Labor struggles were prominent in the oil fields
In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected in New York City as Labor Day, a “workingman’s holiday”. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many cities in the country.
Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement and constitutes a yearly tribute to the contribution workers have made to the strength and prosperity of this country.
Much of that strength and prosperity are rooted in Butler County’s rich oil industry.
Established in June 1905 in Chicago, the Industrial Workers of the World ( IWW ) was a labor organization that sought to organize workers along the lines of industrial unions rather than the specialized trade, or craft, unions of the American Federation of Labor. The new organization extended membership to all wage workers regardless of race, creed, color, or sex. It also rejected signing contracts with employers, believing that such agreements limited workers' ability to strike. In addition, the union's advocacy of direct action resistance, or sabotage, gave it a widespread, though undeserved, reputation.
Businessmen, state and federal authorities began active anti–IWW campaigns. An entire labor organization was targeted - its national and local leaders were rounded up and held for mass trials in Chicago, Wichita, Sacramento, Calif., and Omaha, Neb.
It was reported in The Walnut Valley Times that it was well known by members of the sheriff and police forces that the I.W.W. maintained headquarters for some time in two small tents on North Main Street, across the river bridge in El Dorado. Local law enforcement advised that as long as the members did not create any violence or other disturbances the government had ruled that they could not be molested by the law, consequently the organization was allowed to carry on its work in the city.
Empire Gas and Fuel Company director M.E. Jolliffe reported “We are ready at all times to fight the organization should any trouble arise.”
Trouble arrived in late November and early December 1917, when approximately 50 IWW leaders, as well as activists from the Oil Workers and Agricultural Workers Industrial Unions were arrested in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Both police departments in Augusta and El Dorado were exercising all possible vigilance and prepared to meet any trouble that might arise.
U.S. Attorney Fred Robertson vowed to clear the Butler fields of all I.W.W members.
The smashing drive in Butler County oil fields against the I.W.W. in November of that year filled jails in Augusta and El Dorado. All “loiterers” were arrested and held until they could provide evidence that they weren’t members of I.W.W. Authorities arrested around 30 men carrying labor cards, most of them nabbed in Augusta.
Butler County Undersheriff Chick McCraner, Deputies S.S. Cluster, and E.E. McKnight were assisted in the roundup by Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Hill of Wichita and federal agent Oscar Schmitz of Kansas City.
Literature taken from the men arrested indicated that the Butler County oil field had been an active meeting place for I.W.W. members from around the country.
They were held in three county jails in Kansas for two years until they were tried under the Espionage Act for urging people to violate the Selective Service Act and causing “insubordination in the military” by “public speaking” and by publishing “articles printed in certain newspapers.”
The Kansas county jails - Shawnee, Sedgwick and Wyandotte - were reported to be among the vilest penal institutions in the country. A reporter for the Survey magazine was commissioned by Survey and the National Civil Liberties Union (forerunner of the ACLU) to investigate the jails. Of the 28 IWW members confined in the Kansas county jails, one died, four contracted tuberculosis and two were transferred to insane asylums. The jails were described as overcrowded, rat-infested, and “disease breeding”, with prisoners sometimes spending 50 consecutive days in solitary confinement.
Many of the men arrested in Augusta and El Dorado were turned over to the federal authorities and put on a train bound for Kansas City.
On Dec. 1, 1919, the defendants were tried. Twenty-five were found guilty on four counts - all related to opposing World War 1 - and were transferred to the federal prison in Leavenworth. Nineteen of the inmates were freed in May 1921 after the federal circuit court of appeals overturned their conviction on the first count of the indictment - the only part of the indictment for which they were serving time.
As we pay tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers on this Labor Day, let us also remember that the workers of Butler County have played an important role in the well being of our country.
Sources: The Walnut Valley Times, Nov. 23, 1917; The Walnut Valley Times, March 19, 1919; The Walnut Valley Times, Nov. 23, 1917; American Political Prisoners: Prosecution Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, by Stephen Martin Kohn.