Friday, February 20, 2015

Wobblies Wobble But They Don't Fall Down: The IWW And the Struggle for Worker's Rights


I have to admit, of all the labor unions in the world, being able to call yourself a "Wobbly" has a certain appeal. I don't know why. I guess it sounds better than what others call themselves. I guess I didn't intend to, but it appears that I am in the midst of writing a series of article regarding labor history. You can read about the Haymarket Affair here or the exploitation of adjunct faculty here. I'm not really a labor historian though I am well versed in the struggle between workers and management (aka: "the suits") as I do come from a union family. I am an affiliate of USW and USMWA. I was a member of UFCW back in my grocery store days. So I have always been aware of the cause of workplace safety and better treatment. As an adjunct professor, I am a member of a class of workers that are treated with utter disdain by college administrators and exploited to no end. This is, however, a far cry from what workers suffered in the late 19th and early 20th Century which is where our tale begins.

The Industrial Workers of the World were formed in Chicago in 1905. Among their key founders were the likes of Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones. Now, what made the Wobblies different from other labor organizations at the time is that they pushed a much more radical agenda. Their rallying cry was "An injury to one is an injury to all." This is not only true, but a noble concept. Their Constitution said "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common." At the time, this was true. Rather than having labor divided into separate unions based on trade or employer, the Wobblies promoted the idea of One Big Union. Their major competitor at the time was the AFL which restricted itself to craft or trade unionism which left out the growing millions of unskilled industrial workers whom the IWW sought to organize.

What set the Wobblies apart was that they courted no political party as they understood that politicians care about getting elected, not the rights of anyone. They used labor to their own ends. The Wobblies also attracted radical socialists and anarchists which caused the US government to look on them with great concern. Remember, the country viewed anyone associated with organized labor as being a socialist or communist even if they weren't. You still see that same rhetoric coming from those on the right today. Standing up for your rights in the workplace does not make you a commie. That said, the tactics used by the Wobblies ranged from general strikes to sabotage (though sabotage was only to be use in response to unsafe working conditions). Their endorsement of more radical methods put them at odds with other labor organizations who preferred diplomacy whenever possible.

During World War One, the AFL endorsed the war and encouraged their workers to take an active role by either serving or working in the factories on the home front. The Wobblies, on the other hand, saw The Great War as a means for the ruling classes of all the countries involved to get their working classes to destroy one another. As such, they did no endorse the war and actively opposed it. Many of their leaders were jailed under the Sedition Act, a law of blatant unconstitutionality which made criticizing the war, the President, or the government illegal. In Oklahoma, for example, a group of Wobblies was seized by a mob and tarred and feathered! Cracking down on dissent and jailing political opponents is something out of Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany, yet it has happened here too. 

The Wobblies began to decline following World War One due to imprisonments and the actions of the government and the members of the public too. They wobbled but they didn't fall down. One thing that the Wobblies did really well was write protest songs which they published in their Little Red Songbook. It is still in print. During the 1960s, the Counterculture discovered these tunes and a new generation of Wobblies was born. Perhaps, in the early 1900s, the IWW was too radical for the country to accept. At the time, with the growing power of the Bolsheviks in Russia, the United States feared a similar revolution here and thus anyone associating with so radical a group as the IWW was seen as a threat to our security. Freedom goes out the window when the government fears internal dissent which is exactly what the Wobblies were warning about in the first place! History has shown that much of what they had to say was true. The existence of the IWW was very important because it gave a radical balance to the more mainline trade unions. This allowed the trade unions to make great gains because the alternative was a group allegedly made up of socialists and anarchists. The truth is, the Wobblies were just working class people who wanted to be treated in a fair manner and paid just wages. Who among you doesn't want that for themselves? You may be a Wobbly at heart!

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian (but not a Wobbly). If you want to be a Wobbly, they are still around. Check them out here. In truth, I think that adjuncts should turn to the IWW or any other union for help. There is power in union! 

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