Friday, September 4, 2009

When Working Class Heroes Were Something To Be: Celebrating the IWW on Labor Day

By Michael K. Smith

One hundred and four years ago Big Bill Haywood lumbered onto the platform at Brand’s Hall in Chicago, gaveled the podium with a piece of loose board, and called the assembly to order. Flanked by Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, and Lucy Parsons, he announced the birth of the Industrial Workers of the World, a union of native-born radicals whose capacity for militant solidarity was and remains unmatched in U.S. history.

Haywood told the two hundred plus delegates crammed into the hot, overcrowded hall that they were “the Continental Congress of the working class,” adding that, “The aims and objects of this organization should be to put the working class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters.” This ambition was to be fulfilled, not by violent seizure of state power, but by paralyzing big business with a series of general strikes, culminating in direct workers’ control of all industries.

After trekking to the graves of the 1886 Haymarket martyrs buried in Waldheim Cemetery, the I.W.W. delegates passed a resolution endorsing the Russian revolution then in progress. The preamble of their constitution announced a complete divorce from those who rented their labor: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few who make up the capitalist class have all the good things in life.” Therefore, conflict “must go on until all the toilers come together ... and take and hold that which they produce by their labor.”

Revolutionary in spirit, the “Wobblies” plunged directly into danger, demanding their due without haggling or hassle. They saw the profit system as one giant leach on the back of the working class, and insisted that compromise between owners and workers made no more sense than between a fungus and blighted potato. Determined to gain control of production, not negotiate the terms of subservience, they disdained gradualism as procrastination and disliked contracts for surrendering the right to strike at any time. They had even less regard for elections, agreeing with the socialist priest Father Hagerty that, “Dropping pieces of paper into a hole in a box never did achieve emancipation.”

Furthermore, where other unions shunned the lowly in preference for the “skilled,” the I.W.W. welcomed all races, privileged no one, included housework as a category of labor, and organized chambermaids and prostitutes. The answer to the owners’ One Big Trust, they declared, was One Big Union, which, they believed, was the prelude to a society where all would take their share of production and receive the necessities of life without resort to money.

Outdoor workers addicted to jokes and wild stories, the Wobblies thrived on disaster—and had to—as they were constantly attacked by police, shot by militia, beaten by scabs and vigilantes, and bitterly denounced as “the scum of the earth” by a business press dedicated to egging the bullies on. For Wobblies to speak their minds was itself a crime, and they were regularly dragged off soapboxes for reading seditious material—like the U.S. Constitution. Characterized by soaring idealism and police brutality, these “free speech fights,” as they came to be known, featured Wobblies dropping their tools for hundreds of miles around and walking or riding the rails to besiege the conflict zone. There they sang, shouted, lectured, and put on skits until the jails were swamped, a city’s treasury was drained, and the First Amendment was recognized. The San Diego Tribune supplied a standard press reaction in 1912: “Hanging is none too good for them and they would be much better dead; for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are waste material of creation and should be drained off in the sewer of oblivion there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.”

The most famous—and infamous—of Wobblies was the nationally renowned “Big Bill” Haywood. A child of the West, he was recognized on the streets of New York the way a star athlete might be today. Adored by women and instinctively obeyed by men, he was the most popular unionist in the country. Possessed of the manners of a gentleman, he packed a revolver, cried like a baby when reciting poetry, and delivered thunderous orations that ignited crowds of workers like a wick in a powder keg.

The brutality of wage work taught Haywood of injustice early and converted him to socialism. His first boss whipped him when he was only twelve, and the same year he witnessed a black man surrendered to the tender mercies of a lynch mob. Three years later he was a Nevada miner doing a “man’s work for a boy’s pay,” breaking the loneliness of Eagle Canyon reading Darwin, Marx, Burns, Voltaire, Byron, and Shakespeare. An older miner’s explanation of the class struggle capped his education, though the lesson didn’t sink in until the Haymarket anarchists were hung two years later.

In subsequent years Haywood saw scores of men poisoned at Utah’s Brooklyn lead mine, watched a friend’s head crushed against an air drill by a slab of falling rock, and had his own right hand smashed between a descending car and the side of the shaft at Iowa’s Silver City mine. “I’ve never read Marx’s Capital,” he liked to say, “but I have the marks of capital all over me.” Of the class subordination that made such disfigurement routine, he said this: “[The] barbarous gold barons do not find the gold, they do not mine the gold, they do not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belongs to them.”

After Haywood in the annals of great I.W.W. leaders came Vincent Saint John. Son of a pony express rider, he was also a delivery boy, a farm hand, a tinner, a printer, an upholsterer, a prospecter, a miner, and a militant unionist. In the 1890s he had ruined his lungs rescuing dozens of men from a smoke-filled mine in Telluride. In 1901, his men rewarded him with the presidency of the Telluride miners’ union at the tender age of 25. St. John promptly armed them with 250 rifles and 50,000 rounds of ammunition, which they used to ambush scabs from behind boulders and trees and shoot their way into possession of the mines.

His men nicknamed him “the Saint” to honor his incorruptibility, with one of them remembering later that “the air smelled clean in his presence.” On the other hand, the mine owners considered him a dynamiter, a gunman, and a dangerous agitator—and always kept a price on his head. With a graduate degree from the school of hard knocks St. John’s only creed was action.

In 1906, he found himself at the center of a brutal labor struggle in Goldfield, Nevada, the biggest, busiest, richest gold camp in the world. Crowded with dance halls, saloons, and gambling houses, it was a boom town swarming with claim jumpers, fortune hunters, and gamblers, all drawn to the gold like children to candy from every district in the West. St. John recruited 20,000 local workers for the I.W.W., including miners, dishwashers, engineers, stenographers, teamsters, clerks, newsboys, croupiers, maids, and prostitutes. He established the eight-hour day, guaranteed a minimum daily wage of $4.50 for all, and abolished begging for jobs. Any employer wishing to hire workers had to come and negotiate with the union committees. A company detective explained to the Rocky Mountain News that the I.W.W. leader posed an intolerable threat to civilized society wherever he went: “St. John has given the mine owners of Colorado more trouble in the past years than twenty other men up there. If left undisturbed, he would have the entire district organized in another year.”

But the Wobblies were really about the rank-and-file. Striking dramatically in the East for the first time, the I.W.W. led one of its most memorable strikes in Lawrence Massachusetts in 1912, where 20,000 textile workers without a dime to their names walked off the job in mid-winter to protest a cut in their already desperately low pay. Accusing their employers of wrecking families, they charged them with having “taken away our wives from the homes, our children ... from the playground, stolen out of schools and driven into the mills, where they were strapped to the machines, not only to force the fathers to compete, but that their young lives may be coined into dollars for a parasite class, that their very nerves, their laughter and joy denied, may be woven into cloth ... .” Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, a stockholder in the American Woolen Company, responded for the employers, explaining with admirable directness that, “Any man who pays more for labor than the lowest sum he can get men for is robbing his stockholders.”

The employers held all the cards, but the I.W.W.’s direct action proved to be trump. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the “Joan of Arc of Labor,” mesmerized the workers with her poignant explanations of class warfare. “Would you like to have nice clothes?” she rhetorically asked throngs of immigrant women. “Oh, yes!” they shouted in unison. “Well, you can’t have them,” she responded. “Your bosses’ daughters have those things!” Flynn then proceeded to ask the women why they had abandoned their native villages, their aged parents, and their children to come to an alien land, knowing full well they had come for a better life in the New World, free from tyranny and oppression, from landlords and military conscription, a life of work, savings, education for their children, and a chance to send for others.

“What freedom?” Flynn shouted, blasting their hopes with a harsh dose of class reality. She asked if they were free when they were herded into fortress-like New England mills, or when they were branded as inferiors and intruders, or when they were disdained as “Greenhorns” and “Hunkies.” She asked if they were free as wage slaves, hired and fired at the whim of a soulless company, paid unlivable wages for grueling hours tending a whizzing machine. She asked if they were free when they were clubbed, jailed, and shot down in the street, or when politicians ignored their suffering because they couldn’t vote.

Urging the women to neutralize the police and militia by putting down their tools, folding their arms, and bringing machinery, production, and profits to a halt, she poignantly inquired: “Can they weave cloth with soldiers’ bayonets or policemen’s clubs?” “Did they dig coal with bayonets in the miners’ strikes or make steel or run trains with bayonets?” Heads nodded and eyes welled up with tears as Flynn explained a magical new English word: “Solidarity.”

Labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, a friend of Flynn’s, never forgot what she witnessed: “She stirred them, lifted them up in her appeal for solidarity ... It was as though a spurt of flame had gone through the audience ... . Something beautiful and strong had swept through the people and welded them together, singing.”

For once, the mill owners’ bag of repressive tricks failed them. They banned fixed picket lines by local ordinance, but the strikers responded with a roving human chain that circulated the mills 24 hours a day, while supporting crowds surged through town singing labor songs and occupying department stores. They imported scabs, but the strikers denied them sleep, serenading them with mocking choirs that recorded their names and sent them back to their native lands to disgrace their families. Police, clerics, mill management, and city officials tried to proceed with business as usual, but found themselves loudly jeered at wherever they went. Soldiers discovered the backs of their uniforms being suddenly shredded by anonymous scissors emerging from beneath long cloaks. Female gangs stripped the proud forces of order bare, forcing them to flee in humiliation while the women hooted and pointed at their nakedness.

National publicity of a tactical blunder proved decisive. Besieged by police, militia, and cavalry, the workers arranged for host families in neighboring towns to temporarily care for their children. Margaret Sanger helped escort a flock of “pale, emaciated, dejected children” to the train station, all of them lacking even “a stitch of wool on their bodies.” Troopers surrounded the station and the police attacked, clubbing the children and tearing them away from their parents. Dozens of frantic women and kids were beaten, arrested, and thrown kicking and screaming into patrol wagons. Hauled away to jail, the parents were charged with “neglect” and improper guardianship, while their children were shipped off to the Lawrence Poor Farm. Livid strikers besieged the police station as shock reverberated throughout the country at the cowardly attack on children. The U.S. Bureau of Labor ordered an investigation and the House Committee on Rules opened hearings on the strike and the textile industry. Governor Foss of Massachusetts suddenly informed the mill owners that the state troopers had to be withdrawn.

The mill agents’ smug confidence that workers divided into countless different crafts and nationalities couldn’t possibly pull off a strike proved to be unfounded. With public support cratering and the loss of their tariff on imported woolens increasingly likely, the companies gave in, granting the strikers a raise, reduced hours, overtime pay, and a promise not to retaliate for the strike.

Crowds of exuberant workers celebrated their stunning victory, joyously singing the Internationale in two dozen languages.


Bird, Stewart with Dan Georgakas and Deborah Shaffer, Solidarity Forever - An Oral History of the I.W.W. (Lake View Press, 1985)

Camp, Helen C., Iron In Her Soul - Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left, (Washington State University Press, 1995)

Dubofsky, Melvyn, ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, (Manchester University Press, 1987)

-----We Shall Be All - A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (University of Illinois, 1988)

Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, The Rebel Girl, (International Publishers, 1955)

Foner, Philip S., ed., History of the Labor Movement in The United States, Volume 4, The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917, (International Publishers, 1965)

Garrison, Dee, Mary Heaton Vorse - The Life of an American Insurgent, (Temple University, 1989)

Lens, Sidney, The Labor Wars - From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns, (Anchor, 1973)

Milkman, Ruth, ed., Women, Work & Protest - A Century of U.S. Women’s Labor History (Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1985)

Renshaw, Patrick, The Wobblies - The Story of the I.W.W. and Syndicalism in the United States, (Ivan R. Dee, 1999)

Zinn, Howard, The Zinn Reader, (Seven Stories, 1997)

Michael K. Smith is the author of “Portraits of Empire,” “The Madness of King George (with Matt Wuerker), and “Rise To Empire” (forthcoming), all from Common Courage Press.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was curious if you ever thought of changing the layout of your blog?
Its very well written; I love what youve got to
say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
Youve got an awful lot of text for only having
one or two pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

My blog post: waist to hip ratio calculator