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A hundred years of the Industrial Workers of the World
One big union

July 8, 2005 | Page 10

JESSE SHARKEY describes the legacy of the Industrial Workers of the World on its 100th anniversary.

MANY OF the difficulties and questions being faced by the union movement today were debated 100 years ago at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Like today, workers in 1905 faced massive economic transformations that were closing old industries, creating new ones and leaving millions behind in the process.

Workers also faced unorganized workplaces with aggressive employers exploiting divisions between native workers and immigrants. And also like today, the official trade union bureaucracy, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) seemed incapable of responding to the challenges of the day.

The AFL refused to organize workers on an industrial basis, insisting on maintaining the craft distinctions that marked earlier small workshop production. This meant that at a large factory there might be a dozen small craft unions, each with a few members, while the vast majority of the workforce was semi-skilled and in no union at all.

AFL unions were hostile to Blacks and immigrants. No wonder the IWW came to call them "the American Separation of Labor!"

The delegates of the IWW's founding convention included the best-known activists from the labor, socialist and anarchist movements. They aimed to create a vastly different kind of union--one that united workers of all races and skills into an industrial union, and, moreover, used class struggle tactics and militancy with an aim to "abolish the wage system!"

Joining together in "One Big Union," workers would lay the basis for running society themselves. In the West, the Wobblies, as IWW members came to be called, found a base among the for-hire farmhands, loggers and migrant construction workers.

IWW organizers were met with harsh repression. Outlawed from speaking on street corners, they were thrown in jail when they tried to organize in public. But the IWW refused to silenced, and they met this opposition with calls for support.

Often traveling by freight rail or foot from all over the country, hundreds of Wobblies and supporters flooded the streets and continued speaking, marching and organizing defense committees to free imprisoned agitators.

Such "Free Speech Fights" took place in 26 cities and towns and demonstrated the IWW's determination and flair for organizing. In Vancouver B.C., Wobblies threatened to charter a hot-air balloon and address the forbidden street corners by air.

Although they were met by vigilante violence, imprisonment and police frame-ups, the IWW prevailed in the Free Speech Fights, establishing the right to organize in the American heartland.

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THE BROTHERHOOD of Timber Workers (BTW) fight stands out as an example of the best of what the IWW brought to the labor movement. Organized among timber workers in the pine forests of the deep South, the BTW was comprised of about equal numbers of Blacks and whites.

Centered in Louisiana, the union immediately faced two massive obstacles--deeply entrenched segregation and an aggressive employer campaign to lock out any worker who joined the union and force him to sign a "yellow dog" contract (a contract in which the employee promises not to join a union.)

Over the course of several months, the workers held their ground, and they were able to return to work with a newly formed union. Soon after, the BTW sought to affiliate with the IWW, the only non-craft, multiracial union in the lumber industry.

Invited to address the BTW convention, IWW leader Bill Haywood noted that the Black and white delegates were meeting in separate halls. He dismissed explanations that segregation was the law: "You work in the same mills together, sometimes a Black man and a white man chop down the same tree together. You are meeting now in a convention to discuss the conditions under which you labor...why not be sensible about this and call the Negroes into this convention? If it is against the law, then this is one time when the law should be broken."

The BTW then fought a bitter strike against the Southern Lumber Operators Association in which Blacks, Mexicans and Indians brought to break the strike refused to scab. Though the strike was later broken through sheer repression, it set an example for multiracial organizing in the South.

The other primary impact of the IWW's work was felt in the immigrant industrial centers of the East, where immigrant workers toiled under extreme conditions--typically six days a week, nine or 10 hours a day in dangerous conditions for low wages. In addition, workers complained of the tyranny of the foreman, who could penalize, fine and even deny work to employees who fell out of his favor.

Workers also faced the speed-up--as employers increased the pace of the machines or the number of machines that each worker had to tend. Workers often lived in miserable tenements thrown up with the cheapest materials, crowded together and rented by the room for exorbitant fees.

The passage of a labor law in Massachusetts prohibiting women and children from working more than 54 hours in a week helped trigger a showdown in Lawrence. When workers discovered that their pay had been cut as their hours were reduced, Italian workers in the Washington Mills ran from room to room shutting down the factory.

By 11:30 January 12, 1912, the mill had been shut down and the famed Lawrence Textile strike was underway. Groups of workers fanned out around the city shutting down mills. By the next day, 20,000 of the city's 30,000 textile workers were on strike.

Strikers faced daunting hurdles. They spoke more than 40 languages, had no strike fund and faced hostility from the police, press, church and AFL unions. They contacted the IWW, who sent several organizers, including Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti who would lead the strike until their arrest.

Under the IWW lead, workers formed a strike committee, the democratic body that would make strike decisions between mass meetings, which were held weekly and translated into a dozen languages. They organized parades, where the slogan "Bread and Roses" appeared, signifying the demand for both food and respect.

One of the strikers' most sensational tactics involved strikers sending their children out of town. The spectacle of working-class mothers sending their hungry, ill-clothed children away for their own safety infuriated and embarrassed the town leaders and made the strike a national sensation.

Lawrence tried to defeat the strike through sheer repression--bringing 2,000 infantryman with bayonets, cavalry and a small army of hired gunmen and thugs. The city arrested Ettor and Giovannitti after a protest march turned deadly and arrested several more strike leaders after finding a cache of dynamite that had been planted by an agent of the mill owners.

But attempts to behead the strike failed. Three months after it had begun, the mill owners settled, marking the most significant strike victory in the textile industry up to that point and setting into motion an industry-wide increase in wages.

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AFTER THE Lawrence strike the IWW saw its influence in the American labor movement decline. In part, it was because it lost a bitter strike in Paterson, N.J. But there were more fundamental reasons at work.

On the one hand, the IWW inhabited an odd position, as a union that was also dedicated to spreading a revolutionary message. In practice, this meant that the IWW refused to sign contracts with employers, as a contract was the codified "labor peace" or the acceptance of a certain set of terms (wages, hours, etc.).

The IWW dedicated itself to the continual struggle against the wage system and maintained that strikes, job actions and other forms of class combat were the only means of enforcing working conditions. This proved a more effective philosophy in struggle than in the maintaining of an organization (as class struggle tends to ebb and flow) so that from a high of 16,000 members in Lawrence in 1912, immediately following the strike, the IWW claimed just 700 the following year.

The IWW also faced fierce repression of First World War-era red scare, seeing the arrest of 150 IWW leaders on treason charges. Around the country, IWW offices were smashed, armed vigilantes rounded up strikers, and publications were stopped. Although the IWW continued to exist after the war--and continues to this day--it never again occupied the same central place in the labor struggle.

Nevertheless, the IWW's influence on the American labor movement and the left can't be understated. It contributed a core of unionists who went on to join the Communist Party and lead the industrial struggles of the 1930s. The IWW reminds us that militancy and class struggle are the legacy of our union heritage.

As the words to "Solidarity Forever," the labor movement's national anthem written by IWW member Ralph Chaplin remind us, "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 a new world from the ashes of the old, for the union makes us strong!"

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