Here Come The Wobblies!

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Here, in the mountains and forests, were men who needed protection even more than the unskilled rubber, textile, steel, and clothing workers receiving I.W.W. attention—men like the “timber beasts,” who worked in the freezing woods from dawn to dusk and then “retired” to vermin-ridden bunkhouses, without washing facilities, where they were stacked in double tiers like their own logs. The companies did not even furnish bedding, and a lumberjack between jobs was recognizable by his roll of blankets—his “bundle,” “bindle,” or “balloon”—slung on his back. The bindle stiff who “played the woods,” however, was only one member of an army of migrant workers, as many as a half million strong, who as the cycle of each year turned followed the harvests, the construction jobs, the logging operations, and the opening of new mines. Sometimes they got a spell of sea life in the forecastle of a merchant ship; often they wintered in the flophouses of Chicago or San Francisco; and not infrequently they spent the out-of-season months in jail on charges of vagrancy. The public mind blurred them together, and made no distinction among hoboes, bums, and tramps, assuming them all to be thieves, drunkards, and panhandlers. But the true migrant was none of these. He was a “working stiff,” emphasis on the first word, and thus ripe for the tidings of class war.

The I.W.W. reached him where he lived: in the hobo “jungles” outside the rail junction points, where he boiled stew in empty tin cans, slept on the ground come wind, come weather, and waited to hop a freight bound in any direction where jobs were rumored to be. The Wobblies sent in full-time organizers, dressed in the same caps and windbreakers, but with pockets full of red membership cards, dues books and stamps, subscription blanks, song sheets, pamphlets. These job delegates signed up their men around the campfires or in the boxcars (“side-door Pullmans” the migrants called them), mailed the money to headquarters, and then followed their recruits to the woods, or to the tents in the open fields where the harvest stiffs unrolled their bindles after twelve hours of work in hundred-degree heat without water, shade, or toilets. But there were some whom the organizers could not reach, and the I.W.W. sent them messages in the form of “stickerettes.” These “silent agitators” were illustrated slogans on label-sized pieces of gummed paper, many of them drawn by Ralph Chaplin. They sold for as little as a dollar a thousand, and Chaplin believed that in a few weeks a good “Wob” on the road could plaster them on “every son-of-a-bitch of a boxcar, watertank, pick handle and pitchfork” within a radius of hundreds of miles.

The stickers were simple and caught the eye. “What Time Is It? Time to Organize!” shouted a clock. “Solidarity Takes the Whole Works” explained a Bunyan-sized workingman with an armload of trains and factories. The three stars of the One Big Union (Organization, Education, Emancipation) winked bright red over a black and yellow earth. A “scissorbill”—a workingman without class loyalty—knelt on bony knees and snuffled to the sky, “Now I get me up to work, I pray the Lord I may not shirk.” But the most fateful stickers to appear between 1915 and 1917, as the nation moved toward war, were those that urged: “ SLOW DOWN. The hours are long, the pay is small, so take your time and buck them all”; and those on which appeared two portentous symbols: the wooden shoe of sabotage, and the black cat, which, as everybody knew, meant trouble.

A tough problem for the I.W.W. was how to achieve “direct action” in the migrant workers’ spread-eagle world. A factory or a mine could be struck. But how could the I.W.W.’s farmhands’ union, the Agricultural Workers’ Organization, “strike” a thousand square miles of wheatfield divided among hundreds of farmer-employers? How could the Forest and Lumber Workers’ Industrial Union tie up a logging operation spread among dozens of camps separated by lonely miles?

The answer was, as the Wobblies put it, “to bring the strike to the job,” or, more bluntly, sabotage. To the average American, sabotage conjured up nightmares of violence to property: barns blazing in the night, crowbars twisting the steel and wire guts out of a machine. The word itself suggested a European tradition of radical workers’ dropping their sabots , or wooden shoes, into the works. But the I.W.W. leaders insisted that they had something less destructive in mind—merely the slowdown, the “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency,” or, in working-stiff terms, “poor pay, poor work.” To “put on the wooden shoe,” or to “turn loose the black kitty” or “sab-cat,” meant only to misplace and misfile order slips, to “forget” to oil motors, to “accidentally” let furnaces go out. Or simply to dawdle on the job and let fruit rot on the ground or let threshing or logging machinery with steam up stand idle while farmers and foremen fumed.