[Chapter 03] An Injury to All: The Rights of Workers

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In 1916, on the brink of the U.S. entry into World War I, the Merchants and Manufacturers in San Francisco planned a parade down Market Street in support of military preparedness. The San Francisco Central Labor Council, opposed to its members becoming cannon fodder in a capitalist war, urged a boycott. The Building Trades Council went even further, denouncing the industrialists' march for war and their recent brutal attacks on striking miners and the "skulls of working men, women and children shot, murdered and burned to death." The businessmen then charged that the unions were unpatriotic, redubbing the IWW "Imperial Wilhelm's Warriors."

Bomb Blast

The Preparedness Day parade was the largest parade San Francisco had ever seen, attracting fifty thousand marchers and fifty bands. As they rounded the corner of Market and Steuart Streets, a bomb went off. Ten people were killed and forty wounded. Within days, labor organizers Tom Mooney, his wife, Rena, his friend Warren Billings, and three others were charged with the crime. They were picked up without any evidence, and the police and district attorneys dropped all further investigation of the bombing.

Perfect Scapegoats

Mooney and Billings were the perfect scapegoats for the anti-labor organizers of the Preparedness Day parade. The others, including Mooney's wife, were quickly acquitted or had their charges dropped. 

Mooney, a molder by trade, was a well-known San Francisco labor leader. At the time, he was trying to organize a union among the workers of the United Railways, which operated the city's trams and streetcars. Three years earlier, he had been arrested--and acquitted--for illegal possession of explosives. Police suspected that he planned to destroy Pacific Gas & Electric transmission lines in the Carquinez Strait, in support of a strike against the electric company.

Billings had also been arrested during the electrical workers' strike, for transporting dynamite, and served two years in Folsom State Prison.

Conviction and Imprisonment

At the Preparedness Day bombing trial, District Attorney Charles M. Fickert presented eyewitnesses who testified they had seen Mooney and Billings at the scene of the explosion, carrying a suitcase containing a time bomb. Fickert counted on the jury to mistrust trade unionists because of the McNamara brothers' surprise confessions to the Los Angeles Times bombing just a few years earlier.

It worked. Judge Franklin P. Griffin sentenced Mooney to the gallows and Billings to prison for life. In 1918 Governor William Stephens commuted Mooney's death sentence to life imprisonment, two weeks before he was to hang.

The conviction of the popular labor leaders created a widespread outcry. Ten years later, Mooney was offered a deal: he would be set free if he admitted a connection with the bombing. Mooney replied defiantly, "I am not guilty of any crime. Why then should I be paroled and have all my movements mortgaged and restricted? I want to be free to take up my work where I left off twelve years ago."

Evidence of Prosecutorial Wrongdoing

In an affidavit on March 21, 1929--more than a decade after the verdict that sent Mooney and Billings to prison for life--a key witness recanted her testimony and admitted that the men had been framed by Fickert.

The perjury admission generated a torrent of support for the wrongly convicted men. Nine of the ten living jurors wrote to Governor Clement C. Young supporting a pardon. Almost the entire prosecution team, including the chief of detectives, the captain of police, and the assistant prosecutor, also signed on to the request. The lone opposition in this group was voiced by D.A. Fickert, who was subsequently defeated in his reelection campaign.

Tom Mooney pardonTom Mooney pardon

"The wrong man was convicted"

Judge Griffin himself appealed to the governor. "I sentenced Mooney to death," he wrote. "Now I know that the wrong man was convicted and sentenced."

C. C. Reed, nephew of William H. Hyatt, an attorney with United Railways, stated that his uncle had explicitly told him that Mooney was framed because the company wanted him out of the way. Reed charged that United Railways President Patrick Calhoun had told his lawyers to hire detectives and pin the bombing on Mooney. Despite these revelations, Governor Young refused to pardon the men.

The years wore on and Mooney remained in prison. The Free Tom Mooney Defense Committee published an annual leaflet calling for his release. It pictured two photos of Mooney--the energetic young organizer at the time of his arrest and an increasingly haggard and frail old man who was rotting in prison. On August 14, the last day of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, protestors staged a "Free Tom Mooney" demonstration at the Olympic stadium. Dressed in track suits, they ran around the arena in front of more than one hundred thousand spectators, carrying banners calling for Mooney's release. Six of the demonstrators were sentenced to nine months in jail for disturbing the peace.


Finally, the pressure paid off. Labor had helped elect Culbert L. Olson as governor in 1938, and he carried out his campaign pledge to pardon Mooney. The union organizer had spent twenty-two years in prison on a trumped-up charge.

Because he had a prior conviction, Billings was not released until the following year; he was officially pardoned in 1961.

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