Here Come The Wobblies!

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I.W.W. headquarters was vague about where the limits to direct action lay. Nor did it help matters when it printed dim, oracular pronouncements like Bill Haywood’s “Sabotage means to push back, pull out or break off the fangs of Capitalism.” Such phrases were enough to frighten not only the capitalists, but the Socialists, who in their 1912 convention denied the red sacraments to any who advocated “crime, sabotage or other methods of violence as a weapon of the working class to aid in its emancipation.” (The next year, the Socialists fired Haywood from the party’s executive board, completing the divorce between the Wobblies and politics.) Still the I.W.W. leaders in the field pushed ahead with their tactics. The Agricultural Workers, to strengthen the threat of mass quittings by harvest hands, organized a “thousand-mile picket line” of tough Wobblies who worked their way through freight trains in the farm belt, signing up new members and unceremoniously dumping off any “scissorbills” or “wicks” who refused a red card. The Lumber Workers forced the camp owners to furnish clean bedding by encouraging thousands of lumberjacks to celebrate May Day, 1918, by soaking their bindles with kerosene and making huge bonfires of them.

Potentially such tactics were loaded with danger, but from 1913 to 1919 they worked. Ralph Chaplin estimated that in early spring of 1917, when the A.W.O. was signing up members at the rate of 5,000 a month, the going wage in the grain belt had jumped from two dollars for a twelve-to-sixteen-hour day to five dollars for a ten-hour day. Two years later northwestern loggers were averaging twenty-five to fifty dollars a month plus board. These facts meant more to the average reader of Solidarity and the Industrial Worker than I.W.W. theories about the overthrow of capitalism. If he thought about the shape of society after the final general strike, it was only in the vague way of a church deacon who knew there was a celestial crown reserved for him, but did not trouble his mind about it from day to day. Yet the very success of the organization anywhere stirred not only the anger of its enemies but the fears of unsophisticated Americans who were ready to believe that the Wobblies were already putting the torch to the foundations of government and justice. With war hysteria actively feeding the fires of public hostility, the I.W.W. became the victim of new and spectacular persecutions.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the blood of martyrs would splash the pages of the IW.W.’s book of chronicles. The mine owners, lumber-camp operators, and ranchers whom the Wobblies fought were themselves hard, resourceful men who had mastered a demanding environment. They knew a challenge when they saw one, and the West, in 1915, was not too far past Indian, stagecoach, and vigilante days. Sheriffs and their deputies were ready to use any method to rid their communities of “agitators”—especially those described in the press as “America’s cancer sore.” The Los Angeles Times, for example, said that

A vast number of I.W.W.’s are non-producers. I.W.W. stands for I won’t work, and I want whisky.… The average Wobbly, it must be remembered, is a sort of half wild animal. He lives on the road, cooks his food in rusty tin cans … and sleeps in “jungles,” barns, outhouses, freight cars … They are all in all a lot of homeless men wandering about the country without fixed destination or purpose, other than destruction.

“When a Wobbly comes to town,” one sheriff told a visitor, “I just knock him over the head with a night stick and throw him in the river. When he comes up he beats it out of town.” Lawmen furnished similar treatment to any hobo or “undesirable” stranger, particularly if he showed a tendency to complain about local working conditions or if, after April 6, 1917, he did not glow with the proper enthusiasm for the war to end wars. Hundreds of suspected and genuine Wobblies were jailed, beaten, shot, and tortured between 1914 and 1919, but some names and episodes earned, by excess of horror or myth-creating power, a special framing among dark memories.

There was the case of Joe Hill. He was the most prolific of the Wobbly bards; the dozens of numbers he composed while drifting from job to job after his emigration from Sweden to America (where his name transformed itself from Haaglund into Hillstrom and then into plain Hill) had done much to make the I.W.W. a singing movement. His songs had, a recent Wobbly folklorist has written, “tough, humorous, skeptical words which raked American morality over the coals.” They were known and sung wherever Wobblies fought cops and bosses.