The District Secretary of the International Labor Defense, The ILD provided bail, attorneys and community support for those arrested in labor, unemployed and political struggles. She was active in the campaign to free Tom Mooney, the unemployed councils, the San Francisco Maritime-General strike and the Salinas Valley Agricultural Workers’ strike. The Hearst press labeled her the “Tiger Woman, ” but to ILD defendants she was the “Red Angel. “
The ILD came into being in 1925. I joined in 1930 after I saw the red squad–these were plainclothes men, most over six feet, in the intelligence branch of the Los Angeles Police Department–attack a woman at an orange juice stand. She was raising a glass of orange juice to her mouth. It was during the national day of demonstrations of the unemployed on March 6, 1930. There were a lot of people clubbed and maimed that day. I had gone because I promised a friend I would go and see. I had argued with him that his group, the Trade Union Education League and the unemployed councils, probably provoke the police. And I had quite a discussion with him. I finally told him that if I could find a baby-sitter I would go down and see the demonstration. I went down in the morning and I saw this group of plainclothes men descend on this woman, knocking the glass out of her hand. They began dragging her down the street, twisting her arm behind her back, and she was screaming, “What are you doing, you’re hurting me. Let me go, if I am under arrest tell me what for.” And they just dragged her down the street and put her in a patrol wagon. I got very upset and realized my friend was correct in saying what the police do.
I heard the ILD was going to defend the women arrested, so I went to their office. I told them what I saw and that I was willing to be a witness because I was very disturbed by what I saw. I felt if things weren’t done, we’d all lose our rights–that is the way I saw it and still see it. I joined the ILD, started working in their office a year later, and joined the Communist Party a year after that.
It was the height of the depression and the main organizing going on was of the unemployed–unemployed councils. When people were evicted we would help bring the furniture back into the house, turn back on the lights and the gas, especially if there were children so that they wouldn’t freeze. And arrests resulted…. Social Security and Unemployment Insurance all came about from people getting their heads busted in these demonstrations.
With Roosevelt came the right to organize unions. The turning point for the San Francisco labor movement was the Maritime Strike, which led to the General Strike. The Maritime Strike started on May 9, 1934, with a great big rally at Civic Center. Somebody sabotaged the loudspeaker system, but they could hear my bellowing voice when I spoke, offering them the services of the ILD. I told them we would do everything in our power to see that their rights were preserved, and that should there be arrests, we had this little pamphlet, “What to do if under arrest.”
On July 3, the employers tried to run in some scabs and a battle ensued. Everything was quiet on July 4 because of the patriotic holiday, then on July 5 the police attacked the pickets. In the ensuing battle two men were killed and many were wounded and arrested. One of those killed was a member of the ILD, Nick Bordoise, an uptown cook. I had the very unpleasant task of having to go down to the morgue and identify the body. There was a big funeral march–over 50,000 attended. In one limousine rode Tom Mooney’s family, Bordoise’s widow and myself. There were innumerable speakers. I also addressed the services saying, “This must never happen again. We have to close our ranks and maintain our rights under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The powers that be have no right to trample on that. That is why a good many of us and our parents came here, and those rights have to be extended to all people regardless of race, color or religious beliefs.”
The murders touched off a general strike, and on July 16 the entire city of San Francisco was shut down. On July 17 a reign of terror started, led by the police and the American Legion. They broke into the ILD and Party offices smashing all belongings and arresting the people there. I was arrested that night on $1000 Vag (vagrancy). They used that a lot–vagrancy was $10 or $20. 1 was arrested several times on that charge, even though I was employed by the ILD. At one point I was in the Hall of Justice with $2000 in my purse going upstairs to bail out two people, and I was stopped by the red squad and arrested on $1000 Vag. This was in the Hall of Justice! I defended myself in court, and we won an appeal. As a result of that case, $1000 Vag is no longer used. The strike ended with the longshoremen winning a hiring hall and union recognition. Before they had been worse than the lowest of the low, because of the shape-up system where they were forced to pay bribes to get work. Now they won a hiring hall where a worker could apply for work with dignity.
It was during the Salinas Valley agricultural strike of 1936, attempting to bail out strikers, that the press labeled Elaine the “Tiger Woman.” As soon as I walked into the Salinas jail and told them who I was, six deputies pulled their guns out. They pointed them at me and I just stood there. I was trembling, I must say, and I just looked at them. “What is going on here?” I asked, “I have come here to place a bond on someone whom you arrested. I come here for her constitutional rights and every kind of rights that she has in this country. You’re pointing guns at me? What do you think I have?”
With the coming of World War II, Elaine’s husband Karl, being of Japanese descent, was relocated along with their son into the Manzanar concentration camp. She fought and went along rather than be separated from her three year old son. Elaine never stopped fighting for a more just world.