Fellow Worker : Barry Pateman reviews Cole, Struthers, and Zimmer, Wobblies of the World

Formed in June 1905 at a Chicago conference, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) immediately set out to break up the existing American labour landscape. In his opening address to the conference William D. ‘Big Bill’ Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners stated that ‘We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have as its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism’. The Preamble to the IWW made it clear that ‘The working class and the employing class have nothing in common’. As well as taking aim at American capitalism the conference also attacked what delegates saw as the inadequacy of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the principal American labour organization of the period. As a craft-based organisation, the AFL, by design or default, excluded the majority of American workers from its ranks – women, those who were unskilled, migrant workers, and, of course, recent immigrants. The IWW saw its mission as to go out and recruit those workers into the struggle against capitalism and to avoid all forms of conciliation with their employers. In essence this meant organising in areas that had never been organised and often working with ethnic groups in whom the AFL appeared to have no interest and whose presence in America some of its membership actively opposed.[1]

After a stuttering start the IWW grew into an impressive and, it might be argued, rather prescient organisation. It soon showed itself capable of remarkable creativity in its use of tactics. Banned from speaking at street corners in a city it would create a battle over free speech. Every time an IWW member was arrested for speaking, another would take their place with the aim of flooding jails and jamming the legal system. It employed the use of song and cartoons to rouse members and mock opposition. It practiced sabotage in all its aspects while encouraging and supporting strike action whether organised by the IWW or not. IWW members (self styled ‘Wobblies’) embraced the idea of deliberately courting publicity and were not shy in extolling the organisation’s qualities in as many areas as they could. It operated from the bottom up and this autonomy enabled a speed of action that was rather unique in American labour history. We would be remiss, also, not to mention the personal bravery of some of the membership in the face of brutal and murderous attacks engineered by local employers, local and national media, and the American state. Underpinning all this was the almost conscious myth making about the organisation and its individuals that was created by members and supporters around campfires, on trains and boats, and in local halls. For some, the IWW existed as a mythical entity just as much as a real one.

It appears to have been a challenge for historians, and radicals for that matter, to research and write about the IWW. After an initial flurry of books about them it was not until the 1960s that historians made any real attempts to understand the organisation and its culture. Three major works attempted a general history and overview of the IWW, instigating a more contemporary analysis of its activities and ideology. Joyce Kornbluh’s Rebel Voices, a documentary-based history, showed evidence of wonderful research but concentrated only on English language sources.[2] Philip Foner’s history of the IWW is an infuriating read.[3] Foner couples some new research with a sloppy approach to facts and an overarching thesis in which he argues the IWW was a brave and bold precursor to the Communist Party (of which he was a member) that made essential errors because it was lacking the dose of Marxist-Leninism so necessary for a fighting union. Melvyn Dubovsky’s We Shall Be All attempts an organisational history of the IWW and covers many of its historical bases but is essentially a top down history (which in the case of the IWW leaves so much out) again relying on English language sources.[4] All three are worth reading, if only to understand the challenges the IWW presents for historians in attempting to capture its realities. The uninitiated reader might like to start with Fred Thomson’s The IWW: Its First Seventy Years which adopts a chronological approach to the organisation and is a reliable guide to its activities.[5]

Of course, there are other works. Abandoning an overall history many writers concentrated on key events in IWW history – Everett, Centralia, the great strikes at Lawrence and Paterson – but it is only in the last 30 years or so that we have been presented with a more complex and dynamic understanding of the IWW and some of its membership.[6] Much of this rich understanding has come about because of a growing awareness of the organisation’s international constituency. It is salutary to realise that although three of the IWW’s newspapers before World War One were in English, eleven were for readers who spoke other languages – Italian, Finnish, Swedish, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Yiddish, Lithuanian, Polish, Czech, and Portuguese. That alone gives us a sense of the rich cultural mix of the organisation as well as the difficulty one would face in writing about it without understanding this cultural mix. We have also been helped by excellent biographies of some IWW members and a ground-breaking book by Salvatore Salerno, which concentrated on the grassroots membership and portrayed the relationship between American workers and transnational comrades and the political ideas they often brought with them.[7] Of all the recent books on the IWW, Salerno’s was the most responsible for changing the way we look at the organization.

Alongside non-English newspapers and pamphlets, the concentration on more local histories of the organisation opened our eyes to the remarkable progress the IWW made between 1905 and 1917. The IWW’s 1905 constitution asserted ‘No working man or woman shall be excluded from membership in local unions because of creed or color’. In line with this approach, the IWW made sizeable progress in working with Japanese agricultural workers and fruit pickers in California. They worked with the interracial Brotherhood of Timber Workers in the American South as well as forming the Marine Transport Workers Local No 8 on the Philadelphia waterfront, which was a mix of African-American workers, Irish-American workers and recent European immigrants. The IWW also worked with Mexican copper miners and workers in the south western states. They played a key role in the strikes in the textile mills of Paterson and Lawrence where Italian immigrant women played a major role in organising and speaking. They agitated among the unemployed in New York City and founded the Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO) in April 1915 that brought thousands of itinerant rural workers into the IWW.  Countless other examples indicate the inclusiveness of the IWW both in recruiting membership and in its support of strike action by non-members.

When we write about the IWW in this context we need to emphasize that it is usually the Chicago IWW and not the Detroit IWW that we are writing about. The latter was expelled from the IWW in 1908 over the question of the usefulness of political action, with the Chicago IWW supporters arguing that there was no need for political action by workers to bring about a better world; rather, it would be economic action that would bring about a new world. It would be the task of workers themselves who would make this new world and no-one else. Such an approach led to writers agonising about whether the organisation was industrial unionist or syndicalist or not. One can’t help but feel that, because of what now seems a rather sterile debate, something of the IWW was lost, something that this recent volume edited by Peter Cole, David Struthers, and Kenyon Zimmer attempts to recover.

The name Industrial Workers of the World adopted at the founding conference was a carefully considered one. ‘The emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism’ would not take place only in America. It would take place throughout the world. At the conference, Lucy Parsons, wife of the legendary Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons, thought that the organisation should be the American Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World.[8] Wobblies Of The World: A Global History of the IWW uses that idea as a platform to ‘proudly proclaim itself the first-ever global history of the Industrial Workers of the World’. It begins with a most informative and helpful introduction, covering IWW history and historiography that is supplemented by 19 essays from different scholars examining the role of the IWW on the international stage. The book is divided into three sections: ‘Transnational Influences on the IWW’, ‘The IWW in the Wider World’, and ‘Beyond the Union: The IWW’s Influence and Legacies’.

The first section certainly adds to our understanding of the complexity of the IWW in America. Zimmer offers a detailed assessment of immigrant anarchist influences within the IWW and his piece is followed by a nuanced discussion from Dominique Pinsolle on how the IWW re-interpreted the concept of sabotage. Tony Khan discusses early 20th century IWW–South East Asia connections, which is an informative read and offers potential for further fascinating research. Struthers essay on interracial organising in the south west of America is full of precise detail that is certainly new to me and the essay by Bietio Alonso on Spanish Anarchism and IWW marine workers adds to our understanding of both of these groupings.

The second section offers information and assessments of the IWW in Mexico, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Kevan Antonio Aguilar’s essay on the IWW in Mexico opens up a whole new area of knowledge, while Mark Leier and Verity Burgmann add to their impressive body of work on the IWW in Canada and Australia respectively.[9] A detailed piece by Saku Pinta examines the relationship between Finnish Labour Radicals and the IWW in the woods of north west Canada. There are two essays on the IWW in New Zealand. Mark Derby’s fascinating essay on Percy Short is also a history of the IWW in New Zealand and Short’s attempts to circulate radical propaganda to Māori and Peter Clayton’s piece on Pat Hickey and the IWW is detailed and intriguing.[10] There is also a fascinating and thoughtful piece on the Marine Transport Workers and the Spanish Civil War by Mathew White. This section ends with a lovely biographical essay by Heather Mayer on Edith Frenette, an American wobbly born of Canadian parents, who was present at Everett in 1916 and had taken part in the free speech fight in Spokane, Washington during 1909.

The third section begins with Marjorie Murphy’s piece on the Dublin Lockout of 1913 that concentrates on the role of Jim Larkin in the dispute. It is followed by a fine essay on Tom Barker and revolutionary Europe by Paula de Angelis. Barker, who was English born, joined the IWW in New Zealand and led a life of constant political engagement. The piece by Johan Pries on P. J. Welinder opens doors into the relationship between IWW tactics and Swedish syndicalism during the nineteen twenties and thirties while Lucien van der Walt on the first wave of IWW activity in South Africa is of a standard that we have come to expect from this influential author. The volume ends with a lovely piece by Bucky Halker on the impact of Joe Hill’s songs around the world.

As one might expect in a collection of this size there is some disparity in quality among the essays. That said, all of them add to our understanding of this complex organisation and its people. It is an important collection that enriches what we know and, just as importantly, offers new areas for research and reflection. It is clear that there is much more to be done in locating and understanding the IWW on the global stage, but this book is essential reading if we are to start that process.

Whatever its failures, the IWW worked across cultures, in original and exciting ways. In an era where sexism was prevalent, it supported working class women in their various struggles, both economic and personal. It helped people look at the world and themselves in a different manner. Of course they made mistakes, of course they were contradictory at times both in words and actions, but they bought a sense of fun, of life and, above all, possibility with them. The world could be ours. It really could be. Because of this they suffered brutal repression and saw some of their members murdered or emotionally broken, all tragic testament as to the American authorities’ hatred and fear of the group. IWW members spoke a similar language to the people they worked with and supported. It was a language based on undergoing similar emotional and physical experiences that generated empathy with others. It might be that organisations such as the IWW are impossible to replicate today, but they are important to learn about if only for their abilities to speak with people and not at them. This is something that, the Left today, for whatever reasons, appears to have difficulty replicating. However we want to define its ideology this quality might be the IWW’s finest and most potent legacy. These essays, then, remind us of that legacy and implicitly suggests areas where we can further explore it.
Barry Pateman


1, See, for example, the career of Olav Tveitmoe, editor of Organized Labor, newspaper of the San Francisco Building Trades Council. General Secretary of the Council from 1901–1922, Tveitmoe and other San Francisco AFL members played leading roles in the Asian Exclusion League.

2, Joyce Kornbluh, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965).

3, Phillip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 4: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905–1917 (New York: International Publishers, 1965).

4, Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1969).

5, Fred Thompson and Patrick Murfin, The IWW: Its First 70 Years (Chicago: IWW, 1975).

6, For a detailed bibliography of writing on the IWW see Steve Kellerman (compiler), A Century of Writing on the IWW, 1905–2005, An Annotated Bibliography (Boston: Boston General Membership Branch, IWW, 2005).

7, See, for example, Franklin Rosemont’s monumental study of Joe Hill: Joe Hill: The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2003). It is both a biography of Hill and a study of the IWW as an organization of cultural opposition. Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989).

8, Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (New York: Labor New Company, 1905), 295 & 299.

9, Mark Leier, Where the Fraser River Flows: The IWW in British Columbia (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1990); Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

10, Those interested in the IWW in New Zealand might want to look at Peter Steiner, Industrial Unionism: The History of the IWW in Aotearoa (Wellington, Rebel Press, 2007) and Jared Davidson, Remains to be Seen (Wellington, Rebel Press, 2011). Both are out of print but are available on line at libcom.org.

Peter Cole, David Struthers & Kenyon Zimmer (eds) Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW. London: Pluto Press, 2017, 312 pp

This review appears in Counterfutures 7 https://counterfutures.nz/subscriptions.html

From: Counterfutures 7.