The founding congress of the Industrial Workers of the World was called to order in Brand's Hall on Chicago's North Side on June 27, 1905...
The founding congress of the Industrial Workers of the World was called to order in Brand’s Hall on Chicago’s North Side on June 27, 1905. Around 200 prominent union leaders and progressive thinkers, including “Big Bill” Haywood, Eugene Debs, Daniel DeLeon, Lucy Parsons and Mary Harris (aka “Mother Jones”), gathered to establish a labor organization “broad enough to take in all the working class,” one that would have “but one object and one purpose and that is to bring the workers of this country into the possession of the full value of the product of their toil.”
My father, born that same year to a family of immigrant, ardently unionist coal miners, spoke in fond, reminiscing tones of the “Wobblies,” as the members of the IWW were known.
Like many Finns who had emigrated to America at the beginning of the century to escape conscription into the czar’s army, our family had historically socialist leanings. Talk in the sauna ranged from old-country politics to whether — like many socialists, Finns and “Wobs” — my uncle, the oldest boy, should resist President Woodrow Wilson’s draft (he did, then didn’t, and like other publicly listed “slackers” was among the first to be shipped out).
Itinerant IWW job delegates would come to my father’s hometown of Red Lodge, Mont., by riding the freights, the entire administrative apparatus of a local consisting of a stack of membership cards tucked in a hat.
The Wobblies believed in “decentralized democracy.” They kept initiation fees and dues low, rejected a hierarchical structure of union bosses, and shunned any formalities that would bind union and management together (pay-stub dues deductions, written contracts).
The message, always leavened with satirical humor, was conveyed through songs, jokes and cartoons that, in a pre-mass-media age of saloon socializing and worker hall dances, could sweep through a locale or a state in a matter of days.
Unlike the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor that divided workers into locals by trade and ethnicity, or the later industrial unionism of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that would work toward reforms within the given structure of corporate capitalism, the Wobblies dreamed of worker-owned cooperatives, collectives and syndicates. They eschewed Marxist-Leninism with its state controls, but envisioned a time when revenue would be delivered directly back to owner-producers and the workday and work week shortened to utopian dimensions as production became based on necessary use instead of profit.
The laboring class was receptive: For the most part, it had less to lose by banding together and walking out than by staying on the job and falling into greater poverty and debt. A tide of strikes and other direct actions between 1905 and 1917 resulted in better wages and working conditions across entire industries.
The Wobbly message spread from the mills of the Northeast to the lumber camps of the Northwest, including the array of harvest fields and hard-rock mines in between. Direct job action, almost always nonviolent, was preferred by the IWW over electoral reform, given that substantial numbers of rank-and-file labor — women, the unnaturalized foreign-born, those under 21 and itinerant workers — were disenfranchised and so held no sway at the ballot box.
The breakdown of the Wobblies’ momentum had less to do with their impossible idealism than with systematic and brutal repression by the Wilson administration in partnership with corporate interests. Under the sweeping provisions of the 1917 Espionage Act, IWW offices were raided and indictments issued against 166 Wobbly organizers for conspiracy to undermine the war effort. Union leader Bill Haywood, assured of solid legal standing by IWW attorneys, agreed to a mass trial in Chicago that would, he hoped, result in the vindication of free-speech rights for all Americans as well as positive publicity for the labor movement.
He was wrong: Convictions, 20-year sentences and $20,000 fines rained down. With most of the organization’s leaders jailed and the bulk of its resources depleted for legal defense, the IWW fell into disarray. It survived as an enfeebled and internally divided organization into ensuing decades (and still exists today), but the age of its greatest achievements was over by the early 1920s.
The Wobblies imagined a world where any wage-earning worker had a right to belong to the “one big union,” and where “an injury to one would be an injury to all.” The principles they fought for promoted worker health and safety, gender and race equality, the protection of children, and global — not just local, not just American — worker solidarity.
“Fellow worker” was the greeting always used to signal a Wobbly orientation. Perhaps I’ll offer it the next time I’m chatting with an outsourced customer-service representative in Bangalore. For now, at the mark of the centenary, when only 8 percent of private-sector employees in America belong to a union, let me use it to hail the contributions of the IWW and others like my late father — he a lifelong hardhat worker, then union pensioner (and Social Security-protected senior citizen).
He died without property, though West Coast cities are dotted with buildings whose scaffoldings my father once crawled through, behind him miles of things bolted, trimmed and soldered. I worked on that, he’d point out, and I’m responsible for all of the air conditioning on the 30th floor in that. Sometimes it would be a one-story filling station he’d go out of his way to patronize, and sometimes a seamless glass monolith where he’d never again have any business being.
His trade, he called it, emphasizing how he owned the know-how, the capital created out of nothing, nowhere, that amounted, in the end, to all the gas stations and tall buildings he was somehow part of, that belonged to him in everything but name.
Suzanne Matson graduated from the University of Washington’s creative writing program and received her Ph.D. in English from the UW. She is a novelist and a professor at Boston College.