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The Legacy of the IWW

Paul Buhle coedited, with Nicole Schulman, Wobblies! A Graphic History (Verso, 2005) and, with labor muralist Mike Alewitz, has launched a centennial Wobbly Tour for 2005, with banners, films, and music.

This year marks the centenary of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), American labor’s unique visionaries. It also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the AFL-CIO, the result of the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organization. Remarkably it is also the tenth anniversary of the change of the guard at the AFL-CIO. In 1995, John Sweeney and his “New Voice” team, expressing the rumblings of disillusionment with then-president and prominent Cold Warrior Lane Kirkland sweeping through the middle and upper ranks of the organization, drove the old guard from the highest offices. The concurrence of the three anniversaries may be more than a coincidence. To see why, let us go back and examine some recent labor history.

No greater contrast in the history of labor could be drawn than the one between the inclusive, democratic, revolutionary IWW and the AFL-CIO. By 1995, Kirkland and his closest confidants, notably American Federation of Teachers’ president Albert Shanker, had essentially given up on enrolling the unorganized, thus completing the misleadership of Kirkland’s predecessor, George Meany, in reducing organized labor from bold social movement to conservative special interest. The minuscule resources devoted to organizing reflected not only other priorities, but a deep logic. An important regional official once told me with considerable pride that his son, in business school, was preparing a thesis on union membership as the wisest investment a worker could make. The well-intended official had long since come to see unionism as labor’s share in the “ownership society.” The idea that it could once again embody a radical crusade for justice and the redistribution of wealth was far more likely to induce fear than hope.

The AFL-CIO has since its origins been a stalwart supporter of the Cold War and U.S. imperialism. Its leaders assumed that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union would solidify their iron grip on a global business unionism. The prospect of obeisant affiliates within a privatized Russia seemed to put everything that they had desired nearly into their grasp. As the U.S. government and its corporate powers ruled the planet without challenge at the vaunted “end of history,” labor’s supreme chiefs fully expected to be in charge of the union side of things. As a loyal opposition, they had earned the right.1

Their global plan was a spectacular flop, as were their efforts to maintain their relevance domestically, through lobbying and vote-gathering. They had only been useful as a hedge in the Cold War, after all. The emerging political leaders of even the Democratic Party now barely nodded in the direction of labor, and Republicans quietly concluded that the time had come to wipe out one erstwhile union bastion after another.

The demise of Kirkland’s leadership is usually portrayed as a palace coup, a view that underestimates the struggles waged from the 1960s onward by youthful radicals and the allies they acquired in unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Hotel and Restaurant Workers (HERE, but today part of a merged HERE/UNITE), the textile unions (with shifting titles until the 2004 merger), and above all the Teamsters. The greatest potential connection with the idealistic movements of the 1960s could not be made, thanks to the bureaucrats’ staunch resistance and the weapons in their arsenal. It was a devastating loss of opportunity, even as George Meany celebrated the rampage of Manhattan hardhats against antiwar marchers and as Richard Nixon rewarded the thugs’ leader with the cabinet post for the Department of Labor.

But some of the young idealists hung tough. By the middle 1980s the struggles against U.S. intervention in Central America, which had a strong labor component, reached their high point and opposition had gained a legitimacy never permitted during the Vietnam era. Major affiliates, including several of the few successful internationals, had begun passing resolutions on foreign policy and in defense of their own gay and lesbian members, resolutions unthinkable in the homophobic Vietnam era when, for Meany and all but the closeted gay men on his staff, “fags” were viewed as interchangeable with McGovern supporters.

And history was catching up with labor’s failures. The acceleration of immigration after 1965 proved crucial in several ways. The familiar restrictionist attitudes, time-tested since Gompers’s day and playing upon the racism and xenophobia that existed in the ranks, steadily lost their meaning when older workers shuffled off into retirement (their pensions promised by union contracts now more often stolen through corporate maneuvers) and foreign-born workers filled the mostly new, nonunion jobs. As a Rhode Island labor veteran observed at the dawn of the new century—with neither resentment nor glee—all the “white people” of the region who wanted to be in unions already were. Henceforth, either labor would reach the others, especially the newer immigrants, mainly Latino and Asian, or it had no future at all.

The “palace coup” character of the dethronement of Kirkland’s gang by Sweeney and company, in October, 1995, therefore disguised the degree to which demands for change at the bottom and middle levels had met the sense of impending collapse from near the top. The outcome, however, was a problematic compromise. Promises made for more aggressive mobilization only lasted as long as the election season. The Clinton-era Justice Department, ignoring assorted unsavory activities in the former Soviet Union and wherever else the AFL’s intelligence-connected operatives had not been replaced, focused in upon the money-shuffling of the reformed Teamster leadership, successfully promoting Jimmy Hoffa Jr., one more example of the CEO types now bungling the management of business unions. The boomlet of labor hopes that might have spurred a revived Democratic Party and the briefly promising efforts to create a leftward cultural-and-intellectual network practically died on the spot.2

To be sure, there have been hopeful moments and real victories, most notably the unionization in SEIU of some 70,000 homeworkers in Los Angeles County.3 Not only SEIU but HERE and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have had a few other extraordinary victories, notably AFSCME in Puerto Rico. Members of Marxist organizations, including the Communist Party, are no longer formally barred from holding union office, although the significance of this repeal of Cold War rules remains far from clear. Most important, immigrants—legal and illegal—are no longer viewed, at least officially, as the enemy. The historic principle of Gompers-style unionism, restriction of the labor market for the benefit of the labor aristocrat, is no longer the rule. By virtue of union defeat as much as anything else, even the white-men-only sacrosanct building trades, home to Catholic conservatives and to AFL-CIO apprenticeship programs that accomplished next to nothing (just as they were intended), are now considerably more nonwhite.

The most remarkable and under-reported development, meanwhile, is surely U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW), with unions representing literally millions of workers voting resolutions against U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thanks to USLAW, the current AFL-CIO, for all its faults, is eons away from the thuggish policies so familiar in the administrative chambers of the CIA’s favorite union leaderships. USLAW would, in an earlier day, have been singled out by intellectuals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as a dangerous source of subversion, bitterly attacked by loyal-opposition figures like Walter Reuther, investigated and, through various means, effectively outlawed. Now USLAW is tolerated at higher levels, mostly in silence, and no doubt watched carefully both by ambivalent labor leaders and by hawkish neoliberal (and neoconservative) intellectuals waiting to pounce. With the widespread disillusionment of the GIs and their families, unions could become a center for organized blue-collar peace sentiment unthinkable in the Vietnam era.

But victories and other hopeful changes are clearly the exception to a downward pattern. Even in unions blessed with new progressive leadership, the picture has mostly been gloomy. Republican control of Congress and the White House certainly counts against unionization of Wal-Mart or Starbucks, to take key examples. But there is too much difficulty to blame on politicians alone.

So once again there is rising internal discontent. The basic outlines of this dissent are detailed elsewhere in this issue, but no matter what happens this summer at the federation’s convention—whether John Sweeney retires rather than running for office, retains the presidency with the quiet promise of turning it over to one of the opposition’s leaders, or prompts a dramatic walkout—we need to take a deep breath and think about what kind of unionism is needed. Historical examples should be instructive.

Contrary to George Meany, who based his strategy upon a combination of political purges and political clout in the mainstream, American labor has rarely inched forward or successfully held its ground thanks to allies in high places. Political strength makes things easier in given situations, but it will never prove the determining factor. History tells us that employers will outdistance labor-friendly politicians sooner or later, and the demands for loyalty to the U.S. empire will be used to neutralize labor radicals’ challenges across the board.

The initial CIO surge almost seventy years ago benefited from a pro-union or neutral policy in the White House and a (temporary) reversal of historically anti-union law in Congress, through Section 7a of the National Labor Relations Act. But the pressure to realize the change in statute came from below and threatened to burst out into something much more dangerous than the organization of industrial unions. The general strikes of 1934 in San Francisco, Minneapolis–Saint Paul, and Toledo (the last of these more a movement of unemployed with employed workers) arguably made the leftward turn of a highly ambiguous New Deal inevitable. Those strikes and the unions that grew out of them echoed, for a while, the familiar vision of solidarity articulated and carried out nowhere more than in the old Industrial Workers of the World.

The IWW was the “greatest thing on earth” according to its members and devotees. It averaged, in its best years, perhaps a hundred thousand members. Yet it brought together, for a time, the poorest and most downtrodden working people from every race and group, while its bards wrote some of the most moving and funniest songs mocking the rich exploiters and their willing slaves. Why would American poets, novelists, and radicals from John Dos Passos and Gary Snyder to Noam Chomsky (whose father was a Wobbly) continue to invoke the Wobblies when the memory of most unions is utterly gone from personal or family memory?

The Wobbly, male or female, Asian or occidental, black, brown, red, or white, was only an ordinary human being in physique. He or she was different most of all because of a message that was explained, preached, and sung around the campfires of bindlestiffs (agricultural workers carrying bedrolls or bindles) and timber wolves (lumber workers); at the mess hall or commissary of hard rock miners and seamen; on the streets of mill villages but also in the social halls of Finnish-American, Hungarian, or Russian immigrants; across the borders in Canada and Mexico by men and women who moved from one job to another; and, for a while, even in the parlors of Greenwich Village. Their story was collaborative, collective, not reliant on any one hero or heroine, as heroic (or tragic) as individual Wobblies’ lives might be.

A fair number of IWW members and a few leaders, like the martyred Frank Little, were at least part Indian. Wobbly poetry and lore pointed to a sense of joy in the wilderness, and a resentment against what IWW jokesters called “snivelization.” This is no coincidence. One of the chief inspirations of Marx and Engels, during their later years, happened to be an amateur anthropology pointing to Indian tribes (among others) as the original “communistic” society of extended families and tribes sharing their possessions instead of accumulating private property.

It is likely that Marx and Engels, expecting an early resolution of capitalism’s crisis, did not appreciate to what degree radical movements, then and in the future, depended upon a popular wish to “return” from class society, to view capitalism as an interruption more than a certain and unavoidable stage of history. The vision of what was called the “Golden Day,” primitive communism before the rise of ruling classes, established churches, armies, and empires, was also widespread among European working classes of the later nineteenth century. The medieval revolt of European villagers and peasants against church and crown created communistic societies of sharing that lasted for weeks or months, and although they were drowned in an ocean of blood by the invading soldiers, these societies left a memory for centuries after.

Twentieth century visions of socialist-nationalist mixtures in third world revolutionary movements repeatedly evoked similar sets of images. Left-wing versions of Rastafarianism, in some ways the most literal version of evoking a communitarian logic entirely opposed to Western rationality, was mirrored in other respects by Liberation Theology, the Christological revolutionary promise of return to the practices of Jesus’ disciples. Generations earlier, the socialistic medievalism of England’s poet laureate, William Morris, had offered a world of handcraftsmanship, material simplicity, and labor with dignity in a family-like world of News from Nowhere.

Morris’s vision was noticeably different from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, an efficient cooperation coordinated through something resembling a completely egalitarian and gender-equal, giant department store. And it was different from the vision of the Knights of Labor that had, in the United States, most clearly prefigured the IWW. Morris and the Knights wanted to hold back the spread of wage labor, while Bellamy saw a hopeful future from the middle-class perspective. The Wobblies, facing the emerging problem of working people at the dawn of the twentieth century, saw the international mobility of labor as well as capital as inevitable; they looked not to the craftsmen but to the unskilled mass workers in giant factories or agricultural and extractive enterprises, as the central figures in labor’s hopes; and unlike the Knights (who encompassed women and African-Americans but ruled against Asian immigrant workers), the IWW embraced every worker as a basic principle of solidarity.

The IWW’s founding convention was called to order by the one-eyed William D. “Big Bill” Haywood in Brand’s Hall, on Chicago’s north side, on June 27, 1905. Over the next few days, ordinary delegates expressed fundamental, practical ideas about the labor movement, that labor needs solidarity in practice not in mere words. The American Federation of Labor’s craft unionism was not only out of date (organized for an earlier period of industrial labor) but ineffective, even for its members.

This was a somewhat oversimplified view, as it turned out: craft unions persisted, usually because their members became supervisory. They were the “aristocrats of labor,” and their exclusionary union structures remained paramount until the rise of the CIO in the 1930s, and broadly influential long afterward, most often as a conservative and frequently racist force allied with labor’s avid Cold Warriors. But the Wobblies were not wrong to call for solidarity as labor’s strength, and they espoused a revolutionary, emancipatory doctrine still unrealized today. Industrial unions themselves were, in the Wobbly vision, to be the building blocks for the future cooperative society. By joining an industrial union, workers could prepare themselves to take over society directly. Working people who understood their own power had the capacity to act upon their fundamental right to expropriate and share with other workers across the world everything that they collectively produced.

For the IWW, then, the familiar problem of the socialist movement being notoriously small in the United States could be solved in a new way. “Educating” workers into becoming socialists, through newspapers, speeches, and election campaigns, was too passive and not very successful. Workers needed to educate themselves, in and through their own actions and self-organization.

At the founding convention, among seventy delegates nominally representing 50,000 members, a mere two of the delegates—from the Western Federation of Labor and the amorphous American Labor Union—actually represented forty thousand of those members. Contrary to hopes that craft unionists could convert their structures into industrial unions, few craft union locals were represented as such, and many delegates actually presented only themselves. The high points were, then, the statement of principles beginning “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” and the memorable soliloquies on the floor of the convention.

Thus Lucy Parsons, already renowned for her defense of her husband after the Haymarket incident in 1886 and as an African-American revolutionary in Chicago, famously spoke for the most lowly, women driven to prostitution. But she also spoke of workers’ capacity, arguing: “My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.” In this way, the extraordinary veteran of nineteenth-century class, race, and gender struggles predicted the sit-down strike of the future, which took place first in factories, then at sit-ins to integrate public facilities, and still later in college classrooms and presidents’ offices to protest the brutal war on Vietnam.

A combination of internal disputes and the recession of 1906–07 caused the IWW to lose large sections of its initial membership. The Western Federation of Miners’ departure was an especially bitter blow, followed by the expulsion of Daniel DeLeon and his following in the Socialist Labor Party (who formed their own small rival organization, known as the “Detroit IWW” for its home office). Still, the IWW survived, led scattered strikes, conducted a vigorous propaganda campaign for industrial unionism, and invented or reinvented the sit-down strike (with workers occupying the plant rather than leaving it to the care of the owners) as well as many other tactics of community mobilization.

The early Wobblies were above all famous for their Westerners: the part-Indians and the Yankees, sons and daughters of pony express drivers and gold prospectors whose families had kept going west but never escaped poverty. But even in these early years, many of the militants were fresh from Europe or the children of immigrants, radicalized on the other side of the ocean or in their first years of American life. They remained in the IWW when native-born “Americans” mostly came and left, published magazines and newspapers that lasted decades, and kept the Wobbly spirit alive for later generations.

Strikes of mostly immigrant workers returned the Wobblies from a threatened obscurity during 1906–09 to the center of the picture, not only for the labor movement but American society at large. At McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, in 1909, a Wobbly-led strike brought together mostly Slavic immigrants in ways that thrilled socialists and chilled their enemies. Something was in the air, as the Socialist vote moved toward an apex in 1912 with dozens of communities electing radical working-class candidates to office, and hundreds of local gatherings of immigrants creating their own institutions around the funeral parlor and recreational center, confident that the future would bring a cooperative prospect.

Then came the strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 and Paterson, New Jersey in 1913, events with repercussions not only in the United States but far beyond. Waves of labor activity among the unskilled (but not only the unskilled) in Britain, the future Irish Republic, Germany, France, Italy, and even distant Australia picked up Wobbly slogans and tactics, buoyed by hopes of a global democratic transformation.

After the Paterson disappointment, enemies of the IWW called the organization beaten. It wasn’t true by a long shot. The Wobblies’ free speech fights combined daring with keen strategic sensibility. But their mobilization of migratory workers offered the best hopes for a large, sustained labor organization.

The Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO) planted itself in the work-life culture of the mostly white, male, mobile harvest workers of the plains states. Like the Wobs in the mines and sawmills, they epitomized the Western (and “American”) spirit of the organization. Notoriously rebellious and restless, their effective control of box car-riding (“show your red card”) was legendary. The capability of Wobbly organizers to create miniature egalitarian communities among the transient workers testified to their adeptness but also their belief in the lowest ranks of workers.

The larger AWO could also grow strong in the face of repression, peaking in 1918, for a seemingly unlikely reason. The First World War created a labor shortage: it was easier to quit or get fired and move on, because more jobs were available everywhere. Not that AWO organizing drives necessarily succeeded. The racial diversity of many California farms was difficult to overcome (although they tried). The repression of labor during wartime meant suppression of Wob newspapers, arrests of organizers, and threats of vigilante violence. In the longer run, the mechanization of farming would dramatically reduce the numbers of agricultural workers and their bargaining power.

Wobblies also learned that organizing in fields was more complicated than in factories. They could not rely on family or ethnic ties, and so had to rely on sudden job actions, slowdowns, and similar tactics to attract and hold members. Thus in April 1915, Frank Little called a conference to organize casual workers (hoboes), creating a job delegate system within the IWW, with Wobs setting wage and hour demands before the harvest, selecting an individual or committee to negotiate with a farmer, and then having all the Wobs ratify the agreement. This way, the AWO built quickly and successfully. Dues were a two dollar initiation, then fifty cents per month. By 1915, many had won immediate Wob goals: the ten hour day, three dollar minimum, overtime, good board, clean beds; all realizable because war raised the price of wheat.

Thus, Wobs would arrive outside town, establish a “jungle” near a stream, then call a meeting and elect committees to keep the camp clean. A “spud and gump brigade” foraged or begged for food and did the cooking, while some got jobs in town to build up a common fund. This was the IWW world in miniature, a workers’ society run by itself—although organizing it and keeping it going sometimes distracted from actual organizing in the fields.

IWW strike leadership would naturally be blamed for causing deaths and injuries handed out by police and private thugs. Huge defense fights exposed terrible conditions while leaders were handed long sentences. Yet, the IWW’s reputation spread most amazingly. Japanese and Chinese workers had their own labor organizations that worked with the IWW, although not usually affiliating directly. The Fresno branch chartered the Japanese Labor League in 1908 with a thousand members. Mexicans formed their own Wobbly locals (especially in San Diego and Los Angeles) and published Wobbly pamphlets, leaflets, and papers in Spanish. All this activity was unknown and indeed unwanted by the mainstream AFL.

For a historic moment in 1918, the AWO opened new offices in Minneapolis and Chicago, bought new printing plants, and planned a bright future. Wobblies declared the Russian “soviets” (literally, “workers’ councils”) to be mirrors of their own activity. Then came the red scares of 1919–21 in the United States, followed by the crushing of a vast and powerful Italian working-class uprising and other bitter disappointments.

The Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW) might be taken, as well as any, as the bright promise of the IWW crushed underfoot. It was extraordinary as an interracial union in the South, made up mostly of lumberjacks and sawmill workers in the Louisiana/Texas Piney Woods region being logged out by the big companies. Legendary Southern-born poet and agitator-editor Covington Hall quickly transformed the rudimentary and mostly secret BTW into a Wobbly movement. Officially adopting the principles of the IWW, the BTW invited full membership rights to women and nonwhites (including a scattering of Mexicans and Indians) and set out to organize the mill towns one by one. During a series of strikes in 1912–13, it expanded to as many as 20,000 members; then strikebreakers, official and private police, rushed in to crush the organization. Violent strikes led to an intensive legal-defense campaign for Wobs framed and put on trial. The BTW struggled on for years but never recovered.

The railroading of Wobbly leaders into federal prisons for long sentences on a variety of charges, the sudden growth of AFL and independent unions—sometimes recruiting former Wobblies as organizers—combined with the appeal of the new American Communist movement proved all too daunting. Prosecutorial charges of “criminal syndicalism” mystified later generations of radicals (as well as civil libertarians) and were scarcely understood among most of the defendants. During the McCarthy era decades later, Communists (by their nature wholly opposed to Wobbly or anarchist doctrines) were still being arrested on such creaky statutes. Actress Lucille Ball, facing a House Un-American Activities Committee investigating her past sympathies with Communists, was thus quizzed on criminal syndicalism and could honestly respond that she had never heard the phrase.

“Syndicalism,” a term popular in France and Italy, also among some activists in Britain, Germany, and elsewhere, had always been closer to doctrinaire anarchism than the IWW, and sometimes linked to individual acts of violence (rather than a mostly passive sabotage, “accidental” malfunctioning of machines or just a waitress talking against the food of the restaurant). Those calling themselves syndicalists in the United States were mostly competitors to the IWW, urging affiliation of radicals with the mainstream AFL, boring from within to achieve their aims by winning over craft union members. The charge, however, was never intended by prosecutors to be precise in any case. Like the insistence that Wobblies rather than scabs, cops, and assorted thugs had started rough stuff on and around the picket line, “criminal syndicalism” was a convenient label.

The Espionage Acts offered another legalization of outright repression. Enacted in 1917 with the Selective Service Act, these laws necessarily offered a virtually open definition of what might be deemed to constitute espionage, inasmuch as socialists and Wobblies had no more sympathy for the German kaiser than the British king or other symbolic nationalisms in the war. The laws governing the naturalization of the foreign-born, altered after the assassination of President McKinley (by a native-born anarchist, son of an immigrant) began to be applied against Wobbly noncitizens seeking citizenship as early as 1912, soon making it all but impossible for sworn members to naturalize. Meanwhile, Congress and the president (for the moment in a liberal, civil libertarian mood) debated the merits of further repressive legislation against those who damaged or endangered property. By 1918, federal troops broke up Wobbly picket lines in Arizona by declaring the production of copper to be a “war utility,” those hindering production thus liable to prosecution under the new Sabotage Act.

The U.S. State Department and Bureau of Immigration had also set themselves upon yet another distinct rationale of repression. By the time the United States had entered the war, immigration officials had been given far more latitude in deciding who to deport and under what conditions. The Immigration Act of 1918 was designed specifically to deprive radical aliens of any rights of Constitutional protection. For the first time in U.S. history, guilt by association or belief became a deportable offense; even before the law was enacted, the bureau began to plan the deportation of Wobblies by its own standards, in ways eerily familiar to today’s civil libertarians: membership, sympathy, financial support, or even implied agreement with IWW aims could be used. Faced with initial defeats in the courts, the bureau secretly devised new standards, and these would be upheld. Any alien known to support the IWW, a perfectly legal organization, could nevertheless be held and deported. The Labor Department, the attorney general, and the highest circles around the president could join with company officials, sheriff’s agents, and paid thugs to attack Wobs most anywhere, but especially in the Northwest, where so many loggers swore loyalty to the movement. The foreign-born would not even be allowed legal counsel—a further prediction of future methods of “legal” repression.

During the uprisings of 1919, amid massive May Day parades, a general strike in Seattle, and solidarity actions to prevent war goods being shipped to counter-revolutionary forces in embattled Russia, it nevertheless seemed for an extended moment that persecution only deepened the class struggle. Then it was over. Within a year, the young Communist movement had nearly destroyed itself (with considerable help from police agents) along with the Socialist Party in a round of wild factionalism, seeking the perfect revolutionary formula while real radicals faced immediate problems.

The Wobblies still were not finished. As the most vital of the new literature on them reminds us, official Wobbly historians have been at pains to demonstrate that the IWW did not die from the persecutions and the continuing red scare. Indeed, the Wobs’ propaganda apparatus took on a new life during the 1920s, nearly a thousand oil workers were added to more thousands of harvest workers holding steady, miners in the Canadian west drew close to the IWW, and above all the mostly African-American Marine Transport Workers (MTW) sank roots from its Philadelphia base seaward.

But a calamitous split in the IWW developed over a complex of internal issues, including centralization of the organizational leadership, and the movement ultimately retreated into an educational/agitational framework. In this form it continued, notably in the distant north country of the Midwest. One group of the Finnish-born radicals had left the Socialist Party and joined the Wobblies in 1914, publishing Industrialistii (1915–75), with more than 20,000 readers at its height. The same group took over the Finnish-led Work People’s College, a labor school that taught radical ideas and skills, and kept it going for more than thirty years.

It might almost be said that the IWW was surviving mainly in memory, as in the memories of older workers influencing the young and in the brief flourishing of assorted independent radical unions of the early 1930s, the sit-down strikes of the next few years, and the early, vital era of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Former Wobblies were especially numerous in the longshore, shipping, and seafood processing trades, lumber, harvest workers, hard rock miners, and arguably almost everywhere that Chicanos were part of agricultural workers’ mobilization. Rarely did they rise to the heights of leadership—William Z. Foster’s role in the 1919 Steel Strike offered one example, Harry Bridges’s longtime presidency of the International Longshoremens and Warehousemen’s Union another—but they were notable at the local level of industrial union drives as old heroes receiving their just gratitude.

A remarkable sight appeared in 1966: IWW buttons on the lapels of the organizers in the fast-rising student radical movement, Students for a Democratic Society. Only a few years earlier, SDS had been the child of a campus social democratic movement, the Student League for Industrial Democracy. Influenced no doubt by the sit-ins that drew inspiration from sit-downs decades earlier, a famous conference of 1962 at Port Huron, Michigan, saw an SDS statement (drafted by Tom Hayden and others influenced, some said, by the ideas of Pan African giant C. L. R. James as well as radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, among others) that sounded less like old left Marxism and more like Wob doctrine. It urged “participatory democracy,” not as proletarian as IWW ideas, to be sure, but also a movement from below rather than above, relying upon ordinary people rather than experts, however liberal or left wing.

The sympathy remained largely sentimental. But here and there fascinating local developments reminded observers that the IWW was very much alive. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Wobs could be found among youngsters, mainly, striving to save the mighty redwoods of California through an alliance with timber workers. At the turn of the new century and after, Wob membership drifted up and down, scatterings of new locals (especially in counter-culture towns) were formed or disappeared. A successful employees’ May 2004, vote and precarious victory (by IWW IU/660) at a Starbucks in mid-Manhattan—immediately appealed by the corporate giant—proved once again that Wobblies had a role where the mainstream labor movement had given up trying.

The Starbucks event, an IWW success among resentful, usually part-time workers in low-paid sectors with few if any benefits, suggested the prospect that loomed ahead. The globalism that had been the very heart of the Wob understanding has become increasingly real in daily life. Workers of many countries now have no choice. They are being forced into solidarity with each other for dignity and survival, even if the official labor leaders maintain an outdated and conservative approach to the rapidly changing world economy. Antiglobalization demonstrations from Seattle to Manhattan to Latin America, Europe, and Asia, often brought out Wobbly signs for the best possible reasons. Perhaps, after a century, the organic basis for IWW-envisioned success had finally arrived. At any rate, given the accelerating attack of corporations upon the planet and all living creatures, it is getting close to now or never.

The vision of plain folk running society for their own benefit, without bosses, without politicians, without a coercive state, army, navy, air force, or marines. Also without hatred and suspicion of foreigners. Or the frequently all-encompassing guilt that because we are rich, someone wants to take our riches away from us. That way of looking at freedom makes the IWW look like a lot more than a labor organization, or bigger than all the other labor organizations combined. It looks like the grassroots of the ecological/environmental movement, for instance, rather than the well-paid officials of organizations. It looks like the Mexicans and Americans who welcomed the Zapatistas taking back the land that had been stolen from their people. It looks like every antiwar movement. It even looks a little like the world John Lennon summed up in the song “Imagine”: no distant god, no country, just us humans, all of us, and our world.

It also looks a lot more than anyone would have suspected, thirty or forty years ago, like a rapidly submerging working-class America today. The world of the Wobs was made up of immigrant workers (like ours now), without steady employment, health plans, social security, or drug benefits (like the future that Republicans and many a Democrat envision), without any responsibility on the part of the filthy rich for the growing class of poor—so much like the society around us. The world of the Wobblies was one realized in its best moments by solidarity across race, ethnic, gender, and nationality lines.

The Wobbly world and promise was wrecked, finally, by the eager collaboration of corporate business and the military, liberals and conservatives along with labor leaders like Samuel Gompers, all of them committed firmly to empire. Will the same thing or something like it happen now as the empire slides into crisis again? Only time will tell. What the Wobs did was to hold up an alternative vision of labor and social solidarity against capital, the alternative we need now more than ever. Lacking this, we confront a continuing collapse of organized labor.


  1. I make this case in Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland and the Tragedy of American Labor (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999), a volume whose conclusions represent, in a way, a reflection on a political lifetime of reading Monthly Review.
  2. Such was the fate of Scholars, Artists and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), a group which many of us hopeful of the new AFL leadership joined enthusiastically. The resources needed for a campus-and-community network never became available, and without labor dynamism, the first wave of highly successful public conferences closed with a sense of disappointment. SAWSJ faded and disappeared. Bill Fletcher Jr., Elaine Bernard, Steve Fraser, and others well-known to MR readers were among its outstanding figures.
  3. The strongest case is made for California labor in “Labor Builds Regional Power,” a special issue of Working USA 8 (December, 2004), by Barbara Byrd and Nari Rhee, “Building Power in the New Economy: The South Bay Labor Council,” and Larry Frank and Kent Wong, “Dynamic Political Mobilization: the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor,” 131–53 and 155–81, respectively.
2005, Volume 57, Issue 02 (June)
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