Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Wobblies (1986)

This article was originally published in the August-September 1986 issue of the Socialist View, which was the journal of the World Socialist Party of Ireland, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement.

On the eve of the American celebrations to mark the centenary of the Statue of Liberty, Channel 4 gave us a rare treat indeed - a documentary film entitled The Wobblies. As America waited to unleash its professionally staged, hand in the heart, tear in the eye nationalism, The Wobblies provided an historic insight into the realities of the American version of "Liberty" and "Democracy".

The one and a half hour documentary was a poignant recollection of the courage and ideas of these Americans who were members of the Union, the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as "The Wobblies".

The reason this Union is interesting to socialists is two-fold. Firstly, it was a highly political union which understood the necessity to question the very basis of capitalist society and secondly, its history acts as a good example of how ideas become spread, and, more importantly, accepted.

The realities of Capitalism became stark in America during the latter half of the last century, and the beginning of this one. The growth of the big corporations, such as Rockefellers Standard Oil and Carnegie's US Steel Corporation bought up the vast supplies of cheap migrant labour which was flooding country. The new American capitalists were not slow in understanding their class identity and obligations: "Any man who pays more for labour than the lowest sum he can get it for is robbing his shareholders", is how one leading industrialist echoed the sentiments of this new "land of the free". "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half" said Jay Gould, Financier, exposing the representatives of democracy for the liars they are.

The new "American" working class, imported from all over the world, were, as always, the recipients of this new "freedom" and, having been bought cheaply by the vast corporations, many became more exposed to the ravages of the system because they were not properly organised in trade unions.

It was clear from the start that the I.W.W. was something new and fresh, and it was equally clear that they had an understanding and energy second to none. J.P. Thompson, I.W.W. organiser: "One class owns the industries and does not operate them - another class operates them and does not own them". This statement could have come from the pages of Socialist View but the ideas of the I.W.W. became even more interesting when reading their "preamble" or statement of objectives:
"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wages System".

Nothing new in a Trade Union recognising the existence of the class struggle but a Union talking about the "workers of the world . . . taking possession of the earth" , was certainly new, and then to go on to state their aim as the abolition of the wages system, was revolutionary.

When we consider that the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain, the longest running companion party of the World Socialist Movement was formed in 1904, just a year earlier, it shows the significance of the formation of "The Wobblies".

Another significant feature of the I.W.W. was that membership was open to any worker irrespective of race, creed or sex. Bill Haywood, one of the I.W.W. founders: "This Union will open its doors to any man or woman who earns their living by brain or muscle". This feature set them apart from other established unions of the time which had membership restrictions on the basis of race or sex or did not allow Black and White workers to organise together. This made "The Wobblies" unpopular with the established unions many of which had become well immersed in the game of compromise. "The I.W.W. has never been anything but a radical fungus on the labour movement for those who could not fit into a normal rational movement" - Samuel Gompers, president of the A.F.L., a skilled workers union.

The fact that the I.W.W. came into existence and proved so attractive to many thousands of workers gives lie to the nonsense talked by those on the Leninist left today, like the Communist Party and Militant who tell us that the working class are not capable of understanding socialism. The I.W.W. with its slogan "abolish the wages system" represented the views of the most impoverished and least well educated members of the American working class. Taught, as they were, by the straightforward no frills arguments of "The Wobblies" these workers were able to understand that this system does not, and can not, serve their interests and that the only answer remaining is to abolish it completely. The reason that these ideas proved attractive lay, for the most part, in the way in which they put over their ideas and the commitment of their members.

Their propaganda was always lively and entertaining. They have left behind them a great stock of songs, poems and slogans all of which put their ideas over in the best possible way. "Wobblies" cherished their "little red song book" almost as much as their union card. Everywhere "Wobblies" met they sang these songs - at their meetings, on the picket line and in their work place. The songs represented their solidarity and iron resolve.

To the tune of "John Browns Body" they sang:
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold;
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand fold
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.

To the tune of "Red Wing":
Workers all unite
We must put up a fight
To make us free from slavery
And capitalistic tyranny
This fight is not in vain
We've got the world to gain
Will you be a fool, a capitalist tool
And serve your enemy
Shall we still be slaves and work for wages?
It is outrageous - has been for ages
This earth by right belongs to toilers
And not for spoilers of liberty.

None of the traditional "values" were safe at the hands of "The Wobblies", least of all religion. They "took no prisoners" in their exposure of religion as capitalism's moral seal of approval and another aspect of working class suppression.

"Trust in the lord and sleep in the street" and "Jesus saves the willing slaves" are two examples of popular slogans which I.W.W. members used to show their attitude to the arrogant preachers who tell workers to work hard and pray hard. Their songs again put over their ideas in an entertaining manner.

To the air of "Onward Christian Soldiers":
Onward Christian Soldiers!
Blighting all you meet
Trample human freedom under pious feet
Praise the Lord whose dollar sign dupes his favored race!
Make the foreign trash respect your bullion brand of grace
Trust in mock salvation, serve as tyrants tools
History will say of you
"That pack of Godly fools"

Another "value" which the I.W.W. had no time for was that of the traditional "role" of women. Women played a leading part in the organisation and struggle of the union, so much so that the union was accused of pushing women to the front in order to get sympathy. This argument was countered by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, I.W.W. founder member and organiser: "The I. W. W. had been accused of putting women at the front - the truth is that the I.W.W. does not keep them at the back and they go to the front".

And go to the front they did playing an equal role in organising factories and suffering police violence on the picket lines. One typical example was Sophie Cohen and her friend who joined the I.W.W. when they were seventeen. They spent their time looking for work in unorganised factories so as to get in and organise. Once they had made their presence felt the boss, in disbelief that two such girls would ever dream of joining a union, would sack them. Their job completed, that of getting members into the union, they would simply go and look for a similar factory. Unsurprisingly, there were songs in praise of such courageous women too.

"The Rebel girl" (from the little red song book)
Yes, her hands may be hardened from labour
And her dress may not be very fine
But a heart in her bosom is beating
That is true to her class and her kind
And the grafters in terror are trembling
When her spite and defiance shell hurl
For the only thorough-bred lady is the Rebel Girl.

For the I.W.W. solidarity was what made workers strong and they would not allow the divisiveness of racism or sexism to distort that strength. It was the sheer force of this solidarity which enabled "The Wobblies" to overcome many of the obstacles which the state, in its fear of working people organising together, placed in front of them. The I.W.W. was at the forefront of the fight for free speech in America. At a time when motor cars were rare, most people walked through and around town and "The Wobblies" used outdoor street corner meetings as a forum for their ideas. As these meetings became more successful they were made illegal (except for the Salvation Army). The answer of the I.W.W. to this ban was to overrule it by sheer force of numbers. Hundreds of speakers would congregate to do a single meeting. One would get up to speak, get arrested, and immediately be replaced by another, and another, etc until the prisons were filled with "Wobblies", all charged with vagrancy. This proved an embarrassment to the authorities to such a degree that the ban was eventually lifted.

It was this solidarity of action which got results. Joe Murphy., an I.W.W. member tells the story of such solidarity during a strike on the building of a dam in Seattle. All workers were out on strike but its effectiveness was being reduced by the employers who were importing "scab labour" from a town several hundred miles away. Joe, a striking dam worker himself went to the town in question and organised the local Wobblies members to register with the employment agency which was hiring the "scabs". Having been taken on they boarded with a train load of scabs to travel to Seattle. As Joe recollects the "hardened scabs" were dumped off the train during the journey and the rest joined the I.W.W. By the time they arrived at Seattle the whole train was singing "Wobblies" songs. This event in Joes words "pissed the bosses off" who had wined and dined these "Wobblies" during their journey.

This strength in numbers dismissed the need for the union to use violence in pursuance of their cause. Despite their reputation there is no evidence to suggest that the union engaged in a concerted campaign of violence to achieve their aims.

Bill Haywood: "The I.W.W. advocates violence of the most violent sort. Violence that consists of keeping our mouths shut and our hands in our pockets, By doing this, and staying on strike, we are committing the most violent of acts - cutting off our labour. Let them weave cloth with Bayonets" (our emphasis).

In this respect they realised their real strength as the possessors of labour and therefore as the class which produces wealth. They realised also the redundant nature of the capital1st class if they do not have the use of our labour. One Socialist used to say "Labour power is your most precious possession, use it sparingly", and the I.W.W. would surely have agreed with this sentiment. Using their labour power sparingly was what they did in pursuing their policy of sabotage To "The Wobblies" sabotage meant "The conscious withdrawal of efficiency".

They understood the futility of burning down the factories which meant workers losing their jobs, the alternative was to slow things down, do enough to get by, but not to allow the boss to squeeze you too tightly.

In 1917 when America got involved in the first World War, the I.W.W. again took a unique stance. Other unions made agreements with the Government not to strike during the war years. The I.W.W. refused to do this knowing that the war was not being fought in the interests of working people, the same working people who would die fighting it. During 1917 the I.W.W. organised 50,000 lumberjacks out on strike up and down the Pacific coast. also in that year they organised 40,000 copper miners in a strike.

The state used this, along with the nationalistic fervour brought about by the war, to discredit the I.W.W., accusing them of helping the Kaiser. In the same year of course, the Bolshevik revolution took place in Russia which caused internal friction in the union between those who supported the revolution and those who understood that it was not, and could not have been, a socialist revolution.

The national support for the war gave the American government a perfect opportunity to squash this union which had proved a thorn in its side for so long. I.W.W. headquarters across the country were ransacked and hundreds of members arrested and put on trial.

Their solicitor, George Vandeveer, fought a skilful battle in the courts on behalf of the arrested members saying "These people are being tried for nothing more than belonging to a labour union, a labour union which recognises that this war is not being fought to save democracy, but merely to expand industrial markets".

Despite his defence, eighty members were imprisoned, many more fined and others left America for fear of future recriminations.

Regrettably these events effectively marked the end of the I.W.W. as a major force serving the interests of working people. The I.W.W. is still in existence today and although only a shadow of its former size, appears to be experiencing a small upsurge in activity and interest.

The W.S.P. may well have disagreed with many of the policies and actions of the I.W.W. but these stand as insignificant beside that on which we agree - the abolition of the wages system and winning the world for the workers.

It is from movements such as the I.W.W., Poland's Solidarity movement, and the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa - and the countless other examples around the world - that we must look to in order to properly appreciate our strength as a class. If we organise together and decide what we are aiming for then, as long as there are enough of us, we can not be beaten.

The W.S.P. can only offer you the ideas - you must offer your support - together we too can grow strong.

Originally published in the World Socialist Party of Ireland journal, Socialist View, Vol 1, NÂș 2, August-September 1986.