On June 27th 1905, a couple of hundred anarchists, socialists and vagabond activists gathered in a hall in Chicago for what would later become known as the First Annual Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Like activists in China, Peru, North Africa and elsewhere today they would find themselves targeted by the authorities, imprisoned and even murdered for the crime of disagreeing with those in power. They spoke out. They organised their dissent. Sometimes they withheld their labour. Often they demanded radical change. They united beneath a simple slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all”… a worldview simply incompatible with free-market capitalism; a philosophy which happily externalises all manner of injury in the pursuit of personal gain; a philosophy that dismisses collective responsibility unless there’s a profit to be made commodifying it.
And the IWW – who became known as the Wobblies, a great name though one with a disputed etymology – understood this. They did not merely demand better wages and conditions (though many did demand these things as a first step), they ultimately sought an end to all wages. In the eyes of the IWW, employment by a “boss” was wage-slavery. Many of the Wobblies certainly agitated for higher pay, but always with an understanding that longer chains and bigger cages were not enough. Even today the IWW – and those organisations that trace their lineage back to the various splits in the organisation – are active in setting up workers co-ops and boycotting corporations that trample on the rights of workers. The ultimate goal is an end to bosses and an end to the alienation of wage-slavery… the dignity of a system that allows the worker to own their own labour and to invest it in an enterprise of which they own an equal share with every other participant.
Although the collectivist revolution they sought never materialised, the IWW’s rich history is littered with success stories. At the height of the organisation it had about a hundred thousand members and it’s said it could reliably call upon the support of a quarter million more. But it was not only the sheer weight of numbers that slowly won many of the rights enjoyed by workers in our liberal democracies today, though that certainly played a big part. It was also the organisational structure which permitted workers to discuss aims, to strategise and to distribute information via union newspapers. In the first decade of its existence the IWW organised literally hundreds of strikes and carried out a wide variety of other direct actions (blockading rail-lines, “free speech fights”, holding sit-ins in local government buildings and even sabotage). That this was all happening under the umbrella of a large international organisation meant successful tactics could quickly be passed on to others while unsuccessful ones dropped.
In 1915 the IWW won major improvements in the working conditions of migratory farm labourers. The 1917 IWW Lumber Strike was directly responsible for the 8-hour work day (ignore corporate revisionism that claims credit for this by suggesting it was a coalition of company bosses who magnanimously “gifted” the 8-hour work day to their employees… essentially the opposite of the truth). And all the while, at the heart of the IWW’s philosophy was the notion of equal rights with regards to race and sex. The Wobblies demanded – though the battle continues to this day – uniform pay and conditions for men and women irregardless of their race. It was a radical position in a deeply segregated United States and one which arguably limited their appeal and influence in some areas.
Throughout this period the IWW and its members came under violent attack from several directions. The US government – from the federal right down to the county level – framed several prominent members of the IWW for crimes they clearly did not commit. At the same time the authorities conspicuously ignored the actions of the private militias set up by company bosses to break strikes, even when such tactics resulted in grievous injury and death. The state sanctioned the murder of workers by wealthy capitalists in an attempt to suppress the unions. And it also turned a blind eye to the vigilante groups that attacked striking workers (particularly migratory workers and non-whites). IWW members were beaten, shot, falsely imprisoned and lynched, all with the tacit approval of the United States government. No one sane would suggest that the government of the time was “the same as” the Syrian or Chinese governments today. But their willingness to adopt many of the same brutal tactics is certainly revealing.
The IWW’s popularity was dealt a blow by the outbreak of World War I. An overtly pacifist organisation, it saw the war – quite correctly – as a squabble between imperial powers in which millions of young men were being sent to die futile deaths and inflict futile deaths on others. In the years immediately preceding their entry into the war, the Wobblies had been actively campaigning against US involvement. When some members bravely insisted on continuing this campaign even after the US declaration of war, it became easy for the government to paint the IWW as unpatriotic. A prominent leader of the organisation was lynched in August 1917 and it sparked a wave of such attacks. Hundreds of members were rounded up and thrown into prison. In just one particularly brutal example, an IWW member was removed from his jail cell by his guards and thrown to a mob that had gathered at the prison gate. He was beaten to a pulp, castrated and lynched before his body was shot dozens of times. The County Coroner listed the cause of death as “suicide”.
The name of that IWW member was Wesley Everest. And although the list of prominent Wobblies is long and impressive, his is the only name I will mention. I will deliberately refrain from naming others lest the cult of the individual obscure what was always a mass movement… a purposefully communal endeavour. For those who are interested, it is easy enough to track down the names of the more famous members, many of whom will be known to you and who have earned their own pages here at On This Deity. But for now let’s not get bogged down with the life-story of any one person and instead concentrate on the collective action of the people.
Although the IWW recovered somewhat during the 1920s and 30s, continuing to organise workers and successfully (occasionally) winning greater rights and better conditions for those in low paid jobs, the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s decimated the IWW leadership. By that point, however, the Wobblies could quite legitimately claim to have done more for the benefit of the American worker than any other single group. And the success spread beyond the United States thanks to an international membership that influenced labour movements throughout Europe and Australia. At the same time, there’s little doubt that the original founders are unlikely to have viewed the organisation as an unqualified success. Yes, the IWW won some important battles, they secured some important rights and improved the lot of millions of workers. But they did not win the war… not the war they were fighting.
And perhaps it was a war they were always destined to lose. Though it must be said that the constant splitting and in-fighting didn’t improve their chances. The first major split in the IWW came barely a year after it was formed. And the second major split just two years after that. At the time the internal dialogue within the Wobblies was between the anarcho-synidcalists and the Marxists. The latter saw the struggle for better pay and conditions as an essential first step towards worker control over the means of production. First, they believed, it was necessary to raise the workers out of abject poverty – to free them from the day to day struggle for basic survival. Only then would they be capable of coherent political action against the system.
The anarchists, however, saw this approach as self-defeating. The very thing that would drive the workers to overthrow the capitalist system was their oppression, their poverty and the fact that they were downtrodden. Give them longer chains and bigger cages and many of them might just forget the chains and cages were there at all. While others might be quite happy with wage-slavery so long as the wages were good enough.
Although my own natural sympathies lie with the anarchist position, I see both sides of that argument. Who could be so lacking in compassion as to dismiss the tangible gains made by the IWW during the first decades it was active? Who would reject the 8-hour day and insist that manual labourers should be forced to work 14 hours for a pittance or lose their jobs? How can we criticise the sweatshop conditions that compel criticism and opposition from Chinese labour activists at a real risk to their lives, without being thankful that we have – largely – eliminated such conditions from our own society?
But at the same time, might we not concede that the anarchists had a point? That the anti-capitalist revolution never arrived in large part because the capitalist elite permitted just enough wealth to trickle down, providing the masses with a modicum of comfort and the illusion of security? That the fragmentation of western capitalism occurring now is precisely because we’ve been happy with our bigger cages, even if their construction has been carried out at the expense of the planet we live on?
[Written by Jim Bliss]