Here Come The Wobblies!

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There was some fight left in the old outfit. It could run a free-speech fight in San Pedro in 1923, a coal strike in Colorado in 1927–28. But it was dwindling and aging. When the Depression came, labor’s dynamism was reawakened by hardship. The C.I.O. was created, and fought its battles under the pennons of “industrial unionism,” the heart of the Wobbly plan for organizing the army of production. The C.I.O. used singing picket lines, too, and sit-down strikes—techniques pioneered by such men as Haywood and Vincent St. John when labor’s new leaders were in knickers. The old-timers who had known Big Bill and The Saint could only look on from the sidelines as the younger generation took over. Moreover, the success of organizing drives in the thirties, and the programs of the New Deal, vastly improved the lot of millions of working people. The agony that had nourished the I.W.W.’s revolutionary temper was now abating. Ironically, the very success of labor in uplifting itself through collective bargaining and politics drove one more nail into the I.W.W.’s coffin.

But “coffin” is perhaps the wrong word. Like Joe Hill, the I.W.W. never died. In its offices scattered across the country, old-timers still sit and smoke under pictures of Frank Little and Wesley Everest, or leaf through copies of the Industrial Worker like the great readers they always were. They do not give up; they expect that history will knock some sense into the workers soon, and that then the cry of “One Union, One Label, One Enemy” will rise again from thousands of throats. But meanwhile, their offices are, in the words of a recent observer, haunted halls, “full of memories and empty of men.”

By contrast, the steel and glass office buildings of the bigtime A.F.L.-C.I.O. unions are alive with the ring of telephones, the hum of presses, the clatter of typewriters, and the clicking of secretaries’ heels hurrying through the doors behind which sit organized labor’s well-dressed statisticians, economists, lawyers, accountants, editors, co-ordinators, and educators. They have given much to their workers, these unions —good wages, decent hours, vacations, benefits, pensions, insurance. But they may be incapable of duplicating two gifts that the I.W.W. gave its apostles, its knights, its lovers—gifts that shine through a pair of stories. One is of the sheriff who shouted to a group of Wobblies, “Who’s yer leader?” and got back a bellowed answer, “We don’t got no leader, we’re all leaders.” The other is a recollection by an unidentified witness at the Chicago trial:

Well, they grabbed us. And the deputy says, “Are you a member of the I.W.W.?” I says, “Yes,” so he asked me for my card, and I gave it to him, and he tore it up. He tore up the other cards that the fellow members along with me had. So this fellow member says, “There is no use tearing that card up. We can get duplicates.” “Well,” the deputy says, “We can tear the duplicates too.” And this fellow worker says, he says, “Yes, but you can’t tear it out of my heart.”