From the Pages of Labor History


For May Day, Remembering Vincent St. John

by Bob Mattingly


Not far from where I live is a cemetery that I visit on May Day. I go there to place some flowers, red of course, alongside the marker that identifies a grave as the final resting place of Vincent St. John (1876–1929), once a General Secretary of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a rugged union whose militant influence still lingers in the American labor movement, awaiting its time to flare up once more, though certainly in a new form.

It was only a few years ago that I read that some “Bay Area labor history buffs” recently had put the gravestone in place. For most of my life then, the “Saint”, as he was called when he headed the revolutionary industrial union, had occupied an unmarked grave beneath the sod of a slightly sloping rise in a pleasantly landscaped graveyard, not far from Oakland’s busy streets.

Vincent St. John isn’t remembered as often as Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood, Eugene V. Debs, and Lucy Parsons, widow of one of the Haymarket victims, but they all knew each other on a first name basis and shared a profound vision of humankind’s eventual liberation from ignorance, poverty, and war. But none of them believed that progress could be won without a fight.

Not yet thirty years old, St. John was elected president of a Western Federation of Miners (WFM) local union and led bitter strikes in Colorado. In 1905, St. John help to organize the IWW and the next year was elected to represent the WFM on the IWW’s general executive board. During his years as General Secretary of the IWW (1909–1915), the organization made front-page news as its organizers led some hugely popular strikes (popular with workers, that is) such as the Lawrence, Massachusetts, strike of 1912 supported by nearly 30,000 textile workers.

It’s been said that the IWW restored Americans’ First Amendment rights to assemble peacefully and address public gatherings as it fought time and again against free speech restrictions. St. John was dead by the time of the great 1930s industrial organizing victories, but it was the Wobblies (as IWW members were called) who pioneered many of the tactics that were so important in the 1930s organizing struggles, such as sit-in strikes and roving pickets.

I read that the Saint’s family was too poor to pay for a headstone. Still, it’s not clear why the Saint’s grave remained unmarked for so long, especially in a region with a distinct radical labor past. In 1946, at least 100,000 workers hit the bricks in a general strike provoked by attempted union busting. Earlier, in 1934, there was the “Big Strike” of San Francisco’s longshore workers headed by Harry Bridges. And, of course, Oakland is the hometown of Jack London, the famed author of The Iron Heel, and my favorite, The Apostate.

I’ve joked to myself that perhaps the Bay Area’s radicals took too literally the dictum, “Don’t mourn, organize!’ That battle cry, often repeated still today, was given the world’s workers by one of the Saint’s fellow Wobblies, Joe Hill, who in 1915 was legally murdered by a Utah firing squad. Hill’s ashes were divided into small packets and sent to many countries where they were scattered by fellow workers on May Day, 1916.

Truth to tell, I wouldn’t have given the press account about St. John’s marker more than a passing notice, if years before I hadn’t read a short commentary on the IWW by James P. Cannon, a one-time Wobbly himself, but mostly remembered as a founder of the Communist Party in the U.S., a leading founder of American Trotskyism, and a Smith Act victim who, as did many Wobblies before and after him, paid the price for his dedication to the workers’ movement in a federal prison.

What I remember about Cannon’s remarks was his affectionate appraisal of St. John, unusually personal I thought. Cannon was a native of Kansas, raised in a family that backed the Knights of Labor, then the Populists, and finally the Socialists. So it was that on the seemingly boundless American prairie the youthful Cannon found inspiring aims and goals that lasted him a lifetime. Cannon not only was imbued with socialist fervor, he also came by a lifetime admiration and respect for working class fighters. I don’t remember where I read it, but I recall Cannon’s admiration for a bunch of IWW loggers. They were Wobblies for sure, and most of them had seen the inside of jail cells, he said. Naturally then, they were Cannon’s kind of people — on both counts.

Cannon’s respect and admiration for the Saint was well developed before St. John’s arrest during the World War I roundup of radicalized workers and activists by the administration of the Democratic Party’s Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed that “the world must be made safe for Democracy,” even as cell doors closed behind his working class political opponents. St. John was sent to Leavenworth for several years, obviously a frame-up, since he had left the IWW two years before and was trying his hand at mining and prospecting in Arizona and New Mexico.

Eventually, he wound up in San Francisco, poor in health and in the pocket. If he died in San Francisco, it’s not clear why he was buried in an unmarked grave in Oakland, then a ferry ride away. Nor is it clear why he wasn’t buried in a pauper’s plot, but was buried in a cemetery that reportedly “is famous as the final resting place of millionaires like Charles Crocker, Henry J. Kaiser, and ‘Borax’ Smith.” What the press account left out is more interesting, by far. The cemetery land that once had an unobstructed view of the bay was part of a Mexican Land Grant and earlier, for 2000 years, had been the homeland of tribes that feasted on the bay’s shellfish, and bested the bay’s bone-chilling fogs inside Temescals, or sweat lodges.

As I say, on May Day I’ll visit the Saint’s grave.

Further Reading:

“IWW: The Great Anticipation,” by James P. Cannon, in First Ten Years of American Communism (New York: Pathfinder, 1973), pp. 277–310.

We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Melvyn Dubofsky (New York: Quadrangle, 1969). (See esp. pp. 142–144 on St. John’s life.)