The Wobblies Heritage

Against the Current, No. 115, March/April 2005

Paul Buhle

THE COVER OF this Against the Current issue features something new that is also a century old: a Wobbly icon. This one is an image, on a banner (one of twelve made by labor muralist Mike Alewitz), foregrounding the old “Sabo-Tabby” of sabotage, backgounding the striking coal miners’ tactic of putting nails in the path of cars and trucks bringing scabs to work.

Note that both reflect nonviolent tactics, more or less similar to the syndicalist vision of workers bringing revolution by crossing their arms, refusing to leave the world’s factories and refusing to produce a single item more.

The year 2005, of course, marks the centennial of the convocation of the “Continental Congress of the Working Class,” as Big Bill Haywood described the historic meeting, bringing it to order.

Craft unionism had been a failure several times over. Workers in craft unions regularly scabbed on each other, holding to their craft contracts; the majority of the working class was wholly excluded from unionism, thanks to race, gender or condition of employment in so-called “unskilled” categories. (In reality, many AFL members had achieved their status, especially in the building trades, through family connections, and learned on the job.)

What working people needed in 1905 was “one big union” of everyone making a wage. Readers of Against The Current will now generally know about how the Wobs struggled, against the government, employers, cops, thugs, priests, preachers and rabbis and definitely also against the scabbing AFL, for this goal.

But a bit more of the story has become clearer in recent years, thanks to researches in Western agriculture and on ships heading out of Philadelphia.

Victory and Defeat

The high point in lore, and to a definite degree in fact, was the Lawrence Strike of 1912, and the point of decline in the strike at Paterson a few years later — titanic textile battles of immigrant workers won and lost. But the mobilization of timber workers, white, Black and Indian, had taken place in almost the same years, and after some success, met with crushing blows as well.

Another famous phase, shortly before, had been the Free Speech fights, mostly in Western towns, sometimes won and sometimes lost. This fight is linked understandably, for scholars and admirers, with the repression aimed at the Wobblies by Woodrow Wilson’s wartime administration, sending up IWW leaders to long sentences in trumped-up charges and opening the Wobs to undeterred vigilante violence.

The Wobs had rebounded from textile defeats and even free speech defeats, to a considerable degree, by organizing the mostly young and familyless men in the wheat fields, as the crops grew more valuable in wartime.

These efforts sprouted like the wheat itself, bringing some of the first successful labor mobilization of Filipinos and other Asian-American workers. The mostly Black Maritime Workers, out of Philadelphia, meanwhile exerted a long-term influence at sea that is still being examined now.

Contrary to several versions of Leninist lore, it was not so much the defection of activists to the new Communist party that finished off the Wobs as successful union-builders, but a split in the leadership that can be traced to the confinement of many experienced activists, and naturally to continued pressure upon all unions during the reactionary 1920s.

The Wobblies did lose many young intellectuals and bohemians to the Communists (among some notable Left communities, notably Jews, their influence had never been great). But they remained a powerful agitational force during the 1920s, a considerable leaven in many spots where former Wobblies personally led the waves of industrial unionism, only to be marginalized in the bureaucratization to follow.

Still later, The Industrial Worker continued to circulate, and oldtime Wobblies told and retold the stories that many younger workers learned by heart.

Solidarity Forever

No brand of Marxists following — not Communist regulars, not Trotskyists nor others — had seemed to view the Wobs as anything more than outdated and unscientific, although once heroic, long before. The SDSers who declared themselves “student syndicalists” (SDS president Gregory Calvert had spent time in France, and acquired the monicker), wore the IWW button conspicuously, but only a year or two before SDS was overwhelmed by its Maoist factions.

My own journal Radical America boasted a Wobbly black cat on its second (1967) issue, and the political views of C.L.R. James would be accurately described as syndicalism-without-the-label. Apart from a mid-1960s effort in Chicago, by emerging activists of the surrealist movement to youth IWW activity among young people and agricultural laborers, that was about the closest the New Left came to identifying with the legacy.

Yet the sensibility had never gone away entirely, thanks to music and to associated lore. “Solidarity Forever” was sung by millions of workers and their supporters, without necessarily knowing its origin; likewise some of the satirical and harder-to-sing Wob tunes like “The Preacher and the Slave.”

Singer Paul Robeson and songwriter Earl Robinson, neither of them remotely wobblyesque, had collaborated on the “Ballad of Joe Hill” (aka “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”), making it a political standard of the Popular Front for decades.

Pete Seeger, among other folksingers more anarchist-minded, kept Wobbly tunes in his own repertoire from mainstream to exile and back. In odd but predictable ways, Woody Guthrie also got mixed into the Wobbly legacy, the footloose American radical amongst the lowly (especially agricultural workers), a story that carried on to Bruce Springsteen’s evocations of contemporary life in the Southwest.

Wobbly card-holder Bruce “Utah” Phillips and (most notably) his duets with Ani DeFranco brought the message back, with Wobbly standards, to large audiences of young people (before Ani, Phillips had a more narrow following of Wobbly sentimentalists and the faithful).

Anarchist Revival

The widescale collapse of the organized global Left after 1990 has definitely returned Anarchism to near the top of the agenda for young people. So has the rise of the Web, and the anti-State, anti-centralist, “diy” (do it yourself) mentality so common among the youngest radical activists.

Among the available legacies considered interesting or valuable, the Wobs understandably rank high, even when industrial labor seems increasingly distant in time and geography.
The circle around the annual comic-zine World War 3 Illustrated naturally leaned toward the IWW, including several red card-holders and more sympathizers, and not only because their own politics had been largely formed in the anarchistic struggle against the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.

To these young artists, the IWW of the 1910s was to the Ash Can Art of The Masses magazine, with its lyrical realism, what the social movements of today are to their own contemporary art. It’s the useable tradition.

Where this will lead remains to be seen. But it has made many areas of labor radicalism’s tradition more real, more exciting, more romantic than they would have been otherwise. The traditions of solidarity across national, race, gender and other boundaries are most meaningful for us today, something to re-learn, for ourselves, in a new key.

ATC 115, March-April 2005