One hundred years ago this June, a group of labor radicals formed the Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies, as they were nicknamed, preached a dynamic economic vision for the American working class, with leaders like “Big” Bill Haywood.Under the slogan of ‘One Big Union,’ IWW membership exploded from 200 to over 100,000 by 1917. Though the group quickly ebbed in the 1920’s due to government repression and infighting, the IWW’s philosophical and cultural heritage remains painfully relevant today.We explored the Wobbly legacy with Joyce Kornbluh, a labor historian who taught at the University of Michigan for decades. She wrote Rebel Voices, one of the first anthologies of IWW history, songs and art. Kornbluh will speak in Hartford this Sunday, part of a weekend series of events marking the IWW’s 100th anniversary.She tells ctnewsjunkie.com about the days when Wobbly organizers rode on trains as hobos, organized massive strikes and free speech actions, and sometimes sacrificed their lives for the cause. And their work isn’t done yet.
For folks who know nothing about the IWW, why was the idea of ‘One Big Union’ so explosive?It was very threatening to the business interests in the first part of the 20th century to have a militant union group advocating for workers across industrial lines to organize together, to include in their membership and activities women and minorities, and immigrants…The slogans of the IWW- calling for worker militancy, calling for worker unitedness- were quite dramatically vivid and threatening to the power structure, which is of course what the IWW wanted to do. They wanted to rock the boat…and also to be part of the decision making in this country, have workers be part of the decision making. At that particular time, the workers in mass production industries, workers in service industries, [and] agricultural workers were not organized. And the IWW did make inroads into organizing agricultural workers, lumber workers, indeed there was even a small union of household employees organized by the IWW…The IWW…was one of the first union movements in this country to really understand popular culture and how to communicate its messages through song, through cartoons, through poetry, through little stickers somewhat equivalent to bumper stickers we use now. But they had these very small 2-by-3 stickers in red, black and white that were put on fences and door frames and wherever they could put these little stickers that communicated the message of One Big Union. So I think the powers that be, the politicains, chambers of commerce- certainly the business bureaus- were alarmed at this show of power from people they had viewed as being uneducated, inarticulate and powerless. The IWW I think contributed a great deal to some of this folklore. You’ve heard of Joe Hill?Yes, he was executed [by Utah authorities for allegedly murdering a grocer, though many believe he was framed; a campaign to exonerate him even included President Woodrow Wilson].Yes, but not only Joe Hill. Joe Hill was just one of a number of IWW members who wrote songs, who wrote parodies, who took the ongoing institutions of society and satirized them. Satirized the church, satirized big business, satirized the politicians and Wall Street. So the IWW contributed a tremendous amount to folklore…The IWW really pioneered a number of tactics…They did not originate the concept of the general strike- that originated in Europe- but they really brought it to this country. And there were several times where there were general strikes. There were roving picket lines where people linking arms would rove in and out of stores on the main street of a town where an industry was under strike. There were caravans of people who went to help during strikes. Certainly [with] free speech rights, the IWW contributed a tremendous amount to civil liberties. In fact, the ACLU in a lot of ways was a response to some of the mass arrests and what happened to prisoners as a result of a whole spate of free speech fights that took place from about 1908 onwards, where IWW members would mount soapboxes on street corners…They gathered the crowd around them, they talked on a soapbox on the corner, and very often they were arrested and somebody else would jump on top of that soapbox and continue speaking until really hundreds of people were arrested in these free speech fights.So then it would become so burdensome for the authorities to deal with.The jails would be jammed. This happened in many of the towns in the West…I’d like to ask you a little bit more about the songs and the way that the IWW conveyed their messages. You talk about the songs, the decals, the drawings, and that they had this mystique with different martyrs. It sounds like they were kind of hip, that these guys could project this image of being cutting edge and vibrant. Is that accurate?I would think so…I think this is why their message, as well as their image and their historical continuity appeals to some young people today. During the 1960’s there was a lot of interest in the IWW. My book came out in 1963, and that was one of the first of a number of books that followed on the IWW…A lot of student activists in the 1960’s became interested in the IWW and there was really a renaissance in its music as well as in its message, its art, cartoons, caricatures.They’re a little more romantic than your average trade union.Well, I would say they’re not romantic. I would say they’re very penetrating, that they used humor in a very sardonic way, and I think very insightful ways. and you might say they were perhaps more idealistic and much more interested in…the rise of the working class rather than just business unionism. That was part of their message that was also threatening, that broader interest in developing a new society. As one of their slogans said, ‘We will build a new society within the shell of the old.’…Even the term ‘working class’ I think must have been very threatening to some people in the United States, since in our country we tend to deny class differences. I was pleased to see that the New York Times recently has done a whole series about class issues in the United States and the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States.If Bill Haywood were surveying the American labor scene today, and the economic situation, what do you think he would say?I think he would bemoan what has happened to the labor movement in our country today. Part of the reason why the labor movement is in such rough shape at this time, I think only 13 percent of all workers are organized, is because of some of the antiunion laws that started with Nixon, with Reagan, some of our presidential administrations, with some of the union busting techniques, consultants, and of course with the out sourcing of so many of our jobs from the United States to other countries… By and large the laws in this country are stacked against union expansion and we’re going to have to change that. And I think Bill Haywood would be smart enough to realize that. He probably still would advocate for his form of union militancy, talking about working class issues, not pretending that all workers are middle class. I think Bill Haywood would still look at the problems we have for immigrant workers, and would still look at the appallingly high rate of unemployment for African-Americans, especially African-American young boys. and he would look at the lack of coverage of health insurance and affordable housing.Do you think that the idea of One Big Union can ever reattain the appeal that it had at its founding, in this type of economy?No, I don’t. And I think that even at that time the concept of one big union was more of a- how should i say- a goal rather than an institutional realty. I think that there needs to be of course some kind of national union movement, but I think that in reality the United States is made up of many different cultures, regions- we’re talking about a very heterogeneous continent, huge geography and undergoing many dramatic changes…I think that we need to have a global unionization movement, because I think that workers in this country need to know workers that those workers that are taking their jobs in other countries around the world also have decent health insurance and salaries and health and safety conditions on their jobs, and are not working 12-14 hours a day forced overtime. In today’s economy when you talk about in these other countries, the biggest reason why the corporations are moving the jobs there is because those workers aren’t organized, there’s not the same kind of labor protections, not the same kind of environmental protections, so it’s much more profitable for the corporations to do that. If international organizing really starts and you start to see it in some of these countries, especially someplace like China which has such an oppressive regime, do you think we’ll see history repeating itse
lf in terms of that kind of repression that the IWW faced here?We may. We may. And that would be a tragedy that we have not learned from the past, that we have not learned from history. We may see that…lives of union organizers are threatened just the way that China, under various repressive regimes, took the lives of students…[But] that’s what the IWW was really doing [in the United States]. This may sound romantic to you, but I think they were the true patriots. I think that they had a vision of democracy and I think they were attempting to have this country live up to that vision of democracy.They also believed in workers owning the means of production.Yes.Which many folks in this country would say isn’t patriotism, its communism.(laughs) Right. However I’ve spent a lot of time researching Sweden and there are a lot of worker-owned enterprises in a number of Scandinavian countries. Those are not communist regimes. How do they work?Well, I think that would be a huge other topic! There is a huge literature in the United States on worker owned businesses. There are organizations- one in Somerville, Massachusetts- that deal with worker owned businesses here in the United States. But you need to have laws that support these kind of undertakings. It’s not just a question of the will, or even the money. There’s a lot of legal aspects to this, so i think we need to have a national administration and a national culture that would facilitate the movement for worker owned businesses. Do you have any kind of hope for…international [union] organizing?Yes, I do. I’m not sure that I’ll see it in my lifetime. I’m 77, but i’m hoping that even in my lifetime I begin to see democratic unions in Asia, in Latin America, in Mexico. We’re beginning the see the beginnings in Mexico of some kinds of union activity, some of the unions are company unions, but some of them are managed by the workers and I think until we have those kinds of developments around the world. And by the way, the IWW was calling for that. They were calling for workers of the world unite, and that was very prescient, realizing that workers in these other countries had to have higher standards in their workplaces so that there would be the equivalency, so that us workers would have that security, that their jobs would not be pulled out from under them because their companies were hiring workers at one-tenth the salary and very few benefits that the unions negotiated for them over the years. So I think that calling for workers of the world to be unionized in 1905 is a message that we need to have today as we understand what’s happening in the global economy. I wanted to ask you about the war [in Iraq] in this way- there’s people within the labor movement now that are trying very hard to get the different unions to take a more active role against the war and put their political muscle against the war, but in reading up on the IWW, when it came to World War I, they didn’t take an official position.Actually they were against the war and many of the IWW members went to jail.Did they take an official position against it?I’m not sure whether it was official, but they were certainly against the war, and there were many statements in IWW publications. I don’t know whether there was an actual convention or resolution… They were against the war because they would be killing workers in other countries, who they felt were being manipulated to go to war by business interests. What’s the status of [the IWW] these days?I’m not quite sure. I think its a small group, I know they were trying to do some organizing. I think they were trying to organize in Starbucks across the country. There are little pockets of organizations. I’m glad they have kept alive. I’m glad they’ve kept alive because they’ve kept alive a message and I think we need that kind of message in our country. They’ve kept alive a vision of a democratic society. They’ve kept alive goals of equality, of social and economic equality against exploitation…I’m glad we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the IWW because it is a reminder that this movement, this message has been around for 100 years in this country. We haven’t solved all the problems. We still have many of the old problems and a host of new problems. But its good to know that there have been people before us, to whom we owe a debt and who articulated these messages, and who in some cases gave their lives and were in prison for years. Who used their lives not just for their own improvement and their own economic improvement, but for the improvement of their brother and sister workers. It’s inspiring and important to have that kind of history reminding us of what we still need to do in this country.