- 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
The biggest trial of Wobblies on various counts of obstructing the war effort took place in federal district court in Chicago in the summer of 1918. Relentlessly the prosecutors drew around one hundred defendants a net of rumors and accusations charging them with conspiring to burn crops, drive spikes in logs, derail trains, dynamite factories. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (later to be famous as professional baseball’s “czar”) presided in shirt-sleeved informality over the hot courtroom as, day after day, government attorneys read into the record every savory piece of I.W.W. prose or verse from which such phrases as “direct action” and “class war” could be speared and held up for horrified scrutiny. The jury took less than an hour to consider thousands of pages of evidence and hundreds of separate alleged offenses, and returned against all but a handful of the defendants a predictable wartime verdict of “guilty” on all counts. The white-thatched Judge Landis handed out sentences running as high as twenty years, as if he were in magistrate’s court consigning the morning quota of drunks to thirty days each.
The 1918 federal trials (which were followed by similar episodes in a number of states that hastily enacted laws against “criminal syndicalism”) were a downward turning point for the I.W.W. In theory, the One Big Union was wholly responsive to its rank and file, and invulnerable to the destruction of its bureaucracy. (The fact was that it made valorous efforts to keep its officialdom humble. As general secretary-treasurer, Bill Haywood received thirty-five dollars a week—just twice what a field organizer took home.) But democratic enthusiasm could not override the fact that the veteran officers and keenest minds of the I.W.W. were behind bars, and their replacements were almost totally absorbed in legal maneuvers to get them out. A pathetic Wobbly fundraising poster compressed the truth into a single line under a picture of a face behind bars: “We are in here for you; you are out there for us.” In 1920 there might still have been fifty thousand on the I.W.W. rolls, but they were riding a rudderless craft.
Other troubles beset the One Big Union. The Communist party rose on the scene and sucked into its orbit some respected veterans, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (though she had left the I.W.W. in 1916) and William D. Haywood himself. Released from Leavenworth while his case was on appeal, Big Bill jumped bail and early in 1921 fled to the Soviet Union. Forgivably and understandably, perhaps, his courage had at last been shaken. He was fifty-one years old, seriously ill, and certain that he would die—with profit to no cause—if he had to spend any more time in jail. He was briefly publicized in Russia as a refugee from capitalism. He married a Russian woman, and for a time held a job as one of the managers of an industrial colony in the Kuznetsk Basin. But soon there was silence, and rumors of disillusionment. In May of 1928 he died. Half his ashes were sent to Chicago for burial. The other half lie under the Kremlin wall—like those of his old friend of Paterson days, John Reed (see “The Harvard Man in the Kremlin Wall” in the February, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE). By and large, however, Bolshevik politicians had as little appeal for old-time Wobblies as any other kind. (Yet in 1948 the leadership of what was left of the organization refused to sign Taft-Hartley non-Communist affidavits. No contract, and no deals with bourgeois governments. Principle was principle still.)
More cracks crisscrossed the surface of solidarity. Some of the more successful I.W.W. unions experienced a yearning for larger initiation fees, and for just a taste of the financial stability of the A.F.L. internationals—the stability which had never been a Wobbly strong point. They quarrelled with the General Executive Board. A few locals chafed under what they thought was too much centralization. And finally, in 1924, there was an open split and a secession of part of the organization, taking precious funds and property with it. The last great schism, in 1908, had freed the I.W.W. for vigorous growth. Now it was sixteen years later, and time and chance were playing cruel games.
Middle age was overtaking the young lions, dulling their teeth—especially those who, one by one, accepted individual offers of clemency and emerged from prison, blinking, to find a changed world. The harvest stiff no longer took the side-door Pullman. He was a “gas tramp” now, or a “flivver hobo,” riding his battered Model T to the job, and beyond the reach of the thousand-mile picket line. The logger, too, was apt to be a “home-guard,” living with his family and driving through the dawn hours to where the saws whined and the big ones toppled. The children of the sweated immigrants of Paterson and Lawrence were clutching their high school diplomas, forgetting their working-class background, becoming salesmen and stenographers. Even the worker who stayed in the mill or the mine was sometimes lulled into passivity by the squealing crystal set or the weekly dream-feast of the picture-show. The ferment in the unskilled labor pool was hissing out. A new society was being built; but Ford and the installment plan had more to do with it than the visionaries who had hotly conceived and lustily adopted the I.W.W. preamble of 1905.