Tractors, bulldozers, flour products, asparagus, canned tomatoes – Stockton is a city known for its history of innovation and industrial might. The academics and activists among us may also note that Stockton is a city famous for its history and heritage of farm labor activism. What many may not know is that during World War I through the 1920s, Stockton was famous as a center of industrial union agitation.
In the wee hours of the morning on June 30, 1919, federal marshals, assisted by the County Sheriff’s Office, swarmed the downtown headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, for supposed “communist” agitation. That summer, the IWW, or “Wobblies,” were holding their state convention in secret in Stockton. The Record reported that it was the last open convention to be held prior to the organization going underground to avoid prosecution for California’s criminal syndicalism law. Over sixty attendees were at the meeting when the marshals stormed in, but most managed to escape, with only nineteen being arrested. Those captured included R.V. Louis, Secretary of the California I.W.W., and C.F. Bentley, treasurer.
The department of justice alleged that the Stockton I.W.W. had become a distribution point for Bolshevik and anarchist radicals to produce “phosphorous bombs for use in destroying grain fields and buildings,” and further charged that the I.W.W. was preparing for a revolt against the state. According to the DOJ, an Irish immigrant radical known only as “Dublin Bob” was coordinating the development of munitions for the revolt. While no historical evidence exists of such a plot, the raid did confiscate over one ton of union literature books, including over 500 songbooks.
The nineteen men were indicted on July 6, and stayed in jail through November. On July 26, their union attorney J.G. Lawlor wrote that the men had been model prisoners:
“if you can tell me of 19 other men who have refrained from rioting and striking under similar circumstances, I would like to have you point them out. It is certain that 19 San Joaquin county farmers or 19 Stockton businessmen would not have been model prisoners under similar circumstances.”
The IWW was founded in 1905 in Chicago as a radical trade union dedicated to overthrowing the industrial class and was an umbrella group of socialist, anarchist, Marxist, and trade union organizations. The organization was founded as avowedly anti-capitalist, and was unique at the time as being open to workers of all races. The Stockton chapter was unique in that it had large numbers of African American, Mexican, Southern European, and later Filipino workers.
The IWW case in Stockton would become a nationally-significant event, with newspapers from across the country descending on the city to cover the case at the San Joaquin County courthouse. The story of “Dublin Bob Connelan” was summarized, with testimony from a double agent identified as Elbert Coutts, including the presentation of a phosphorous bomb. Several other IWW members who had cut deals with the prosecution testified to having bombed a schoolhouse in Holt, California, as well as farms in Manteca, Modesto, and Peters. Over $8,000,000 in property damage was admitted.
“Dublin Bob’s” bomb factory was located on Smith Canal, about 100 yards West of modern day American Legion Park, and was known as “Bushville” at the IWW headquarters in Chicago. As a result of the case, the nineteen men captured, as well as bomb-maker “Dublin Bob” Connelan were sentenced to hard time. The IWW would continue to act as a major force in global labor circles, but would no longer be a dominant force in Stockton activism.