New Essay Collection on History of Wobblies Offers Insights for Today’s Radicalized

Members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the Wobblies, gather together in a large crowd during a rally in Union Square, New York City, April 11, 1914. (Photo by Bain News Service/Interim Archives/Getty Images)Members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the Wobblies, gather together in a large crowd during a rally in Union Square, New York City, April 11, 1914. (Photo: Bain News Service / Interim Archives / Getty Images)

We are amidst a revival of scholarly but also popular discussion about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), its history, its international connections and its legacy. Kenyon Zimmer, author of an incisive monograph on American anarchism, Immigrants Against the State, now joins two other editors in a selection of essays entitled Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW (Pluto Press, 2017) — not quite so universal as the title might suggest, but usefully connected. Young people radicalized by many factors but seeing electoral politics as limited in value are likely to find the insights here helpful.

The IWW, founded in Chicago in 1905 and diminished by 1925 into an extended propaganda circle, did not really cross boundaries easily. Better said: Its ideas became part of the common currency of direct action afar during the 1910s, and in some places well after. Wobblies in any organizational sense had a sporadic presence outside the US, mainly in Australia, Canada (mostly under the title “One Big Union” and separated formally from the IWW), South Africa and among the activists who crossed back and forth from Mexico to the US. Odd mixtures of Wobblyism and De Leonism (expunged along with its leader from the IWW in 1907) deeply influenced syndicalist leaders for a historical moment in Scotland and Ireland. And so on. In some intriguing cases, the impact was heaviest on an individual who, in his or her own way, tried to apply Wobbly principals to the immediate situation, occasionally with significant if not long-lasting effect.

To put it this way, narrowing the definition would be unfair. The pamphlets and songs (available from early on in the Little Red Song Book) transcended boundaries, and even in stiff competition with other syndicalist visions, sustained an utterly unique aura of their own, thanks in no small part to the biting satire of the humor. Other versions of what may be called Wobblyism offered militancy, but not always encompassing the most depressed layers of working people. Indeed, French syndicalism, among others, depended upon the most skilled and politically committed artisans, in fairly exclusionary craft unions. In the US, where the division between the best- and least-paid workers across the industrialized world was most obvious, Wobblies found themselves battling against the craft union American Federation of Labor (AFL), and thus by necessity encompassing the poorest of the poor, including women workers and workers of color. This working vision, along with “Father Hagerty’s Wheel of Fortune,” the vision of a society with bosses and political parties abolished altogether, was articulated in a unique and stirring fashion, even if this revolution never happened, and if Wobblies at first mistook the Russian “Soviets” as kin.

Among the pieces here, Kenyon Zimmer revisits Immigrants Against the State by turning, this time to the Paterson, New Jersey, strike of 1913, actually led by the Detroit IWW, the De Leonite shadow faction that sought, for a while, to continue in its own way. What makes Zimmer so unique is his use of a variety of “foreign” language sources — not foreign at all to the large sections of the American working class (and left) who treated English as a second language. Italian Americans, whose Italian Socialist Federation considered itself an organ of the IWW rather than the Socialist Party, took their native anarchism right into the Wobs, building solidarity in familiar ways, and extending it to their home country, notably in defense of the Lawrence Textile Strike’s victims.

Were the Wobs really offering up French syndicalism in new clothes, as Dominique Pinsolle suggests in the second essay of the book? Not really. But the interchange on a variety of tactics or slogans, most especially “sabotage” (borrowed from the French “sabots,” wooden shoes), makes much sense, or at least it did for the likes of William D. Haywood, even when the Socialist Party leaders removed him from the National Executive Committee for the sin of endorsing the one tactic that might work for the unskilled, powerless worker. Haywood was no anarchist, but a socialist whose vision of building radical industrial unions had everything to do with his experience in the West and his shared vision with Eugene V. Debs.

And what about those forgotten immigrants to the US, like the political refugees from British India to the American West Coast? In the third essay of the book, Tariq Khan covers the Ghadar movement, which pushed its own nationalist issues mainly, but found allies in the Wobs, open to all, as did the Asian workers who had enough self-organization to reach out. Many more experiences of immigrant anarchists and syndicalists might have been covered. The Spanish-Cuban cigar workers of Ybor City, Florida, offer a case in point; they maintained their strength until the Communists replaced them in the 1920s. Likewise, more could be done on the cross-border Wobbly organizing in Mexico. A recent biography of Wobbly martyr Frank Little by a sympathetic collateral descendant, asks why he would describe himself as part Indian, and answers logically: It served the transracial aura of the IWW. This is surely a claim that no AFL unionist would make, or want, given the very aim of craft unionism to limit work-place competition.

The role of the Wobblies in South Africa, forecasting the Communist role in organizing Black miners, offers the most striking possible picture of the Wobbly racial egalitarianism. Lucien Van der Welt gives us a remarkable story, and if Mark Derby’s recuperation of the Wobs reaching out to Maori workers in New Zealand is perhaps more remarkable, it is because so little scholarship has been done in this area.

I am impressed by the pathos and by the research required for the life of Edith Frenette, by Heather Mayer’s essay in the book. A cook in lumber camps of British Columbia, Frenette crossed the border to take part in Wobbly free speech fights, got herself arrested for singing “The Red Flag” in Missoula, Montana, among other activities, and actually leading the Everett, Washington, free speech effort. She devoted earnest effort, in the later 1910s, to defending Wobblies facing long prison sentences. What happened to her after 1918? Mayer could find no record.

The case of James Connolly is more familiar and more influential, from Ireland to the US. (Small confession: I produced a James Connolly Comic, drawn by Tom Keough, for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rebellion). An autodidact intellectual like so many Wobs, Connolly wrote sophisticated analyses of imperialism, deep history of Irish life, and poems to be set to music. As Marjorie Murphy explains in Wobblies of the World, Connolly was also a mighty Irish labor leader, as he and James Larkin proved amidst the Dublin Lockout of 1913. It may be that the defeat hurled Connolly into the arms of the non-socialist Irish nationalists, or perhaps he was convinced that the moment for global rebellion had come and would not come again. His martyrdom is part of the legend of the Irish Republic, and lives today as the memory of few American radicals — sad to say.

Much more could be said about this volume, but perhaps it is best to close with the work of folksinger and scholar Bucky Halker, whose pursuit of Joe Hill’s songs reaching around the world offers convincing proof that the Wob message is universal, and the stamp of Wob greatness remains. Labor in the Trump era faces new challenges, a rapidly-changing demographic alongside sometimes drastically worsening conditions. Only solidarity can overcome these obstacles, and solidarity is the lesson of the IWW.