During the mid-1920s, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti was a litmus test across the US and internationally. Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian anarchist immigrants who were framed on a murder charge in 1921 and sentenced to death. There was a strong campaign to defend them, including among the more militant wings of the labor movement.
What’s often forgotten is that this wasn’t just a movement of petitions and marches. In fact, there was a General Strike organized in Colorado to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, organized by the same IWW that had supposedly been crushed in 1919.
The mine owners in Colorado had kept the unions out prior to this point. After the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, the United Mine Workers had given up on Colorado. And although the IWW had suffered major repression in 1919, and a bitter split in 1924, a member named A.S. Embree (a veteran of the deportation in Bisbee, AZ) was released from prison after his “criminal syndicalist” conviction. He moved to Colorado and began building contacts among the mine workers, who were primarily a mixture of recent European immigrants, local Spanish-speaking workers, and Mexican immigrants. At first Embree began with general agitation about workplace issues, which created a network of contacts, but no action.
Given the violent history of the region, there was a reluctance to move too soon against the mine owners. But Embree noticed that material circulated by the IWW’s General Defense Committee in support of Sacco and Vanzetti struck a genuine note of sympathy and solidarity. On August 21, the IWW called for a general strike against the executions of the Italian Anarchists. Response to the call in Colorado exceeded beyond anyone’s expectations. More than 10,000 miners went out in all sections of the state, virtually closing down the industry. To prevent retaliatory firings workers at many mines stayed out for three days.
From there, the IWW continued to organize. We called a conference of miners in September, which led to another state-wide strike. Miners and their communities showed ingenuity across the state, throwing up leaders such as Amelia Milka Sablich,a 19 year old daughter of a Croatian miner, also known as Red Milka. “After the arrests of her father and older sister she donned a bright red dress and with fiery rhetoric led marches against scab mines. She was jailed twice herself and physically fought a policeman to a draw.” (Murfin)
Unfortunately the strikes had mixed results. The miners were determined, but the bosses were also determined to avoid recognizing the IWW. The mine owners and the state fought with desperate violence to crush the strike, including through a particularly vicious battle that led to the death of many strikers and supporters in Columbine, Colorado (yes, that same Columbine). The bosses eventually granted concessions, but they were desperate to keep the IWW out, so they recognized the United Mine Workers (who had had nothing to do with the strike).
The 1927 Colorado strikes did not lead to any permanent gains for the IWW or revolutionary unionism in the US. However, it did show in a concrete way that it is possible to inspire workers to fight based on the connection between their workplace exploitation and wider issues of repression or exploitation. Ultimately, the general strike in Colorado did not save Sacco and Vanzetti, but in many ways it seems like the most promising effort that was made. If it had spread farther and involved more workers, it may have had the power to do just that. This is one of the biggest proofs that community self-defense and anti-repression work can, and must, be tied to radical workplace organizing, and vice verse. This is why the IWW and the GDC are relevant today. We have to dream of large scale strikes to stop police brutality, or to defend J20 defendants, and then we have to organize to make them happen.