December 8 Targeting of Labor Activists
On this day in labor history, the year was 1941.
That was the day eighteen supporters of the Socialist Workers Party were sentenced in the first Smith Act trial.
Earlier that summer, twenty-nine militants had been targeted and arrested for their leadership of events in Minneapolis during the 30s.
They had led the 1934 Teamsters strikes that made Minneapolis a union town, successfully confronted the fascist Silver Shirts in 1938 and led a WPA strike the following year.
By 1941, federal agents were raiding SWP offices in Minneapolis and St. Paul, seizing boxes of documents, books, pamphlets and other material.
The trial began October 27. The prosecution alleged the 29 had conspired to advocate the violent overthrow of the government, were stockpiling weapons and encouraging insubordination among the armed forces.
The defendants insisted that advocating class struggle to achieve a peaceful transition to socialism was not the equivalent of violent overthrow.
They added the trial was a government witch hunt, bent on suppressing their first amendment rights. Six were released, another five were acquitted.
But the remaining 18 were sentenced to between twelve and sixteen months in jail. Dozens of CIO unions including the UAW, USWA, URW and UE all rallied to the defense of the convicted militants.
The ACLU, central in the defense case, now mounted the appeals campaign. They failed to overturn the convictions and the 18 surrendered to authorities two years later to begin serving their sentences.
For historian Donna Haverty-Stacke, the case showed “how far the Roosevelt administration went to prosecute political dissent—even to the point of targeting the labor-liberal left.”
The Act would be repealed in 1952 and hundreds of convictions under the Act would finally be reversed as unconstitutional by 1957.
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