- Historic Sites
Here Come The Wobblies!
To the hard-bitten laborers of the I.W.W., the union was a home, a church, and a holy crusade.
June 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 4
For over two months, something akin to social revolution went on in Lawrence. A strike committee of fifty-six members, representing all nationalities, filled days and nights with meetings and parades. Haywood stood out like a giant. He hurdled the linguistic barrier by speeches partly in sign language (waving fingers to show the weakness of separate craft unions; balled-up fist to demonstrate solidarity), visited workers’ homes, and won the women’s hearts by joshing the children or smacking his lips over shashlik or spaghetti. He also shrewdly exploited the publicity that bathed Lawrence, which was near the nation’s journalistic capitals. Demonstrations were called with an eye not only to working-class morale but to public opinion. It was an education for many Americans to read about “ignorant, foreign” mill girls carrying signs that said: “We Want Bread And Roses, Too.”
The employers played into Haywood’s hands. National Guardsmen were called out. Police arrested more than three hundred workers and, in a climax of stupidity, clubbed a group of mothers and children preparing to leave town by railroad for foster homes. In defiance of the evidence, Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, another Italian organizer, were arrested as accessories in the shooting of a woman striker. Authorities held them for seven months before a trial. When it came, it not only let the two men go free but gave Giovannitti a chance to spellbind jury and reporters with an oration on behalf of “this mighty army of the working class of the world, which … is striving towards the destined goal, which is the emancipation of human kind, which is the establishment of love and brotherhood and justice for every man and every woman in this earth.”
Long before that speech, in March of 1912, the bosses had given up and agreed to the strikers’ terms. It was the I.W.W.’s finest hour up to then. Flushed with success, the One Big Union next answered the call of silk workers at Paterson, New Jersey, to lead them in a strike that began in February, 1913. The pattern of Lawrence seemed at first to be repeating. There were nearly fifteen hundred arrests, and in addition police and private detectives killed two workers by random gunfire. One of these, Valentino Modesto, was given a funeral at which twenty thousand workers filed by to drop red carnations on the coffin. But after five months even relief funds and singing rallies could not prevail over hunger. The strike was broken.
Not, however, before it produced a unique project and a strange alliance. One of the reporters who came to Paterson on an April day was John Reed—talented, charming, Harvard ’10—who was enjoying life to the hilt in the Bohemian surroundings of Greenwich Village, then in its heyday. When Reed stopped to talk to a striker, a Paterson policeman on the lookout for “agitators” hustled him off to jail. There he stayed for four days, sharing smokes and food with the strikers and amiably teaching them college fight songs and French ballads in return for instruction in the arts of survival in prison. On his release he became an enthusiastic supporter of the embattled workers and brought such friends as Mabel Dodge, Hutchins Hapgood, Walter Lippmann, Lincoln Steffens, and others to hear Haywood and other Wobbly leaders speak.
Between the individualistic rebelliousness of the young artists and writers escaping their bourgeois backgrounds and the hard-shelled but dream-drenched radicalism of the I.W.W. leaders, there was instinctive connection. Reed conceived the idea of a giant fundraising pageant to present the strikers’ case. On June 7, thousands of silk workers came into New York by special train and ferry and marched to Madison Square Garden. There they watched hundreds of fellow strikers re-enact the walkout, the shooting of Modesto, his funeral, and the mass meetings that followed. Staged by Reed’s Harvard friend Robert Edmund Jones against a backdrop created by the artist John Sloan, the pageant was described by Outlook as having “a directness, an intensity, and a power seldom seen on the professional stage.” Since it ran for only one night, it failed to earn any money beyond expenses, despite a full house. Yet as a moment of convergence in the currents of radicalism vitalizing American life and letters in the last days of prewar innocence, it has a historic place of its own.
The Lawrence and Paterson affairs were only forays, however. The I.W.W. ran strikes and kept footholds in the East—the dockworkers of Philadelphia were firmly organized in the I.W.W.-affiliated Marine Transport Workers Union, for example—but it lacked staying power in the settled industrial areas. As it moved into its peak years, the future of the One Big Union was in the West, where its message and tactics were suited to the style of migrant workers, and to the violent tempo of what Elizabeth Flynn recalled as “a wild and rugged country where both nature and greed snuffed out human life.”