One night a few years ago I showed a 2-for-1 coupon for a local pan-Asian restaurant to my son. I wanted to know if he had visited the restaurant. He is a pescatarian, and places like this noodle restaurant are right up his alley. “Yeah, I’ve been there–many times,” he said. “It’s good. Our local chapter of the Wobblies meets there.”
Dad’s jaw dropped.
I wasn’t surprised that he would be associated with something like the Wobblies (Last time I checked he was still a Marxist.) I was shocked that the Wobblies were even around!
A week or so later I asked one of the officers of my local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organization if he knew the Wobblies (or the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW) were still around. He said yes, with a cynical chuckle. All I had to do was look online. The IWW has a presence on the web, but unlike popular political organizations like my DSA or progressive political parties like the Party for Socialism & Liberation and the Socialist Alternative party, the Wobblies don’t get a lot of coverage in the alternative press. Their history, however, is more vibrant than any other progressive organization in America.
Established in in 1905, by William D. Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, the great Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party, and Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party, the IWW was comprised mostly of unskilled farm workers, miners, and loggers–many of these people immigrants. Unlike other unions, the IWW welcomed all working people–immigrants, minorities, women, and the unemployed. They advocated the overthrow of capitalism, placing workers in control of their own work lives. The IWW used walk-out and sit-down strikes, boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of direct action to achieve their goals.
This excellent interview Arvind Dilawar did in Jacobin with the coeditor of a new anthology, Wobblies of the World. leaves out the IWW’s current activities and focuses on its significant past. This history of the organization is fascinating and–to a socialist like me–ultimately frustrating. This book is now on my shortlist along with Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World Edited by Paul M. Buhle and Nicole Schulman.
True to its name, the Industrial Workers of the World spanned the globe — an international history that has long been forgotten. IWW supporters in the early twentieth century. Even Americans familiar with labor history might be surprised by the slogan of the Congress of South African Trade Unions: “An injury to one is an…