Here Come The Wobblies!

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The “new” I.W.W, soon had a nickname, as derisive and defiant as its songs: the Wobblies. It is not certain how the name was born, though a popular legend declares that a Chinese restaurant owner in the Northwest was persuaded to grubstake I.W.W. members drifting through his town. His identification test was a simple question, “Are you I.W.W.?” but it emerged in Cantonese-flavored English as “Ah loo eye wobble wobble?” Whatever its origin, the name was a badge of pride.

The I.W.W.’s new leadership provided halls in the towns where a wandering Wobbly could find a warm stove, a pot of coffee, a corner in which to spread a blanket for the night, and literature: the Industrial Worker and Solidarity, leaflets by St. John or Haywood, and books like Jack London’s The Iron Heel, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Laurence Gronlund’s Cooperative Commonwealth. All of them furnished material for arguments with the unorganized, and also such stuff as dreams were made on.

In 1909 the I.W.W. attracted national attention through the first of its spectacular clashes with civic authority. In Spokane a campaign was launched urging loggers to boycott the “job sharks,” employment agents who hired men for work in lumber and construction camps deep in the woods, charging them a fee for the “service.” Many a lumberjack who “bought a job” in this way was swindled—sent to a nonexistent camp or quickly fired by a foreman in cahoots with the shark to provide fast turnover and larger shared profits. At street meetings, the Wobblies preached direct hiring by the lumber companies. Spokane’s thirty-one agencies retaliated by getting the city council to ban such meetings. The Industrial Worker promptly declared November 2, 1909, Free Speech Day and urged every man in the vicinity to “fill the jails of Spokane.”

From hundreds of miles around, Wobblies poured in by boxcar, mounted soapboxes, and were immediately wrestled into patrol wagons. In a matter of weeks, the jail and a quickly converted schoolhouse were overflowing with five or six hundred prisoners. They came into court bloody from beatings; they were put to hard labor on bread and water, jammed into cells like sardines, and in the name of sanitation hosed with ice water and returned to unheated confinement. Three died of pneumonia. Among the prisoners was a darkhaired Irish girl from New York, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Eighteen years old and pregnant, she complicated her arrest by chaining herself to a lamp post. “Gurley,” a proletarian Joan of Arc, was lodged with a woman cellmate who kept receiving mysterious calls to the front office. It turned out that she was a prostitute, servicing customers provided by the sheriff “for good and valuable consideration.” This fact was trumpeted by the I.W.W. as soon as Gurley figured it out.

Fresh trainloads of Wobblies poured relentlessly into town, while those already in jail kept the night alive with selections from the Little Red Songbook roared at full volume, staged hunger strikes, refused to touch their hammers on the rock pile, and generally discomfited their captors. In March of 1910 the taxpayers of Spokane threw in the towel, released the prisoners, and restored the right of free speech to the I.W.W. Other free-speech fights in the next few years carried the Wobbly message throughout the Far West and helped in organizing new locals among the militant.

Two years after the end of the Spokane campaign, the I.W.W. made headlines in the East. In the textile-manufacturing town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, on January 11, 1912, more than 20,000 workers struck against a wage cut that took thirty cents—the price of three loaves of bread—out of pay envelopes averaging only six to eight dollars for a fifty-four-hour week. It was an unskilled work force that hit the bitter-cold streets, and a polyglot one, too. Some twenty-five nationalities, speaking forty-five languages or dialects, were represented, including French Canadians, Belgians, Poles, Italians, Syrians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Russians, and Turks.

There was only a small I.W.W. local in Lawrence, but the tactics of One Big Union under the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” had never been more appropriate. I.W.W. pamphlets and newspapers in several languages had already appeared. Now the leadership deployed its best veterans in the field—Haywood, William Trautmann, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—and in addition a big, jovial-looking Italian organizer of steelworkers, Joe Ettor, whose usual costume was a black shirt and a red tie.