THE WOBBLIES' IMPACT: PAST AND FUTURE
By Steve Thornton
November, 1912: Organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World are on the New Haven Green, distributing copies of the IWW’s Machinist Bulletin. They have been appearing regularly in the city's center, and at the Winchester Repeating Arms plant gates as well. The police see it as their duty to interfere with the Wobbly organizers' efforts. The cops allege that the literature distribution is illegal and demand that the labor men stop the handouts or face arrest.
But selling newspapers is legal. Young newsies do it every day. So in response to the police order, the Wobblies give pennies to the workers as they approach-- and charge them one cent a copy.
Who were the Wobblies?
The Wobblies were a labor union like no other: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). These militant, courageous men and women, from all races and ethnic groups, changed the way working people of the early 20th century responded to the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.
The IWW established an organizing model still being used today by unions, civil rights groups and other progressive movements: effective cross-ethnic organizing, mass nonviolent direct action, community coalition building, and an inspiring, democratic vision of the future.
What made the IWW exceptional?
Large-scale civil disobedience that filled the jails to change oppressive laws:The powerful work of SNCC and the civil rights movement owe their strategy to, among others, the Wobblies' Free Speech campaigns that stopped business as usual and guaranteed workers' First Amendment rights;
Organizing tactics such as mass, mobile picket lines, singing union songs, using "organized inefficiency" (work to rule): The staid Sam Gompers and George Meany despised direct action, but thousands of mobilized Wobblies in the 1912 Bread and Roses textile strike began a new era of member participation;
Creating a labor culture that honored immigrant traditions: The Industrial Workers' troubador and satirist Joe Hill was the labor movement's Stephen Colbert; the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden included 1,000 strikers as actors. And although other unions embraced the "Americanization" of immigrants, the Wobblies did not insist that foreign-born workers reject their own culture or language;
The inclusion of African American, Chinese, and all other workers regardless of race: an important element of the progressive CIO of the 30's, and Operation Dixie in the 40's, some unions fought to integrate their membership but the Wobs battled racism decades earlier in Southern logging camps, southwestern farms, and the loading docks of Philadelphia.
A true sense of international solidarity: The United Electrical workers (UE) 1992 forged an alliance with the Mexican Frente Autentico del Trabajo (FAT) that is inspiring, but the Wobblies successfully organized in Europe, Australia and South Africa.
The IWW's Work in Connecticut
From 1905 until at least 1920, the IWW organized in Connecticut's textile and metal industries. They fought battles in a dozen cities and towns with a 60% win rate (9 out of 15 strikes during that period). They organized low skilled and women workers-- in places like Mansfield, Mystic, Shelton, Norwalk-- who were being ignored by the elite, all-male craft unions.
The IWW's Connecticut history is as vibrant as anywhere else in the nation, despite being "lost" and ignored. It was in Bridgeport where Elizabeth Gurley Flynn organized her first strike at the age of sixteen. It was Waterbury where Joe Ettor was arrested and ejected from the state for addressing Italian workers. In Hartford, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, and James Connolly inspired thousands of workers to take charge of their own lives. Anarchist and IWW organizer Carlo Tresca was defended by a nascent ACLU and its leader Roger Nash Baldwin in Connecticut meeting halls.
Connecticut also produced exceptionally skilled and successful IWW organizers like Matilda Rabinowitz and Benjamin Legere, both of whom started here as young Wobblies and went on to spend their adult lives in the cause of labor.
The Wobblies' legacy is still alive and well, though not easily detected. If it is true that the CIO played the central role in organizing Connecticut workers in the 1930s and 1940s, it's also important to remember (as union activist and writer Len DeCaux pointed out) when CIO organizers "let down their hair, only the youngest had no background of Wobblie associations."
And as Connecticut historian Cecelia Bucki has written, one early IWW strike in Bridgeport had a lasting impact on that city's industrial and political power structures. The 1906 strike at
American Tube & Stamping company was considered a failure by some observers because workers rejected the Wobblies' radicalism. But, as Bucki states, "Far from being a repudiation of radicals, the strike actually established a strong radical presence in the Hungarian community" which later led to the remarkable electoral capture of City Hall by the Socialist Party.
Ever since the 1999 Battle in Seattle for global justice, young activists have shown us that "another world is possible." Their challenge is a renewal of the IWW's pledge to "build a new society within the shell of the old." There are the lessons we can still learn from the Wobblies.
[The IWW should not be spoken of only in the past tense. The Wobblies are still around, and have been organizing low-wage workers in all industries without interruption. They are smaller now, but just as feisty. Visit their website at IWW.org.]
Steve Thornton's book, A Shoeleather History of the Wobblies: Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Connecticut, can be purchased from his website, www.ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com. Read an excerpt inside, pp.4-5.
Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for 2014 from the LHA Board and Staff