The Wobblies

Submitted by dalcassian on 10 July, 2014 - 2:02

"AND WHAT does this entitle me to?'', asked the newly-joined member of the union on being given his red membership card — thinking, no doubt, of sick benefits and things like that.

"Between two and five years in Sing Sing prison", answered the union organiser, who tells the story in Steward Bird and Deborah Shaffer's film "The Wobblies".

The red card 'entitled' many of the militants who carried it to deportation, jail, shooting and hanging. The union was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), nicknamed the Wobblies, founded in Chicago in 1905.

Even the nickname and the story IWW militants told of how they got it says a great deal about the Wobblics. A Chinaman joined the IWW but could only pronounce himself to be a member of the 'Eye Wobble Wobble'. So 'the Wobblies' they became.

There were many terribly explotted and oppressed Chinese workers in America then, but there were no.Chinese in the 'respectable' American labour movement, the elitist craft-union American Federation of Labour. The AFL was a racist 'lilywhite job trust', with a very small membership, opposed alike to Chinese, to blacks, and to the masses of the white 'unskilled' workers, including of course the women 'factory hands.'

The IWW set out to build a union which would embrace the whole working class of all creeds and colours, of both sexes; a movement, moreover, which would be animated with the spirit of class solidarity, and whose members would dedicate themselves to the class war against capitalism until the capitalist system would be overthrown.

Every strike was seen and fought as a battle in the class struggle. And almost every strike in the USA at that time was, literally, a battle: strikers and those willing to brave the picket-line in their support on one side and on the other the police, 'company' thugs, professional scabherders and private detective agencies, all armed. IWW members would congregate from afar to organise, mobilise support, and help in the picket line battles.

At its beginning the IWW united both political socialists (who fought elections) and militant trade unionists. In 1905 Daniel De Leon, an important Marxist theorist and leader of the small and select Socialist Labour Party stood on one platform in Chicago with Eugene V. Debs, a revolutionary socialist of a less doctrinaire stamp and presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, and William D. Haywood, leader of the Western Federation of Miners, a spokesman for direct-action industrial unionism.

They split in 1908 and, rejecting 'politics' (elections), the Wobblies became a purely industrial movement — part of the international current of syndicalict workers who reiected politics out of disgust with the official labour movement, with parliamentarian ism, and with the chicanery, treachery and false dealing that seemed inseparable from politics..

At its peak (1917, the year theUSA entered World War 1) the IWW had 100,000 members, and then it declined. Viciously persecuted during the world war. its leaders and members suffered jailings and deportations, mass trials and Iynchings. Inevitably, there were defections.

But perhaps more important as a cause of its decline and, soon, it's effective disappearance was the Russian Revolution. Many of the militants who had stood the test of the war turned from the IWW to learn the lessons the Russian revolutionaries could teach them — away from one sided syndicalism and towards a newly cleansed and reinvigorated militant Marxist politics. The same sort of thing happened wherever syndicalism had been a force, The IWW ceased to be an important force in revolutionary politics.

How to bring the IWW alive for an audience in 1980? Bird and Shaffer have found a marvelous group of a dozen veterans in whom the IWW is still alive and who bring it alive for us. We encounter the spirit, the true tones and accents, the stark simplicity of the IWW's message, and the attitudes, sympathies and aspirations which animated the Wobblies as they were seven decades ago.

The film intercuts their reminiscences with newsreel film of strikes and of working conditions in lumber camps, docks, textile mills, of police attacks on strikers, and with the songs of the Wobblies.

The result is a moving evocation of that great movement of the unskilled and the migrant workers in early 20th century America.

All the veterans must be in their 80s at least — though they don't look or sound like it. (Roger Baldwin, the narrator, is in his mid-90s!) An old woman stands around as her male companion remembers, chewing gum and wearing a badge proclaiming 'Senior Power'. A black docker recalls the battle to organise the ports.

Someone looking like the double of James P. Cannon, the great American Trotskyist (himself an old Wobbly), recalls his battles as an IWW hard man with the thugs and predators the IWW had to reckon with. The IWW organisers riding the freight cars faced pickhandle-wielding train crews demanding passage money and 'hijackers' in gangs trying to rob them. The IWW mercilessly beat some train crews and carved 'IWW' on a hijacker's face, for a warning.

He is proud of it, reliving it, his face hard.

With different emotion another recalls a cold-blooded massacre (of which he was a survivor) of Wobbly organisers on a ferry boat, sitting ducks for the sheriff and his 'citizen's committee'.

Asked what she thinks now about the IWW ideas, a thin, spectacled old woman, white hair swept back and tied behind her head, quavering-voiced and terribly frail-seeming, spits on her hands and rubs them together, as if she is about to take hold of a shovel or a pick. Then she eloquently stretches them out to the camera, palms upward.

"Without this", she says "noting moves".

She figures in the credits as "a miner's wife". If the mere 'wives' are like that 60 years later, no wonder the Wobbly miners, lumberjacks, and textile workers scared the US government!

In fact, women workers played an important direct part in the IWW. Some of the most celebrated strike battles involved women textile workers. Elizabetk Gurley Flynn —the 'rebel girl' of Joe Hill's song — was an important strike organiser and IWW agitator.

("Do you want to have soft hands and leisure like the bosses' wives and daughters?", she asks a meeting of striking women. "Yes", they answer. "Well, you can't have them", she shouts back).

The IWW message, popularised in characteristic songs (often parodies of pop songs) which expressed their beliefs or their scorn of the society around them, was extremely simple and effective.

There were two classes in society, and they had 'nothing in common'. The whole working class had to organise to take over. This could not rnean sectional, elitist, racist unions like those of the then AFL, but 'one big union'.

Seeing themselves as the irreplaceable weapon in the daily struggle, the union members saw themselves as also building a scaffolding here and now for the future socialist commonwealth. The union would parallel in its structures existing industrial society; through those structures the workers could seize industry after they had understood the need to get rid of the bosses, and administer it in their own interest.

The IWW was the One Big Union a-building.

"There is power, there is power in a band of working men,

When they stand hand in hand,

That's the power, that's the power, that must rule in every land,

One industrial union grand ".

This rock-basic message of two classes with nothing in common, and no possible social peace until the working class was organised in the one big union and could take over, gave a tremenduous elan to to the IWW. And, after all, it is the irreducible central idea of every great movement of revolutionary workers that has ever existed or ever can exist.

It can be armed in its own cause with science, knowledge of the lessons of history, refinements of strategy and tactics — all the extra dimensions that it needs to grow from a gut proletarian revolt into a force that can remake society. It can even be encrusted with perverse and anti-socialist ideas, as in the Stalinist Parties when they relied on would-be revolutionary workers. But without it no real revolutionary movement is possible.

Yet the IWW found it was not enough. Their anti-political organisation took no official position on World War 1. Some supported it, some were Iynched for opposing it. Frank Little — 'half Indian, half whiteman, all IWW' — was Iynched while in the uniform of the US Army. The entire IWW was repressed.

Then the Russian Revolution set the Wobblies discussing politics again. In the film one old-timer recalls a discussion in a lumber: camp. "The Russkis have beaten us to it". So, the Bolsheviks had things to teach then, and they had things to learn from the the Russian revolutionaries. Many joined the Conlmunist International.

Those that did not were soon marginalised, and then the fierce repression continued until 1921 or 1922.

The worst weakness of this excellent film is that it does not establish a clear enough narrative framework for the newsreel and the reminiscences. Too much depends on allusions. It is extremely vague about the fate of the organisation and its militants after 1917.

I also found myself itching to know where the dozen old people had been for all these years. The film leaves you to surmises and the interpretation of incidental clues (e.g. the hard man makes a slip and half-refers to the persecution of 'Communists' instead of IWW.)

For the spirit and the message of the Wobblies did continue to play a part in the US radical and labour movement after the IWW had become a withered rump.

In the '30s, the CIO industrial unions picked up the Wobbly thread — weaving it into the fabric of a different, all too soon conservative, social outlook, to be sure — and created powetful industrial unions. The class sttuggle politics of the Wobblies, re-woven into a multi-dimensional Marxist political outlook, were continued by the American Trotskyists after the Communist Party of the USA became Stalinist. By World War 2 it was the Trotskyists who were repressed, put on trial and jailed (In fact,they were treated much more gently than was the IWW in World War 1.).

Their spokesman was a one-time Wabbly, James P. Cannon, who sometimes proclaimed that he was continuing the essential IWW tradition. And that he surely was.

The Wobblies is on Youtube:

Socialist Organiser 22,
July. 1980

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.