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THE WOBBLIES by Ammon Hennacy - Catholic Worker odds & ends
August 25th, 2007
11:39 pm


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THE WOBBLIES by Ammon Hennacy
THE I.W.W.--ITS FIRST FIFTY YEARS (1905-1955) Compiled by Fred Thompson, I.W.W., 2422 N.Halsted, Chicago, 14, Ill. 1955 Paper $2, Cloth $3. Reviewed by Ammon Hennacy.

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common...Instead of the conservative motto: 'A fair day's wage for a fair day's work,; we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system'...By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old."----from the I.W.W. Preamble, written, it is said, by the ex-priest, Thomas J. Haggerty.

"The I.W.W. had the stamina not only to withstand militia, prisoners and plain plug-uglies, but what is harder: fond hopes, shattered, sudden reverses, and repeated losses of substantial memberships...The world: one part politically totalitarian with the power drive of dictatorship strangling whatever socialist sentiment may have gone into its making; the other part increasingly imitating its opponent under the pretext of combating it, and unions increasingly becoming integrated and hopelessly enmeshed in these great half-world power complexes."

If the author had used as much imagination throughout this too short a history of the I.W.W. as he does in the above paragraph on the last page of his book it would not be the dull one that it is. This week I have also read Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's "I Speak for Myself," which deals with much same time and subject. In her book the characters vibrate with life and you can see the action only remotely hinted at by Thompson. I am inclined to take Gurley's version of the Mesaba Range trouble where the three Montenegrin;s pled guilty to manslaughter and did three years, and the others were not prosecuted on the false charge of conspiracy, than I would Thompson's suggestion of trickery on her part.

Founded in 1905 by members of the Western Federation of Miners, Brewery Workers, and the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees, and others, with Debs, Mother Jones and the "Saint," as Vincent St. John was called, it was 1908 until they got under way with seasoned rebels who had survived the factionalism of Daniel de Leon. From the Western Federation they had the tradition of no contracts. They conducted the first sit-down strike at General Electric in 1906. (The first one in this country was that of the Brewery Workers in Cincinatti in 1884 when the union men barricaded themselves inside with beer barrels. When the bullets from the police caused the beer to flow the bosses gave in.) From Skowhegan, Maine in 1906 to Lawrence, Mass. in 1912, and Paterson, N.J. in 1913, the I.W.W. gave hope to the underpaid textile workers who had been divided by the bosses because of their varied nationalities. When Harvard students were scab-herding in the Lawrence strike a Boston lawyer affirmed the I.W.W. class struggle dogma by saying: "Any man who pays more for labor than the lowest sum he can get for them is robbing his stockholders."

In the steel industry at McKees Rocks in 1909 the I.W.W. won a raise for 350,000 while the AFL was sleeping. But it was with the migrant workers in the harvest fields, the lumberjacks in the northwest and in the swamps of Louisiana, the dockers of Philadelphia and all over, that the Wobblies organized what seemed to be the unorganizable. Their free speech fights in San Diego, Spokane and San Pedro where thousands filled the jails and sang their parodies of Salvation Army hymns remain a part of the folklore of this country. In San Pedro: "Stockades were built and filled with speakers; it was hopeless to arrest the hundreds who joined the mass singing of I.W.W. songs. Young fellows on roof tops made speeches while cops chased them as in movies."

Why is the I.W.W. barely alive today? Thompson thinks it was from the split in 1924 when class war prisoners in Leavenworth on opposition to World War I and those in California jails under criminal syndicalism charges quarreled over whether paroles should be accepted or not; and over centralization or decentralization in the I.W.W. unions. They did lose their main locals in Cleveland over signing up with Taft-Hartley. Thompson worries about the I.W.W. being on the subversive list. It would seem that if the I.W.W. is not subversive it is not anything. The loss of many like Haywood and Ashleigh to the Communists and the legalizing of unions under the New Deal, coupled with war prosperity had dimmed the class struggle. In opposing the check-off of union dues the Wobs still remain true. There is little life today among non-Communist radiacals and the I.W.W. suffers along with the rest. I joined the I.W.W. in 1912, spoke in some of their halls, and wrote a few articles and poems for their papers, but was never really in places where I could be active. I dropped out in 1922. There is no doubt that emotionally, historically and in reality the I.W.W. in its short time of great activity from 1911 to about 1936 has shed the clearest light upon the weaknesses of our exploitative system, has provided the most imaginative and good-humored protest against the whole capitalistic system, leaving us their "songs to fan the flames of discontent." (from the Feb. 1956 issue of THE CATHOLIC WORKER)

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