The Wobblies

by Richard Kovac

The Wobblies or I.W.W. (International Workers of the World) still exist. They believed in "one new big union for all of the workers" and industry wide general strikes. They are now a tiny remnant, but in l912-13 Paterson, NJ, and in Lawrence, MA, strikes, the Wobblies were the prevailing force among workers seeking to better conditions - which included twelve year olds working up to their knees in dye vats for long hours and low pay in the silk industry.

The 1912 strike in Paterson was led by Rudolph Katz of the Chicago branch of the IWW. The next even larger strike was led by the Detroit faction of Carlo Tresca, Big Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She fled to the Soviet Union to escape prosecution here for subversive activities, and died there. Let me make it clear that the IWW was not party line Marxist, but they did want to bring about an industrial revolution because the working conditions then were abominable.

The AF of L, more moderate and not Marxist, tried to organize Paterson as well. They were booed. The woman giving their presentation literally wrapped herself in a nearby American flag. They played the patriotism card, but nevertheless were rebuffed by the silk workers.

The IWW held out for a settlement for all silk mills. One of the plant owners, Henry Dougherty, made an offer to settle in his one company at IWW wages and conditions. The IWW rejected his offer, because they demanded an industry wide settlement. This was poor strategy.

IWW did not get what it wanted either. There was no revolution (only a few instances and they were stomped on by police) because a revolution from below has little or no chance to succeed when the other side has the money and the mass of the weapons.

The more moderate approach of the AF of L, founded by cigar maker Samuel Gompers, proved far more effective in organizing workers. It later merged with the CIO and became the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations). It remains a force, but the economy has shifted from "industrial" to "service" economies after an earlier pattern seen in Great Britain.

The unions have not made much of an attempt to organize service workers (or Mexico), because that was not the original imagined role for them. The decline in the power of the unions is mostly due to lack of vision.

The Catholic Church issued two encyclicals, (De Rerum Novarum and Quadregesioimo Anno) which treated labor issues, and gave its nod or approval to the union movement. It established centers for union discussions in many places.

If the IWW was too radical, it need not have been so ruthlessly suppressed. It was a voluntary association of folk who were merely expressing their own view, but they were scanned decisively, as was the Black Panther party many years later. This is a repeat of the past, which may affect our actions in the future.

As Joe Hill said, "Don't mourn (when I die), organize!"

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