Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Wobblies Are Back and They Are in Lexington

So rumor has it that the IWW is trying to unionize AP graders. They want us to ask for things like more money (apparently there has not been a pay raise in the last 8 years - has ETS not heard about INFLATION?!?), private hotel rooms, better food, etc.

I thought they would be asking for us to overthrow the system and try to implement socialism, but apparently they've adapted their ideology since the Great War. I also haven't heard any talks about bombs or the use of violence to attain graders demands. I guess tactics have had to change too.


Anonymous said...

Hi, i hope that i can respond with a few observations.

Frequently the mere threat of a union organizing effort can get the attention of management, and result in definite (although perhaps temporary) gains. Not sure if that's what is happening here, but it may be so. In some cases where interested working folk have responded, such tactics have led to full-scale organizing efforts.

There's a simple reason that the IWW is the choice of individuals who are looking to improve conditions and/or explore the level of discontent (as opposed to initiating more structured campaigns). The IWW is a rank and file organization that depends upon individual members to carry the weight of the organizing effort, and to make decisions relating to tactics and demands. The idea is that the working people know their own circumstances best, and don't need to depend upon some union officers to tell them what to do. Individual groups of workers who identify themselves as IWW can typically exercise a great deal of autonomy. Therefore some IWW organizing efforts are sustained and consistent; others are sporadic and ephemeral. Other unions rely upon dedicated staff and top-down decision-making when they organize. With the IWW, groups of workers are free to essentially organize themselves, while seeking support and expertise from the union. In some cases, workers have successfully organized themselves, and the IWW at large doesn't even know about the effort until the new group applies for a charter.

The IWW hasn't been "socialist" since 1908 when the organization split, and the political types (such as Daniel DeLeon and Gene Debs) left the organization. The IWW is more accurately described as industrial unionist, and some compare that philosophy to syndicalism rather than socialism.

The animating ideology of the IWW hasn't changed significantly since 1908, although tactics (such as whether to sign contracts) have changed over time. As for "bombs or the use of violence," i think those methods were more the province of the anarchists. The IWW routinely preached against violence, and except for the flying squadrons that patrolled the railroads and a few clear examples which could be described as self-defense, few Wobblies have ever taken up arms.

Members of the organization were much more often the victims of violence. The IWW was known to tell members, "if there is to be violence, let the other side start it." When Colorado coal miners were enraged that six of their number had been killed by machine gun fire in 1927, the IWW insisted on a non-violent response with Joe Hill's words, "don't mourn, organize."

But from about 1912, when Bill Haywood went to France and saw an example of railroad workers intentionally sending trains to the wrong destinations in a successful bid for recognition, the IWW did advocate "sabotage," which they defined as a withdrawal of efficiency. Thus (according to this definition), any strike by workers is an act of sabotage against the profitability of the company. The more common interpretation has often been used to villify the organization, but there are numerous examples of IWW leaders telling workers not to destroy their own livelihoods.

The IWW's tactics have sometimes been confrontational, but they've more often been creative. The rhetoric is frequently colorful, but Wobblies, who have arguably been persecuted as much as any union in the country, know very well the risks of overreaching.

I note that you're a Zane Gray fan. Sorry to say, Zane Gray's account of the Wobblies in /The Desert of Wheat/ was apocryphal. It would have been totally out of character for Wobblies to have taken the German side during the First World War. They were, in fact, opposed to all war, for they believed that wars are often conducted for corporate profits, and it is mostly working people who are drafted (or persuaded to enlist) that end up dying on the battlefields.

Who are Wobblies today? Baristas, factory workers, shipyard workers, television studio workers, teachers, professors, students, truck and taxi drivers, printshop workers, even an exotic dancer or two. Unlike with other unions, membership doesn't depend upon your job. We're a small union, but we're diverse and growing in many different parts of the world.

best wishes,
a Denver Wobbly

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr History:

For a supposed "historian" and academic, you sure don't check your facts very carefully, as your snarky dismissal of the IWW reveals. Please take the time to check the facts before you make flippant remarks that are based on anti-IWW propaganda published by the employing class rather than actual history.

Here is a link to our website's "myth busting" section to get you started:

Read especially #s 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, and 12.