider series of actions that have become known as the Palmer Raids overseen by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and the decade-old Bureau of Investigation, which evolved into the FBI. The atmosphere was tense as the authorities ransacked the premises, seizing documents, and pamphlets, with key members of the IWW leadership arrested. The Palmer Raids lasted through 1920 and saw dozens of people deported.

Aftermath of the raid on IWW headquarters at 115 East 10th Street
115 East 10th Street (left side of the image) as seen today

The raid had a profound impact on the labor movement, intensifying the divide between mainstream unions and radical organizations like the IWW. The crackdown also fueled a sense of solidarity among workers, as many saw the government’s actions as an affront to their basic rights. The incident served to galvanize the labor movement, inspiring a renewed commitment to the struggle for workers’ rights.

Person being prepared to be deported in 1920 after being arrested during a Palmer raid

The 1919 raid on the IWW headquarters in the East Village was a local event that was part of a wider history that highlights the tension between the government and dissenting voices during and after World War I. The suppression of the IWW illustrates the delicate balance between national security concerns and the fundamental right to free expression and assembly in a period defined by international conflict, a global pandemic, growing nativism and racism, and a changing relationship between workers and employers.  

The story of the IWW is part of the broader history of labor organizing which was so central to our neighborhoods. You can explore that history further via our South of Union Square Leftist and Labor Virtual Tour.  Read more about the history and the work we’re doing to preserve it at other buildings linked to labor and social justice history, such as 70 and 80 Fifth Avenue.

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