Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What Really Happened to the Wobblies

The Wobblies are back.  Many young radicals find the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the most congenial available platform on which to stand in trying to change the world.

This effort has been handicapped by the lack of a hard-headed history of the IWW in its initial incarnation, from 1905 to just after World War I.  The existing literature, for example Franklin Rosemont’s splendid book on Joe Hill, is strong on movement culture and atmosphere.   It is weak on why the organization went to pieces in the early 1920s.

Eric Chester’s new book, The Wobblies in their Heyday:  The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era, fills this gap.  It is indispensable reading for Wobblies and labor historians. One way to summarize what is between these covers is to say that Chester spells out three tragic mistakes made by the old IWW that the reinvented organization must do its best to avoid.

Macho Posturing

Labor organizing flourished during World War I because of the government’s need for a variety of raw materials.  Among these were food, timber, and copper.  Wobbly organizers made dramatic headway in all three industries.  At its peak in August 1917 the IWW had a membership of more than 150,000.

Nine months later, Chester writes, “the union was in total disarray, forced to devote most of its time and resources to raising funds for attorneys and bail bonds.”

This sad state of affairs was, of course, partly the result of a calculated decision by the federal government to destroy the IWW.  But only partly.

According to Chester another cause of the government’s successful suppression of the Wobblies was that during and after the Wheatlands strike in California hop fields in 1913 some Wobblies threatened to “burn California’s agricultural fields if two leaders of the strike were not released from jail.”

For years, Wobbly leaders had insisted that sabotage could force employers to make concessions, Chester writes.  But what Chester terms “nebulous calls for arson” and “macho bravado” only stiffened the determination of California authorities not to modify jail sentences for Wobbly leaders Ford and Suhr.

Chester finds that there is no credible evidence that any fields were, in fact, burned.  But after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, this extravagant rhetoric calling for the destruction of crops apparently helped to convince President Wilson to initiate a systematic and coordinated campaign to suppress the Wobblies.

Efforts to Avoid Repression by Discontinuing Discussion of the War and the Draft

International solidarity and militant opposition to war and the draft were central tenets of the IWW.  Wobblies who had enrolled in the British Army were expelled from the union.  At the union’s tenth general convention in November 1915, the delegates adopted a resolution calling for a “General Strike in all industries” should the United States enter the war.

What actually happened was that general secretary-treasurer Bill Haywood and a majority of IWW leaders agreed that the union should desist from any discussion of the war or the draft, in the vain hope that this policy would persuade the federal government to refrain from targeting the union for repression.  At the same time, the great majority of rank-and-file members, with support of a few leaders such as Frank Little, insisted that the IWW should be at the forefront of the opposition to the war.

Self-evidently, what Chester terms the IWW’s “diffidence” was the very opposite of Eugene Debs’ defiant opposition to the war.  When Wobbly activists “flooded IWW offices with requests for help and pleas for a collective response to the draft,” the usual response was that what to do was up to each individual member.  Haywood, Chester writes, wobblies“consistently sought to steer the union away from any involvement in the draft resistance movement.” Debs notwithstanding, however, the national leadership of the Socialist Party like the national leadership of the IWW “scrambled to avoid any confrontation with federal authorities.”  Radical activists from both organizations formed ad hoc alliances cutting across organizational boundaries.

The IWW General Executive Board, meeting from June 29 to July 6, 1917, was unable to arrive at a decision about the war and conscription, and a committee including both Haywood and Little, tasked to draft a statement, likewise failed to do so.  In the end, Chester says, “the IWW sought to position itself as a purely economic organization concerned solely with short-run gains in wages and working conditions.”

Disunity Among IWW Prisoners Fostered by the Government

The reluctance of the Wobbly leadership to advocate resistance to the war and conscription carried over to a legalistic response when the government indicted IWW leaders.  Haywood urged all those named in the indictment to surrender voluntarily and to waive any objection to being extradited to Chicago. In the mass trial that followed, the defendants were represented by a very good trial lawyer who was also an enthusiastic supporter of the war and passed up the opportunity to make a closing statement to the jury.  Judge Landis’ superficial fairness deluded Wobs into hoping for a good outcome.

The jury took less than an hour to find all one hundred defendants guilty of all counts in the indictment.  Ninety-three received lengthy prison terms.  Judge Landis ordered that they be imprisoned in Leavenworth, described by Chester as ‘”a maximum-security penitentiary designed for hardened, violent criminals.”  Forty-six more defendants were found guilty after another mass conspiracy trial in Sacramento.

Thereafter, Chester writes, the “process of granting a commutation of sentence was manipulated during the administration of Warren Harding to divide and demoralize IWW prisoners.”  The ultimate result was “the disastrous split of 1924, leaving the union a shell of what it had been only seven years earlier.” Executive clemency, like that granted to Debs, was the only hope of the Wobblies in prison for release before the end of their long sentences.  President Harding rejected any thought of a general amnesty, obliging each prisoner to fill out the form requesting amnesty as an individual.  The application form for amnesty contained an implicit admission of guilt.  The newly-created ACLU supported this process.

Twenty-four IWW prisoners opted to submit a form requesting amnesty.  A substantial majority refused to plead for individual release.  More than seventy issued a statement in which they insisted that “all are innocent and all must receive the same consideration.”  The government insisted on a case-by-case approach   Fifty-two prisoners responded that they refused to accept the president’s division of the Sacramento prisoners, still alleged to have burned fields, from the Chicago prisoners.  Moreover they considered it a “base act” to “sign individual applications and leave the Attorney General’s office to select which of our number should remain in prison and which should go free.”

Initially, the IWW supported those prisoners who refused to seek their freedom individually.  Those who had submitted personal requests for presidential clemency were expelled from the union. In June 1923, the government once again dangled before desperate men the prospect of release, now available for those individual prisoners promising to remain “law-abiding and loyal to the Government.”  This time a substantial majority of the remaining prisoners accepted Harding’s offer, and IWW headquarters, in what Chester calls “a sweeping reversal,” gave its approval.

Eleven men at Leavenworth declined this latest government inducement.  In addition, those who were tried in California did not receive the same offer.

In December 1923 the remaining IWW prisoners at Leavenworth including twenty-two who had been convicted in Sacramento were released unconditionally.  The damage had been done.  Those who had held out the longest launched a campaign within the IWW to expel those who had supported a form of conditional release.  There were accusations against anyone who had allegedly proved himself “a scab and a rat.”  When a convention convened in 1924 both sides claimed the headquarters office and went to court.  An organization consisting of the few hundred members who had supported the consistent rejection of all government offers “faded into oblivion by 1931.”

Conclusion

It is not the intent of brother Chester’s book, or of this review, to trash the IWW. This review has dealt with only about half of the material in the book, for example passing by the story of Wobbly organizing in copper, both at Butte, Montana and Bisbee, Arizona. Moreover, any one who lived through the disintegration of SDS, SNCC and the Black Panthers is familiar with tragedies like those described here.  The heroism of members of all three groups who were martyrs, such as Frank Little, Fred Hampton, and the Mississippi Three (Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner), remains.  The vision of a qualitatively different society, as the Zapatistas say “un otro mundo,” remains also.

What it seems to me we must soberly consider is what practices we can adopt to forestall disintegration when different members of a group make different choices.  Hardened secular radicals though we may be, we can learn something from King Lear’s words to his daughter Cordelia:  “When you ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask of you forgiveness.”

Staughton  Lynd  is an American conscientious objector, Quaker, peace activist and civil rights activist, tax resister, historian, professor, author and lawyer. Staughton Lynd’s most recent book is From Here to There: the Staughton Lynd Reader.

 

More articles by:

Staughton Lynd is a historian, attorney, long-time activist and author of many books and articles. He can be reached at salynd@aol.com.

October 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Middle East, Not Russia, Will Prove Trump’s Downfall
Ipek S. Burnett
The Assault on The New Colossus: Trump’s Threat to Close the U.S.-Mexican Border
Mary Troy Johnston
The War on Terror is the Reign of Terror
Maximilian Werner
The Rhetoric and Reality of Death by Grizzly
David Macaray
Teamsters, Hells Angels, and Self-Determination
Jeffrey Sommers
“No People, Big Problem”: Democracy and Its Discontents In Latvia
Dean Baker
Looking for the Next Crisis: the Not Very Scary World of CLOs
Binoy Kampmark
Leaking for Change: ASIO, Jakarta, and Australia’s Jerusalem Problem
Chris Wright
The Necessity of “Lesser-Evil” Voting
Muhammad Othman
Daunting Challenge for Activists: The Cook Customer “Connection”
Don Fitz
A Debate for Auditor: What the Papers Wouldn’t Say
October 22, 2018
Henry Giroux
Neoliberalism in the Age of Pedagogical Terrorism
Melvin Goodman
Washington’s Latest Cold War Maneuver: Pulling Out of the INF
David Mattson
Basket of Deplorables Revisited: Grizzly Bears at the Mercy of Wyoming
Michelle Renee Matisons
Hurricane War Zone Further Immiserates Florida Panhandle, Panama City
Tom Gill
A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It
Suyapa Portillo Villeda
An Illegitimate, US-Backed Regime is Fueling the Honduran Refugee Crisis
Christopher Brauchli
The Liars’ Bench
Gary Leupp
Will Trump Split the World by Endorsing a Bold-Faced Lie?
Michael Howard
The New York Times’ Animal Cruelty Fetish
Alice Slater
Time Out for Nukes!
Geoff Dutton
Yes, Virginia, There are Conspiracies—I Think
Daniel Warner
Davos in the Desert: To Attend or Not, That is Not the Question
Priti Gulati Cox – Stan Cox
Mothers of Exiles: For Many, the Child-Separation Ordeal May Never End
Manuel E. Yepe
Pence v. China: Cold War 2.0 May Have Just Begun
Raouf Halaby
Of Pith Helmets and Sartorial Colonialism
Dan Carey
Aspirational Goals  
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail