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Sunday, January 25, 2009

We Need the Wobblies Now More Than Ever! A Brief History of the Industrial Workers of the World

Originally published on My HubPages
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Words That Used to Strike Fear in the Hearts of the Bosses.
The Rise of the Industrial Workers of the World: The Working Class Fights Back!

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth..." Preamble to the IWW Constitution

With the economy in shambles and labor being asked to sacrifice to pay the cost of management's failures, it's time for a return to fighting unions run by rank and file membership. Instead of the current unions, that entertain ideas of betraying the retirees that came before them and selling out their new members and their own future in the process. Urging members to give back wages and benefits that workers literally fought and bled for decades to achieve; even as the corporate executives, who drove the industry into ruin, continue collecting multi-million dollar salaries without any repercussions. What we need is a return to the type of union epitomized by the Wobblies; a radical, aggressive union that isn't afraid to fight for its member's interests.

The Industrial Workers of the World were founded in 1905 amidst the excesses and abuses brought about by the Industrial Revolution. From the outset, they were radical, extremist, and unyielding in their determination to take that which they felt rightly belonged to the working class, refusing to just accept whatever scraps the bosses decided to leave them. Steadfast in their belief that all workers deserved to enjoy the fruits of their own labors, they demanded rather than negotiated better working conditions and pay.

The Wobblies, as they came to be known, employed direct action within the the workplace, such as slowdowns, general strikes, workplace occupations, sit-ins, and sabotage in their struggles against the bosses. Such tactics proved to be very effective and the IWW became one of the most powerful and influential labor unions numbering over 100,000 members at it's height. Most of the union's members were migrant workers riding from town to town by rail; seeking seasonal work; and keeping the bosses honest.

In order to maximize worker strength, they emphasized industrial unionism over craft unionism. This meant that all workers were organized as a singular unit, rather than segregated by individual trades. Industrial unionism afforded workers more influence and encouraged greater solidarity across trades, thereby preventing companies from pitting union members against each other in an effort to break strikes. Another major difference was that workers of all types and skill levels were encouraged to join the "One Big Union," regardless of occupation, race, creed, or sex; something that was unheard of among American unions at the time. However, this vital strength would soon leave them vulnerable to their enemies' attacks.

The Fall: World War I, Government Crackdowns, and Internal Rifts

You ask me why the I.W.W. is not patriotic to the United States. If you were a bum without a blanket; if you had left your wife and kids when you went west for a job, and had never located them since; if your job had never kept you long enough in a place to qualify you to vote; if you slept in a lousy, sour bunkhouse, and ate food just as rotten as they could give you and get by with it; if deputy sheriffs shot your cooking cans full of holes and spilled your grub on the ground; if your wages were lowered on you when the bosses thought they had you down; if there was one law for Ford, Suhr, and Mooney, and another for Harry Thaw; if every person who represented law and order and the nation beat you up, railroaded you to jail, and the good Christian people cheered and told them to go to it, how in hell do you expect a man to be patriotic?

This war is a business man's war and we don't see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs that we now enjoy. Unknown Wobbly testifying in court during the Espionage Act trials

Unfortunately, shortly after their rise to prominence, the government, acting on the behalf of corporate interests, began engaging in a campaign of repression and persecution of the Wobblies. The Wobblies were fast becoming a formidable force in the labor movement and they were determined to put an end to it before it was too late. Companies often employed Pinkerton agents or hired goons along with military troops and police provided by government connections as strikebreakers to attack and intimidate striking workers. In one of the worst of many examples of labor clashes, 250 IWW members from Seattle travelled to Everett, Washington to protest restrictions on free speech and violent attacks on Wobblies by local police during a 1916 strike. Their ferry was met at the dock by the local sheriff and about three hundred deputized strikebreakers. When the Wobblies refused the sheriff's orders to turn back, him and his "deputies" opened fire on the boat. The union members returned fire and the ensuing melee resulted in eleven dead and twenty-seven wounded passengers; plus two dead and twenty-four wounded on shore.

Things got even worse with the onset of the First World War. Opponents took advantage of the IWW's anarchist, socialist, and pacifist beliefs; as well as their close affiliation with immigrants to strike at its membership. Beginning in 1917, IWW union halls throughout the country were raided by Justice Department agents and hundreds of Wobblies were arrested. They were charged with acts in violation of the newly passed Espionage Act including conspiring to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, incite revolution, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes. The government used wartime hysteria to justify the imprisonment or deportation of thousands of IWW members.

In addition, portrayals of the Wobblies in government and corporate propaganda as "enemy aliens" and traitors for their opposition to American involvement in WWI led to many Wobblies being attacked by vigilante mobs. In Butte, Montana; Frank Little, a member of the IWW General Executive Board, was kidnapped by six masked men and lynched for criticising the war. Wesley Everest was beaten, castrated, lynched, and shot (the most complicated suicide ever!) in Centralia, Washington by a mob after being arrested following a gunbattle between Wobblies and group of war veterans, who had attacked the local IWW union hall during an Armistice Day Parade. Many other Wobblies throughout the country were beaten, maimed, or killed by police officials and/or vigilante mobs (often composed of thugs hired by business owners).

However, not all the Wobblies' problems were external. Even as the government was using the public's fear of communism to validate their oppressive actions; the IWW was experiencing its own internal struggle over communism. Historically, divisions had always existed between Communists and Anarchists, the two main groups comprising the IWW, involving statism and the role of politics in the union. While the two groups had, for the most part, been able to coexist prior to WWI, the combination of a lack of leadership, brought about by the government repression. and the success of the Russian Revolution brought those divisions to the forefront.

In 1920, the IWW suspended the Philadelphia Longshoreman's Local no. 8, one of it's largest and most celebrated branches, over false allegations by a communist rival that they had supplied weapons to anti-Bolshevik forces in Europe. Erosion of membership continued in the early 20's as some members began to leave to join communist organizations. Soon, the remaining communist members began pushing for the IWW to align itself with the Red International of Trade Unions (also called the Profintern), a Soviet created organization of worldwide communist labor unions. Anarchist members, who disagreed with communism's statist approach and the abuses under communist rule in Russia, resisted these efforts. Further defections were caused by increases in criticisms of Soviet leaders and policies being printed in the Industrial Worker and other Wobbly publications.

Finally in 1924, there was a rift between Wobblies in the eastern states, who favored centralized control of the union and political involvement, and those in the west, who favored more localized control and organizing on the job. This led to a second union headquarters being set up in Utah and claims from both them and the original in Chicago as the "real-IWW," including two separate IWW union halls in many towns. While the western branch of the IWW had folded by 1930, ths split, along with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which severely restricted the tactics the Wobblies traditionally employed in disputes, contributed to the IWW quickly declining in membership during the next decades. Though they never actually broke up the Wobblies numbers and influence steadily decreased until they became a largely forgotten footnote in labor history. That is until recently, when they have begun to gain ground amongst young politically active workers.

The Wobblies are Coming (Back): A Resurgence

Although membership levels have never come anywhere close to reaching the heyday of the IWW, they have never stopped fighting for workers rights throughout the world. In addition to America, there are sizable active branches in Canada, Australia, Scotland, Germany and Britain; as well as a smaller branches and individual members across the globe. Just like the original Wobblies, today's members often seek out workers that the more established union can't or won't organize. One method they have used to overcome difficulties in organizing has been to organize the workers directly to act against wrongful labor practices without seeking formal company acceptance for the union.

One such group has always been Starbucks workers because of the aggressive anti-union tactics of management. Wobblies in New York, Minneapolis, Grand Rapids, and other cities throughout the country began organizing in 2003. Numerous union members at several locations were fired during the fight, but the union eventually won the right to unionize and fellow workers were reinstated during several court battles; and they continue to protest Starbucks' unfair labor practices.

Another industry that typically has been difficult to unionize is over-the-road (OTR) trucking. OTR truckers generally don't get paid hourly and only get paid based on how many miles they drive. Often they have to wait long hours at loading docks waiting for cargo to be loaded or unloaded. Since the government imposes limits on how many hours they can drive per day, these delays have a considerably impact drivers' ability to earn a living. Another issue for OTR drivers recently has been fuel prices. When prices are high, shippers are charged fees known as surcharges to offset the additional cost of transporting goods, but companies often resist paying or try to pay lower than the actual amount, which means the drivers end up paying the difference in shipping costs and therefore earning significantly less. At the same time, these companies often raise prices on products citing increased shipping costs even though they aren't in fact paying the proper fuel surcharges.

Over-the-road trucking companies have managed to keep other unions traditionally involved in trucking, such as the Teamsters, from organizing their drivers by classifying them as independent contractors, who are prohibited by labor law from forming or joining unions. The IWW, however, has fought for the rights of truckers anyway. They are currently involved in labor actions in support of drivers in North Carolina, Virginia, Stockton, CA., Oakland, CA., Long Beach, CA., and New Jersey, among other areas. In addition, they recently cosponsored the José Gilberto Soto Trucker Education and Organizing Center. Just like in the past, the IWW has often fought in solidarity with all workers, union and non-union alike, and even those who belong to other unions.

In addition, the IWW has continued to help organize unions for workers that are commonly overlooked as they first did for seasonal and migrant workers as well as women and minorities. The IWW has provided a union for sex trade workers seeking to decriminalize prostitution and provide safeguards against exploitation and abuse for workers in the sex industry. In Ottawa, Canada the IWW established a panhandlers union to protect the local homeless population from harassment by police, business, and government officials; as well as to help empower them to better their situation.

The UAW Could Learn a Thing or Two From the Wobblies

There are plenty of parallels to the days when the Wobblies first burst upon the scene. The economy is as imbalanced as it ever was, with close to eighty five percent of the nation's assets in the hands of only ten percent of the population. What's more the labor is under attack from corporations trying to maximize profits at the expense of the workers. By moving jobs to other countries, where they can take advantage of sweatshop style labor the Bosses hope to create leverage against workers to take away what pay and benefits they've acquired in the past century. Meanwhile, in spite of the headlines screaming about the downfall of the economy, the CEO's collect handsome paychecks for driving it into the ground, while the workers in those same companies are living in fear of losing their jobs, if they haven't already.

So why is it that union membership has steadily declined, even as their services are so desperately needed? Of course, the answer is that the unions no longer function as a representative of the union members. More often than not, the union leaders seek a cozy relationship with management that benefits themselves and the union's own management at the expense of workers. Instead of fighting to make companies hold Bosses responsible for their own mismanagement, which actually caused the "crisis," they allow companies to undercut the workers and their families; unfairly painting laborers as the bad guy (the $70/hr. lie) and workers' pay as the problem, even though it only represents ten percent of the actual cost of auto production.

The desire to avoid this sort of collusion and self service among union leaders and bosses is the reason that the IWW structured itself as a rank and file based organization with class warfare and worker solidarity as its principle function. The famous Wobbly slogan whenever asked who their leader was: "We Are All Leaders!" They pulled no punches with their bold assessment of the relationship between labor and management in the preamble to the IWW Constitution (quoted above) and they lived up to it in spades.

Make no mistake about it, once the Bosses break the unions in Detroit, they won't hesitate to come for the rest of us. The UAW, the Teamsters and the rest of the major labor unions would do their members a huge service by following the example of the Wobblies and viewing industrial negotiations as a war between the exploiters and the exploited until that situation ceases to be the case. However, being that those unions have already gone too far down the wrong road to do that, workers should take it upon themselves to choose another, even better option. Join the Wobblies!

Some Prominent Wobblies

  • "Big" Bill Haywood - prominent union activist in the 19th and early 20th century; founding member of the IWW; served as general-secretary treasurer from 1915-1918
  • Joe Hill - early IWW organizer and prominent songwriter for the "Little Red Songbook"; executed in 1915 after being falsely convicted of murder; considered folk hero and martyr, many of his songs are still used by labor groups today
  • Frank Little - labor organizer; anti-war activist; member of the IWW General Executive Board; lynched in 1917 during government crackdown on the Wobblies.
  • Eugene V. Debs- former politician; early leader of the locomotive firemen and railway unions; founding member of the IWW; ran for president in five times including in 1920, while in prison during the government crackdown on the Wobblies (received over 900 thousand votes)
  • Ben Fletcher - early IWW organizer for East Coast longshoremen; one of the first African Americans to ever serve a leadership role in a labor group; served time in Leavenworth after being convicted of "conspiring to strike"
  • Elizabeth Gurley Flynn- early IWW speaker and organizer; feminist, immigrant right activist; co-founder of the ACLU
  • Hubert "Black Socrates" Harrison - prominent early African American civil rights activist, intellectual, writer, and speaker; worked as staff lecturer for New York Board of Education
  • Valentine "T-Bone Slim" Huhta - songwriter, poet for the "Little Red Songbook;" writer for the "Industrial Solidarity/Industrial Worker," the official paper of the IWW; spent most of his life "hoboing" around the country as a migrant worker
  • Lucy Parsons - prominent speaker and writer; anarchist, feminist, and civil rights activist; mixed-race daughter of slaves; widow of Albert Parsons one of the Haymarket Square Martyrs; after her death in an accidental fire, the FBI confiscated her personal writings and library of radical books
  • James Connolly- well respected writer, editor, and publisher; Wobbly organizer in New York, New Jersey, and later Ireland; was arrested and later executed by the British military for taking part in the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Ireland
  • Mary "Mother" Jones - labor organizer; founding member of the IWW; public speaker; prominent feminist and activist against child labor; praised as "miner's angel" by workers; denounced as "most dangerous woman in America" by management
  • Helen Keller - famous deaf and blind subject of the movie "The Miracle Worker;" most people, however, aren't aware of her later life as a feminist, socialist, anti-war activist, and member of the IWW
  • Utah Phillips - a prolific songwriter and storyteller, he helped to renew interest and increase membership in the IWW by re-recording old Wobbly songs and popularizing their cause during his shows; co-founder of Hospitality House a homeless shelter in Grass Valley, CA.
  • Noam Chomsky - prominent linguist, political activist, writer, philosopher, tax resister, anti-war protester; published Syntactic Structures a theory of “generative grammar” that transformed linguistics from an obscure discipline into a major social science
Mother Jones
Mother Jones

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