Vincent St. John was born in Newport, Kentucky in 1876. His father, Silas St. John, did various jobs. At the age of seventeen, he became a metal miner and joined the Western Federation of Miners in 1894.
In 1897 he moved to Telluride, Colorado. He was an active trade unionist and in 1900 became president of the Western Federation of Miners' Union Local 63. In 1901 St. John led a successful strike when the miners gaining a standard minimum wage. As his friend James Cannon pointed out: "Despite his modesty of disposition, his freedom from personal ambition, and his lack of the arts of self-aggrandizement, his work spoke loudly and brought him widespread fame.
As a result of his growing reputation, the Mine Operators' Association hired Pinkerton detective, James McParland, in an attempt to frame the union leader. This ended in failure but he was shot in Goldfield, Nevada by a "conservative" in the Western Federation of Miners. The two bullets in his right wrist shattered the bone, crippling his hand.
In 1905 representatives of 43 groups who opposed the policies of American Federation of Labour, formed the radical labour organisation, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). At first its main leaders were Vincent St. John, William Haywood, Daniel De Leon and Eugene V. Debs. Other important figures in the movement included Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Mary 'Mother' Jones, Lucy Parsons, Hubert Harrison, Carlo Tresca, Joseph Ettor, Arturo Giovannitti, James Cannon, William Z. Foster, Eugene Dennis, Joe Haaglund Hill, Tom Mooney, Floyd B. Olson, James Larkin, James Connolly, Frank Little and Ralph Chaplin.
In 1908 the Wobblies, as they became known, split into two factions. The group headed by Eugene V. Debs and Daniel De Leon advocated political action through the Socialist Party and the trade union movement, to attain its goals. The other faction led by Saint John and William Haywood, believed that general strikes, boycotts and even sabotage to achieve its objectives. Eugene Lyons later commented: "The soft-spoken Vincent St. John - "the Saint" to "Wobbly" fellow-workers-full of mature class-war wisdom, tales of prospecting for gold, and off-color stories. He was a compact little man who conveyed a sense of immense concentrated strength in reserve - the kind of man who needed only a first-rate revolution to win him immortality."
As James Cannon pointed out: "At the second convention of the IWW in 1906, St. John headed the revolutionary syndicalist group, which combined with the SLP elements to oust Sherman, a conservative, as president and establish a new administration in the organization with a revolutionary policy. He became the general organizer under the new administration, breaking with the WFM on the withdrawal of the latter body and giving his whole allegiance to the IWW." Vincent Saint John now became General Secretary of the Industrial Workers of the World.
During the First World War St. John campaigned against American intervention in the conflict. After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, several party members were arrested for violating the Espionage Act. As Howard Zinn pointed out: "In early September 1917, Department of Justice agents made simultaneous raids on forty-eight IWW meeting halls across the country, seizing correspondence and literature that would become courtroom evidence. Later that month, 165 IWW leaders were arrested for conspiring to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes. One hundred and one went on trial in April 1918; it lasted five months, the longest criminal trial in American history up to that time."
The death of Vincent St. John in San Francisco marks the passing of another of the great figures of the American revolutionary movement whose deeds helped to make its tradition and whose names will not be forgotten. “The Saint,” as he was known by those who knew and loved him, died at the age of fifty-six after a long illness complicated by high blood pressure. He will be sincerely mourned by thousands whose lives were influenced by him, particularly by those who belonged to the old guard of the IWW in its bravest days, when he was its moving spirit and guiding intelligence.
Vincent St. John, like Haywood and Frank Little, was trained in the hard school of the Western Federation of Miners, that model labor union whose mighty struggles threw their shadow across the world in the latter years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. A metal miner by trade, he joined the Western Federation in 1894, and became one of the most militant fighters in its ranks and an influential voice in its councils. Despite his modesty of disposition, his freedom from personal ambition, and his lack of the arts of self-aggrandizement, his work spoke loudly and brought him widespread fame.
His stirring deeds as a pioneer organizer became legends of the movement and remain such today. Until 1907 he was a member of the Executive Board of the WFM. In that strategic position he became the leader of the left wing in the looming struggle between conservative and revolutionary unionism which centered around the question of affiliation to the IWW, which the Western Federation had played a major part in founding in 1905.
At the second convention of the IWW in 1906, St. John headed the revolutionary syndicalist group, which combined with the SLP elements to oust Sherman, a conservative, as president and establish a new administration in the organization with a revolutionary policy. He became the general organizer under the new administration, breaking with the WFM on the withdrawal of the latter body and giving his whole allegiance to the IWW.
He presided at the 1908 convention, which saw the split with the 512 and the elimination of the “political clause ”from the preamble. St. John was the leader of the proletarian “direct action” forces which defeated the “political” wing of De Leon. Thereafter, he served as general secretary of the IWW until 1914, and undoubtedly did more than anyone to shape its course and prepare the ground for its later development under the active leadership of Haywood.
He withdrew from activity on leaving the office of general secretary and engaged in a mining enterprise, doubtless with the illusory hope of acquiring a fortune to help finance the organization of the workers. Despite his retirement at that period, fear of his abilities and the prospect of his return to the office vacated by the imprisonment of Haywood dictated his own arrest and subsequent conviction with the Chicago group of IWW wartime prisoners. He served two and a half years at Leavenworth before commutation brought his release.
From his earlier concepts of revolutionary socialism, St. John, in revolt against the parliamentary reformism of the Socialist Party and the sectarian, ultralegal concepts of the Socialist Labor Party, developed along the line of revolutionary syndicalism, the path taken by many of the best proletarian fighters of the period. In many respects this represented a step forward from parliamentary socialism, but the prejudices and theoretical falsity of the syndicalist or industrialist position were storing up disasters for the future.
The philosophy of the IWW, which St. John did so much to shape, was too simple for the complex situation brought about by the entry of the United States into the World War. The great sacrifices and heroic deeds of its members were unavailing against this handicap and were greatly discounted by it. To the great loss of the workers’ cause, St. John, and with him the great majority of the leading militants of the IWW, failed to make the theoretical and tactical adjustments necessitated by the experience of the World War and the Russian revolution. Their limited industrialist concepts remained unchanged.
Communism, especially its American representative, impressed them unfavorably, and they could not swim with the current of the new movement. The enormous errors, presumptuousness, and tactlessness of the party leadership are partly responsible for this calamitous state of affairs. American Communism should have been a natural growth out of the soil of the prewar movement represented in part by the IWW. The early years of the party were weakened and hampered by this failure; and the IWW movement, alienated from Communism, lost its old-time vigor and passed into an inevitable degeneration and decline.
But despite the tragedy of the after - war years, the earlier work of the IWW militants - and St. John in the front rank - retains all its validity. They wrote much of the tradition of the American revolutionary movement in letters of fire that will never be extinguished. The modem movement of Communism, which is the heir to their achievements, should value this tradition highly and honor the memory of the men who made it. The memory of Vincent St. John will always be a treasure to the revolutionary workers of America in their aspiring struggle for the workers’ world.
For those who knew “The Saint” as a man and friend, his untimely death brings a deep and poignant grief. He was a most admirable personality - brave and resolute, loyal and honest. He was a gifted and inspiring leader and organizer who gave himself, throughout the years of youth and manhood prime, untiringly and unsparingly to the workers’ cause. And with the highest executive qualities he combined the rare gift of friendship, of warmly human consideration and concern for others, of loyalty in personal relations, which bound men to him in life-long affection.
Those who were so bound to him, who knew the warmth of his handclasp, enshrine his memory in their hearts along with the best memories of the great cause for which we live and strive.
Hail and farewell, soldier, man, and friend!