The Wobbly Spirit

by Howard Zinn, 1965

from the Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press


Do we see small signs these days-Selma, Berkeley, and who knows where tomorrow-of the Wobbly spirit, still alive? There is a stirring among the young, and talk of a "new radicalism." The timing could hardly be better then, for the publication of Rebel Voices.

This is a large, handsome, blazing-red book in which Joyce Kornbluh has assembled a treasury of articles, songs, poems, cartoons and photographs, from the Labadie Collection of IWW documents at the University of Michigan. Those who at some point in their lives have been excited by the story of the Wobblies, and wished it might somehow be kept alive for the new generation, will be grateful to Mrs. Kornbluh for her work.

She introduces the collection with a description of a Chicago meeting hall one June morning in 1905, when the thirty-six-year-old former cowboy and miner, "Big Bill" Haywood, walked to the front, picked up a piece of loose board, hammered on the table for silence, and called Fellow Workers: This is the Continental Congress of the Working Class. we are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement in possession of the economic powers, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution without regard to capitalist masters.

On the speakers' platform with Haywood were two of the great figures of American radicalism: white-haired Mother Jones, the seventy five-year-old organizer for the United Mine Workers of America; and Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party. Also at the meeting was the sharp-tongued polemicist of the Socialist Labor Party, Daniel DeLeon; the renegade Catholic priest, black-bearded Father Hagerty; and Lucy Parsons, widow of the Haymarket Affair martyr, Albert Parsons. That day, the Industrial Workers of the World was formed, and for the next decade (until it was crushed in the repression of the war to make the world safe for democracy) gave the nation its first close look at a revolutionary movement.

In those years, the permanent characteristics of the United States in the twentieth century were being hardened. There was the growing power of giant corporations (United States Steel had been formed in 1901). A minority of the nation's workers were organized into an exclusive trade union with conservative leadership (the A.F. of L. under Samuel Gompers, had almost two million members). And this era saw the inauguration of benign governmental regulation of business, supported by a new consensus of businessmen, Presidents, and reformers, which traditional historians have called "the Progressive Era," but which Gabriel Kolko (in his book The Triumph of Conservatism) terms "political capitalism." In retrospect, the IWW appears to have been a desperate attempt to disrupt this structure before its rivets turned cold.

The IWW played for keeps. Where the A.F. of L. called for "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work," the Wobblies wrote, in the preamble to their constitution:

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can he no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of 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 earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system."

Against the craft union concept (what they called "The American Separation of Labor") the IWW set as their goal: "One Big Union," and in each industry organized the skilled and unskilled, foreign-born and native Americans, Negroes and whites, women and men. They were fiercely militant, opposed to contracts with employers, unyielding in retaining the right to strike at all times. They were suspicious of politics for, as Father Hagerty put it, "Dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation of the working class.... "The abolition of capitalism would come, they believed through a series of general strikes, after which workers would run the industries themselves. "By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old."

The IWW never gained a mass membership as did the A.F. of L. . At its peak, it probably had 60,000 members: miners, lumberjacks, construction workers and migratory farm hands, with pockets of influence among steel and textile workers. But it shook up the nation as had no other organization of its time.

The Wobblies engaged in dozens of "free-speech fights" in places like Missoula, Montana and Spokane, Washington, to establish their right to speak on street corners to working people. Rebel Voices contains some of the eyewitness reports that came out of those campaigns. In Spokane, arrested one by one for mounting a soapbox, IWW men kept pouring into town, until too many of them were crowded into the jails, and finally the city officials, after several deaths from brutal treatment in prison, gave in to the demand for free speech and assembly.

In 1912 and 1913, the strikes organized by the IWW reached a crescendo: lumbermen in Aberdeen, Washington, streetcar workers in Portland, Oregon, dock workers in San Pedro, California. The high point of IWW organizing activity, and its greatest victory, came in the 1912 strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Rebel Voices records the account of a strike meeting by journalist Ray Stannard Baker:

"It is the first strike I ever saw which sang. I shall not soon forget the curious lift, the strange sudden fire of the mingled nationalities at the strike meetings when they broke into the universal language of song... "

The Lawrence textile strike lasted ten weeks, involved 25,000 men, women and children, and was watched with mounting tension by the entire nation. Paul Brissenden, in his classic history of the IWW, wrote: "Lawrence was not an ordinary strike. It was a social revolution. The section of Rebel Voices dealing with Lawrence is one of its best. There are the cartoons (a giant policeman raising a club over huddled women and children), photographs (a portrait of poet Arturo Giovanitti, IWW organizer in Lawrence), and page after page of personal recollections. A woman observer testified about what happened at the railroad station, where 150 strikers' children were preparing to leave, to stay with families in Philadelphia who had promised them shelter and food for the duration of the strike:

"When the time came to depart, the children, arranged in a long line, two by two... were about to make their way to the train when the police...closed in on us with their clubs, beating right and left.... The mothers and the children were thus hurled in a mass and bodily dragged to a military truck and even then clubbed... "

There is the account of the strike by a fifteen-year-old textile worker in Lawrence, named Fred Beal:

"...IWO Italian spinners came to me with a long white paper The Following People Working in the Spinning Room Will Go on Strike Friday, January 12 if Wages Are Cut. Queenie read it over my shoulder "Don't sign it, Lobster," she cautioned. "Those wops'll get you in trouble."...But I signed it. so did Gyp and Lefty Louie. "

There is the testimony before the Congressional committee investigating the Lawrence strike, by teen-ager Camella Teoli:

"Well, I used to go to school, and then a man came up to my house and asked my father why I didn't go to work, so my father says I don't know whether she is 13 or 14 years old. so the man says you give me $4 and I will make the papers come from the old country saying you are 14. So my father gave him the $4 and in one month came the papers that I was 14. I went to work..."

A parade of fascinating figures and historic events marches through the pages of Rebel Voices the young, dark-haired Irish IWW organizer in Lawrence, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; the pageant put on by John Reed at Madison Square Garden for the Paterson textile strikers of 1913; the songs of Joe Hill, the story of his death, and his last cry, "Don't mourn. Organize!" There are the lumberjacks and miners and harvest stiffs. Finally, there are the attacks on the IWW by the government after the nation went to war in 1917.

In 1914, the IWW had declared: "We as members of the industrial army will refuse to fight for any purpose except the realization of industrial freedom." A Wobbly orator said: "In the broad sense, there is no such thing as a foreigner. We are all native-born members of this planet.... We ought to have in the place of national patriotism, a broader concept-that of international solidarity." The IWW refused to call off strikes because the nation was at war, and a Tulsa, Oklahoma, newspaper wrote:

"The first step in the whipping of Germany is to strangle the IWWs. Kill them, just as you would kill any other kind of a snake.... It is no time to waste money on trials.... All that is necessary is evidence and a firing squad."

The year 1918 brought mass arrests and mass trials of IWW members charged with interfering with the war effort in various ways. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis tried a hundred Wobblies in Chicago, and John Reed wrote: "Small on the huge bench sits a wasted man with untidy white hair, an emaciated face in which two burning eyes are set like jewels, parchment skin split by a crack for a mouth; the face of Andrew Jackson three years dead."

The Wobblies went to prison. Big Bill Haywood jumped bail and sailed to Russia, where he died in 1928. After the war was over, the IWW was not the same. A photo in Rebel Voices speaks eloquently: it shows the shambles made of IWW headquarters in New York City, after a raid by federal agents in 1919.

Today, the Wobblies live, not so much in the embers of that once fiery organization but in the people whose lives they changed. They live also in that special way in which art and literature keep the past alive-in Mrs. Kornbluh's book, or in the autobiographies of Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, Ralph Chaplin, and in Wallace Stegner's novel The Preacher and the Slave. But when will some audacious American film maker match the Italian production The Organizer with a motion picture on the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, or the Ludlow, Colorado, massacre of 1914?

Half a century separates the IWW from the militant wing of the civil rights movement today, but the parallels are striking. One might see a sharp contrast in the attitudes toward violence, yet the popular image of the dynamite-carrying Wobbly was overdrawn. The IWW emphasis was on self-defense; the Wobblies' big weapons were the withholding of their labor, the power of their voices. Even their "sabotage" meant mostly slowing down on the job. Consider the other characteristics, however: the plunging into areas of maximum danger; the impatience with compromises and gradualist solutions; the deep suspicion of politics (even in the midst of so imaginative a use of politics as the Freedom Democratic Party); the emphasis on direct, militant, mass action; the establishment of pieces of the new world within the old (the Freedom Schools etc.); the migrant, shabby existence of the organizer (DeLeon reprimanded the Wobblies for their "bummery," their overalls and red neckerchiefs); the songs and humor; the dream of a new brotherhood.

Somehow, time and circumstance (or is it a feeling of security?) make the Wobblies and the Molly Maguires more palatable today to the country at large. Would those who think romantically of them now have befriended them in the days when they were hated and hunted? It does not hurt to suggest that historical perspective often shines a kindly light on those who disregard some of the proprieties of respectable liberalism in their passionate sweep toward justice. Rebel Voices provides such a reminder.

Zinn Reader