Tuesday, March 8, 2011


First of all thanks to my old friend "Alameda Tom" for prodding me to take this book down from the shelf and remind myself, and maybe others, of the grand tradition of not just unions in general, but specific union movements in our history that contributed to making life for workers in the USA a lot better in every way from what it was before unions came along (child labor, sixteen hour work days, inhumane and even deadly working conditions, etc. etc.).

Second of all, it couldn't come at a better time. The right has successfully framed any attempt to ask for any contribution from the rich that matches their share of the wealth of this country as "class warfare." First it was rightwing radio, then Fox television when it came along, and eventually more and more Republican politicians and leaders who began crying "class warfare"—even when all that was being asked was to return the tax rate for the wealthiest among us to what it had been under their supposed idol and model Ronald Reagan!

Well, this book and the organization it celebrates were not shy about calling the war against workers  exactly what it was (and still is, or has returned to): class warfare.

As you can see from the subtitle on the cover, REBEL VOICES was an anthology of writings from publications put out by the I.W.W.—the Industrial Workers of the World—as well as a scholarly introduction by the editor, Joyce L. Kornbluh, and articles and excerpts about the I.W.W., whose members were better known by their nickname: "The Wobblies."

This came out in 1968, at the height of yet another wave of leftist activism that influenced our country and society for the better, including better and more just working conditions. It's no accident that the book is dedicated "to the memory of  James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—Philadelphia, Mississippi, 1964"—because their murders by rightwing racists at that time and place galvanized many of us to become even more active than we already were in the Civil Rights movement, and in politics in general, to end once and for all the racism practiced "legally" in the South and the de facto in a lot of the North.

It is a tribute to the Wobblies that their organization, which still had a real presence in 1968 (I went to their Manhattan office, if I remember correctly, and met some oldtimers who were still around from earlier in the 20th Century, and also met some of them at rallies and demonstrations throughout the country back then) that their tactics and beliefs and example were inspirational in much of the political activism of the young in those days.

The idea behind the I.W.W. was pretty simple and became even simpler. At first, when they formed back in 1905, their intention was to organize all "industrial workers" because they saw that the old unions and guilds based on specific crafts were easily pitted against each other by the elites (like the owners) whose interests lay in keeping workers divided into factions and competitive groups to distract and weaken them from a unified front against those who would exploit them.

The founders of the I.W.W. also saw that most work had gone from craft trades to factory piecemeal industrial labor that demanded less skill but more drudgery. So their goal was to organize all "industrial workers" into one big union that couldn't be divided and conquered and could stand up for the rights of workers.

Pretty soon though, some of the original members saw that an even better idea was to include all workers, from farm hands and shoeshiners, to factory and construction workers, etc. This made them not only ahead of their time in terms of strengthening their power by inclusion of various trades and jobs, but it meant they also were accepting and even inviting toward any element of humanity, including those who up until then (and for too long after) were scorned by many in society and even in the labor movement—like "Negroes" and "immigrants" et. al.

There were arguments among those in the first wave of I.W.W. activism, and even some factionalism. But the message of "one big union" took hold because of its simplicity. Many of the early members believed that the only useful tactic that the owners of big industries would respond to was the strike. They dismissed bargaining as a waste of time because the owners—or as they more often put it, "the capitalists," (the Bolshevik Russian Revolution hadn't happened yet so there were no state Communist parties, but many of these people had read some Marx by the turn of the 20th Century‚ even so the Wobblies rejected "parties" whether Socialist, which did exist at the time, or "Communist" which were about to take hold in some other countries)—would concede the least they had to in any bargaining.

Their idea was to call for strikes where conditions were bad, but more importantly to organize all workers into one big union so that there would be one final and worldwide strike that would force the owners into finally giving workers power over the means of production so they could form a "commonwealth of workers" that would govern themselves and make sure everyone had a place at the table and enough to eat when they got there.

It was an extreme ideal, but such a simple program that it had enormous appeal, right up into and including on those of us active in the 1960s when there was a rebirth of the Wobbly spirit. The SDS idea of "participatory democracy"—which meant everyone had a say in governing that organization, could give their input, could "participate" in meetings (which often made them seem endless but also led to incredibly original ideas and suggestions finding their way into the reality of that organization's actions) was inspired in part by The Wobblies.

The idea was such a threat to the powers-that-be that they immediately set about decimating the leadership of the original I.W.W.—through false charges and imprisonment (and even executions, ala the famous Joe Hill) to rounding up and deporting any immigrants seen as advocating for workers rights, etc. The young J. Edgar Hoover was in charge of the concentration camps where many of those deportees (often legal U.S. citizens) were housed before being shipped overseas.

The I.W.W. saw many setbacks in terms of their numbers being diminished in these ways, but they never saw a dimunition in influence, if anything the opposite. Their ideal of "one big union" gave strength to all the smaller individual unions and helped fuel the resurgence of the radical spirit in the 1930s when the population of the poor grew so huge under the Great Depression.

The tactics the Wobblies invented, and their overriding belief that only strikes could give workers the power to challenge the abuse workers suffered at the hands of "the capitalists," inspired the sit down strikes that led to the auto industry giving its workers better wages and conditions which led to other unions winning workers' rights which led directly to the rise of the so-called "middle class" and its values and rewards in the 1950s and '60s (it wasn't a "middle class"—as I've said here often and learned from the old activists I met in the 1960s: "If the working class works and the ruling class rules, what does the middle class do? Middle?"—it was a better off working class, better off because of the gains made as a direct result of the kind of union organizing and striking and threats of strikes inspired by The Wobblies!).

A lot of the idealism of The Wobblies, as well as their egalitarian approach to work and life in general, has been lost in these more conservative times (at least in terms of the influence and power of big money). But it hopefully is having another resurgence, as we've seen in Wisconsin recently, and even in the string of strikes that occurred as soon as "the people" took Egypt back from their rulers. A classic case of class warfare, where everyone from intellectual workers to street sweepers joined together to oust a ruler and the abuses of working people his reign embodied (skimming off most of the nation's wealth for himself and his cronies while working people's lives became more and more constrained by stagnant wages and loss of basic freedoms).

As the first and last verses (with the chorus between) of the most famous Wobbly song had it (to the tune of "John Brown's Body"):

"When they Union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run,/There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun./Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?/But the Union makes us strong.

Solidarity forever!/Solidarity forever!/Solidarity forever!/For the Union makes us strong

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold;/Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold./We can bring to birth the new world from the ashes of the old,/For the union makes us strong."

[PS: the book illustrated at top is an oversized paperback ( 9"x6 1/2") while the songbook above is pocket size (5" 1/2"x 4")]


JIm said...
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JIm said...
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AlamedaTom said...

My deep thanks for the thought and effort you put into this post. It is one of your best posts and should be read by everyone. I can only imagine the content of the two posts you deleted, but I'll bet they are ironically illustrative of just how much of a threat the IWW philosophy is to the right wing, even today-- literally gets them foaming at the mouth, right?

~ Willy

Miles said...

Dad and Tom,

I love how this post came to life! How cool is it that you two share such a powerful history?

I'll have to pick up a used copy of the book from Amazon. They have CD's of the songs too.

Also, I'm glad I missed the deleted posts. I am blown away by how far people have allowed themselves to be misled. Big private money has more political power than public sector unions. If the unions are diminished, big money will have consolidated its power to a point that will be difficult to remedy. The worst part is that this sham is being sold as an increase in individual freedom when it is just the opposite. I don't know of too many individuals who can compete with the Koch bros.

Lally said...

Thanks Tom—and Miles! I'm happy to see Miles that you have the spirit and perspective of your parents and grandparents and ancestors who fought for better working conditions for working people and a more fair and just and equal society. None of us ever crossed a picket line, I'm proud to say, or shirked from paying our fair share whether it be union dues or taxes. It seems more often than not it's those greedy few among the wealthiest who most often do everything in their power and that their money can buy to avoid paying their fair share and to chisel the least among us out of their last dime in order to enrich themselves (best recent example is obviously the Koch brothers). And of course the pitiable working dupes who believe that that kind of selfish behavior among the rich who are that greedy is somehow best for them too (and notice that they never raised the flag of fiscal responsibility when Reagan created the then largest deficit in our history or when Bush/Cheney cut taxes for the wealthiest and then created the biggest deficit in history by fighting two prolonged wars without paying for them, nor gave (or give) credit to Clinton for erasing the historic Reagan deficit and creating a surplus, which proves their outcries have nothing to do with fiscal responsibility but only with maintaining or getting their fellow rightwing ideologues into power).