WORKING CLASS UNION
The Working Class Union, a labor organization active in Oklahoma in the years immediately prior to World War I, was first organized in Louisiana in 1913. The union coalesced after a failed strike by the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW) in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. The BTW was affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also called "Wobblies") and hoped to include local tenant farmers and sharecroppers in its membership. The national leadership of the IWW, however, rejected the farmers as members because they were not true wage workers, although many held jobs in the lumber industry. In response, BTW leaders formed the Working Class Union (WCU) in 1913. The charter proclaimed working class loyalty in the struggle against capitalism and the organization's intention to create "One Big Union" of all workers. Members also promised never to act as strikebreakers nor to criticize any other working man or woman.
Its major demands in fact differed little from those of the Socialist Party or the IWW. The WCU sought abolition of rents, labor reforms such as the eight-hour day and a workers' compensation program, old age pensions, child labor laws, and free school textbooks. Unlike the Socialists and the IWW, the WCU did not reject the use of violence. The WCU did not believe in the IWW's nonviolent "mighty power of folded arms," but it did agree that a "scab has no rights an honest working man is bound to respect." More important, the Working Class Union was a secret society, with local branches operating autonomously and deciding on their own course of action.
Unable to secure a strong base of support in Louisiana, in 1913 the WCU sent John E. "Hobo" Wiggins, a Wobbly and BTW member, to southeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas to find recruits. For unknown reasons, Wiggins left for the Pacific Northwest a short time later and became involved with IWW efforts to organize lumberjacks. In Wiggin's stead, Dr. Wells LeFevre, an Arkansas socialist, established a new WCU national headquarters in 1914 at "Hobo Hollow," near Van Buren, Arkansas. WCU locals sprang up in Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and Nebraska, but the organization's largest growth occurred in southeastern Oklahoma, especially along the Canadian River. Of an alleged thirty-five thousand members, twenty thousand were in Oklahoma. Actual membership, however, was probably smaller.
The WCU benefitted from the collapse of cotton prices as World War I erupted in 1914 and closed the European markets. As cotton lint fell from almost twelve cents a pound to just under seven cents, farmers discovered that the local price barely covered half the estimated production cost. They found themselves unable to meet loan and mortgage payments and foreclosures increased. Compounding the problem, land values fell, and landlords began demanding a larger share of the crop as rent.
The WCU also used extralegal actions such as night-riding, whipping tenants who refused to support the organization's actions, and blacklisting and boycotting those landlords who opposed them. In a Robin Hood-like display of social banditry, some members robbed banks. In fact, bank robberies quadrupled in the period, although professional criminals committed the majority of the crimes.
WCU members also burned barns and dynamited cattle-dipping vats after Texas fever broke out among Oklahoma herds in 1915. State officials had ordered a dipping program to eradicate the ticks that carried the disease and had ordered county sheriffs to seize the livestock of farmers who refused to cooperate. This angered small farmers and tenants, who blamed large-scale ranching operations for spreading the disease and who feared the arsenic-based dip was a greater threat to the cattle. In September 1915 night riders, many of them WCU members, started dynamiting dipping tanks in Pontotoc, Sequoyah, and Muskogee counties in Oklahoma, burning the barns of county commissioners who approved the program, and terrorizing tenants who rented land from blacklisted landlords. WCU men called these activities "sending the Jones boys" or "Jones family." By 1916 the night-riding episodes had forced the Oklahoma legislature to amend and strengthen the existing usury law, and afterward, night-riding and extralegal violence declined.
Thus, in the years before the United States entered World War I the WCU became an important vehicle for the tenants' frustrations. The union also used the ballot to elect supporters. In Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, popular attorney Luther C. McNabb rode WCU support to a county judgeship. McNabb later resigned to become the union's attorney and to pursue lawsuits against several local banks for violating a new usury law that regulated interest rates on loans. His success with the suits led Sequoyah County officials and businessmen to seek his disbarment on charges of defrauding clients and embezzlement. Union members, by wearing red shirts and carrying rifles, showed their support for him by marching in the streets of Sallisaw during his February 1916 disbarment hearings.
The WCU became moribund when cotton prices rose in 1916 but was revitalized by American entry into World War I in 1917. Under the leadership of Henry H. "Rube" Munson, a former miner from Seneca, Missouri, the union throughout the summer of 1917 planned opposition to the new federal Conscription Act. While some locals like the "Jones family" planned only to help draft-age men evade conscription, others planned the armed revolt that became known as the Green Corn Rebellion. The rebellion effectively destroyed the WCU in Oklahoma, although some Arkansas locals survived until they, too, were the victims of their anticonscription positions.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978). Covington Hall, Labor Struggles in the Deep South and Other Writings, ed. David R. Roediger (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1999). Sherry H. Warrick, "Antiwar Reaction in the Southwest During World War I" (M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1973).
Nigel Anthony Sellars
© Oklahoma Historical Society