Worldwide Wobblies Remembered

Against the Current, No. 193, March/April 2018

Fran Shor

Wobblies of the World:
A Global History of the IWW
Edited by Peter Cole, David Struthers and Kenyon Zimmer
London, Pluto Press: 2017, 312 pages, $28 paper.

THE BIRTH OF the Industrial Workers of the World came amidst working-class insurgencies, especially as a challenge to the impact of global capital on the circulation of labor. As the 1905 call to the IWW founding convention in Chicago made clear: “Universal economic evils afflicting the working class can be eradicated only by a universal working class movement … with the recognition of the irrepressible conflict between the capitalist class and the working class.”

Although at first marginal to the dominant labor movements in the United States and around the world, the IWW nonetheless captured the attention of workers either neglected or actively discriminated against by craft unions, and of those who were insistent on organizing radical militant actions at the point of production.

While labor historians and social movement scholars have recognized the significant interventions of the IWW against capital and the state at the beginning of the 20th century, the effort to take seriously the international role of the IWW has been hampered by what the editors of this collection of essays note as the lack of “linguistic skills and far-flung archival digging needed to research the global dimensions of the IWW.” (2)

To overcome the constraints on any one study or scholar, the editors have brought together nineteen essays by scholars inside the academy and activists outside the academy whose linguistic skills and archival digging cover languages as diverse as Finnish, Swedish, French, Spanish, Italian and Maori, and whose archival work ranges from Canada to Mexico, from Sweden to South Africa, from India to Australasia.

Instead of reviewing all nineteen essays separately, here I want to highlight and discuss three interrelated themes that run throughout the collection: emergent ideological currents, the carriers of these currents, and the expressions of these currents in different countries.

Through this categorization I hope to underscore the value of specific essays in the book, as well as the overall significance of the collection. In addition, there are some shortcomings, partly inherent in any anthology, to which I plan to call attention.

Among the most admirable and informative essays is that of Kenyon Zimmer, one of the book’s editors. In focusing on the international connections of anarchism and how it informed some of the ideological currents underlying the IWW, Zimmer also examines those particular carriers and countries from which these currents emerged.

As he makes clear, “Mexican, Italian, Spanish, Finnish, and Russian immigrants were over-represented in the union and anarchism ran strong within each of these ethnic groups.” (29)

Identifying specific individuals, pre-existing networks, and the newspapers that reflected these ethnic and anarchist orientations, Zimmer manages to root the IWW in an international and transnational context while examining how “anarchists in the IWW organized not only themselves but also tens of thousands of their fellow workers into a militant minority dedicated to building a libertarian socialist world within the shell of the old.” (39-40)

Another ideological current especially pre-eminent among radical workers during this period in Europe and the United States was syndicalism. As Wayne Thorpe argues in his essay: “The IWW shared with European syndicalists an insistence on the autonomy of workers, the primacy and independence of revolutionary unions, the importance of economic organization, and direct action at the point of production.” (108)

This essay, in particular, considers in more depth the “dilemmas of internationalism” that confronted syndicalists and the IWW, especially in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Indeed, during the 1920s the IWW lost some of its most prominent members to communism as it debated and split over organizational and ideological matters.

Global Carriers of Struggle

While syndicalist currents coursed through labor struggles and movements of the early 20th century, the transnational and international carriers of these currents often constituted what Verity Burgmann, in her essay on the IWW in Australia, labels the “radical flank” (180) of the labor movement.

The roster of IWW leadership in Australia that Burgmann inventories not only reflects the international connections from which this leadership emerged, but also links up with other brief biographies that make up this collection.

Tom Barker, the editor of the Aussie IWW newspaper Direct Action, more than any other Aussie Wobbly leader circumnavigated the globe, as Paula de Angelis demonstrates in her essay, going from England to New Zealand to Australia to Chile to Argentina to the Soviet Union and eventually back to England.

Additional peripatetic Wobblies who achieved prominence in Australia are noted in other essays, such as Tom Glynn in Lucien van der Walt’s excellent study of the IWW in South Africa.

Among the biographical sketches in this volume are several that trace the impact of the IWW experience in the United States on specific individuals who became instrumental in the labor and national struggles in their native countries.

Peter Clayworth’s essay on Patrick Hodgens Hickey traces his engagement with the Western Federation of Miners and the IWW in the mines of Colorado back to his native New Zealand, where he was instrumental in the 1910 founding of the New Zealand Federation of Labor, or “Red Feds” as they were known because of their radical orientation and actions.

As discussed by Marjorie Murphy in her essay on James Connolly and Jim Larkin, both were members of the IWW during their time in the United States before returning to Ireland to engage in labor struggles leading to the Irish Revolution. Johan Pries follows the journey of the Swedish Wobbly P. J. Welinder back to his home country during the interwar years when the syndicalist message of the IWW gained currency in Sweden.

Another border crosser was the Canadian Edith Frenette. Her contribution to the free speech fights in British Columbia and Washington had a particular gendered experience as illustrated in Heather Mayer’s essay, a contribution like some others in the collection that comes out of a more extensive full-length study.

Oppositional Masculinism

Unfortunately, an analysis of the gender dimension of the Wobblies, especially as a form of oppositional masculinism that contested working class deference and respectability (what I’ve labeled in some of my prior publications as “virile syndicalism”) shows up very rarely, indicating the often under-theorized nature of many of the essays in this volume.

More to the point, an analysis of what role working class men and women played during this historical period as Gramscian “organic intellectuals” would have provided more resonance to how individuals covered in this collection contributed to the working class mobilizations of the period.

As explicated by George Lipsitz, “organic intellectuals generate and circulate oppositional ideas through social action.” (A Life in the Struggle, 10) Furthermore, as developed by socialist-feminist scholar Nancy Fraser, the “oppositional interpretations of identities, interests, and needs…are bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed towards wider publics.” (Justice Interruptus, 81-82)

Although providing many instances of the agitational activities of a worldwide variety of Wobblies, critical reflection on the impact of the IWW on a broader working class milieu often remains theoretically underdeveloped.

On the other hand, in Kevan Antonio Aguilar’s essay “The IWW in Tampico” we see the interrelated themes of ideological currents, carriers and countries coming together in an inspiring example of Wobbly agitation, influence, and solidarity.

According to Aguilar, “from 1915 to 1930, Wobblies organized with local anarchists and communists in Tampico [Mexico] and the neighboring working-class barrio of Dona Ceilia (now Ciudad Madero) against the centralization of the labor movement under the Mexican revolutionary governments, foreign exploitation, and the suppression of anti-capitalist struggles throughout the world.” (126)

Organizers like Pedro Coria, who had been involved with the Bisbee, Arizona mining strikes and helped to establish the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers International Union (MTW) Local 100, emphasized “the importance of solidarity unionism to the struggle against global capitalism,” especially in the aftermath of the round-up of U.S. IWW members in September 1917 and their prosecution and jailing for supposed “sedition.”

As Coria contended, “it is our duty to respond to the persecution of our comrades in the North with our class solidarity through the One Big Union, to lead by the slogan ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’” (133, 134) [For a discussion of the brutal suppression of the IWW and U.S. labor radicalism following World War I, see Allen Ruff’s article in ATC 191,]

The Wobbly slogan of “an injury to one is an injury to all” is evident throughout the essays in this valuable collection about the global history of the IWW.

Even more, in the face of attacks on workers around the world and diminishing union power, the essays provide inspiration and even guidance for the creation and sustenance of a multiracial and multinational working-class movement of men and women, struggling to contest the depredations of global capital and to “build a new world in the shell of the old.”

March-April 2018, ATC 193