The Wobblies Still Live!: Life As A Wobbly
"By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old."
The IWW came into this world through the direct experiences of working class struggles. It did not come out of a book or anyone's 'ism. Rather the IWW was a coming together of working people who wanted to create an organization that would battle the employing class in the most effective way possible.
The basic idea is this: to organize working people into an industrial union structure, starting with each job.
All workers on each job belong to the same job organization, all workers in the same industry belong to the same industrial union, all workers within a region belong to the same Industrial District Council, all workers in related industries belong to the same industrial department, all workers within a country or group of countries belong to their own administrations, and all workers everywhere belong to the One Big Union which is the organized solidarity of the working class.
In building the industrial organization to struggle against the employing class on day-to-day issues, we Wobblies, in our view, will also be organizing a new society within the shell of the old. At the point when the organized power of the working class is greater than the organized power of the employing class the great social general strike will take place. This general strike would not be walking out of our workplaces, but rather seizing the means of production and laying off the employing class.
The IWW had a good deal of early success, partly because of its advanced views of the labor struggle, but also because it gave working people hope for a better day to come. The IWW reached beyond just job organization; it was an expression of the creativity of working people. Through art, songs, poetry, storytelling and writing, the IWW became an expression of real working class life. It never talked down to workers, as so many others do, it never was out to “save” the working class, but rather it was out to organize the working class to save itself. It uplifted working people and brought them together in the realization that working people were both a powerful economic force and a powerful creative force.
The IWW grew throughout the U.S. and in many other lands. It has had active organization and groups over the years in a number of different countries including Canada, Mexico, Chile, Guam, Australia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Greece, Germany, Austria, Sweden and South Africa. In time a combined force of employers and politicians grew to fear the IWW and that fear caused them to openly try to crush the IWW. In many states of the U.S. it became a crime just to be a member of the IWW. The federal government conducted raids against the IWW and held trials in which many of the members were sent to prison with long terms. Some Wobblies they even outright murdered. But this did not stop the IWW because the real power of the IWW is in its members and not in those that the government views as leaders. Although the repression along with internal disputes did decrease the membership of the union, it did not die.
The IWW continued to organize and in the '30s successfully organized a number of machine shops in Cleveland that remained IWW shops until 1950 when we lost much of our organization due to the new red scare and the Taft-Hartley Act. The '50s into the '60s were the lowest points in IWW history and the union only survived because of the great dedication of a hundred or more Wobblies who would not give up on the great cause of the working class.
With the great upheaval of the '60s some of the new radicals discovered that the IWW was still around and joined. As the failings of the New Left became more apparent even more young radicals joined the IWW. By the time I joined the IWW in 1970 the IWW had 24 groups in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Great Britain and Sweden. Two years later when I was first elected to the GEB, the IWW had increased to 41 groups.
After Frank Cedervall spoke in San Diego in January 1972, I left San Diego. I followed his tour up to the San Francisco Bay Area then headed off to Chicago. I spent the winter months in Chicago hanging around the union hall learning all that I could about the IWW. At that time, off to the side of the office was a very disorganized library. I spent many hours in there reading though all the old stuff. I may be one of the few people alive to have seen every issue of the IWW paper, the Industrial Worker.
The only real action I remember in that time was when a group of us Wobblies went and sat in at a restaurant in support of the workers there who were resisting abuse and great exploitation. Those workers had come up from southern Appalachia, along with many others, to find work in the northern cities. The bosses viewed them as easily exploitable. And if they resisted, the bosses would fire them and hire others. So we Wobblies sat in at the restaurant, just ordering coffee until the boss gave in to the workers.
When spring came, my wife's grandmother had gotten real sick so we decided to return to California, and since she was in Long Beach, that is where we went. There were a few Wobblies in Long Beach at that time who were working for the UFW. I received a phone call from one of them, telling me that a group of workers were to have a meeting about their bad working conditions and I was asked to come to that meeting. The two companies they worked for were Park International and International Wood Products which were both owned by the same boss.
At the meeting I sat there listening to them talk about their conditions and then they asked me what I thought. I told them that if they wanted to act on those conditions, they needed organization. I then outlined three possibilities. First, they could try to create their own union, but that would be hard and could distract them away from their other needs. Second, they could look into one of the AFL-CIO unions. Before I could speak more about that option, some of them spoke up and talked about their bad experiences with some of the AFL-CIO unions. I then told them about the IWW.
They decided to elect an organizing committee that would do two things before the next meeting. First the committee would take everyone's concerns and write up a list of demands. Then they would look into the three possibilities of organization and make a recommendation. I worked with the organizing committee on writing up the demands. I told them that I did not know what it would take to create their own union and that if they wanted to check out AFL-CIO unions that they needed to start calling them up. As for the IWW I explained to them in great detail the history and ideas of the IWW. I also gave them IWW literature to read. They decided not to check out the other two options and that they would recommend joining the IWW.
We held the next meeting on May 1st at the Peace and Freedom Hall. All but three of the workers from the day shift of both plants were at the meeting. There were a few workers from International Wood Products that spoke only Spanish. We had a person translate for them and I got some old IWW literature for them in Spanish.
At that meeting were two old time Wobblies, Paul Ware and J.F McDaniels, along with another GEB member, Eugene Nelson, San Francisco Bay Area GMB secretary Jim Evans, former GEB member Dorice McDaniels, and National Lawyers Guild lawyer Alan Rader. The spokesperson for the committee read their recommendation for joining the IWW. It was decided that a vote would be taken on the three options. The chairperson of the meeting called me up to speak. I got up and gave a speech on the history, ideas and ways of organizing in the IWW. I had spent a few days beforehand working out in my head what I would say and trying to do it in the manner that Frank Cedervall had taught me. I must have been doing something right because every time I would look over at Paul Ware he had a grin on his face a mile long and his eyes sparkled. Frank had taught me to look out among the people you are talking to and find someone that you could draw strength from. On that night that person was Paul.
After I was done the chairperson asked if anyone wanted to speak for any of the other options and nobody did. Then a vote was taken and everyone voted to join the IWW. The three delegates then signed everyone up for the IWW. Then they all signed a petition to have them chartered as the Long Beach Industrial Union Branch of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union 430 of the IWW. Then Eli Jones was elected Branch Secretary.
The demands, which included union recognition, were read and they were passed. A group of us then went over to the plant to talk to the night shift. On our way over the radio news announced some very interesting news. While we were having our meeting to organize the largest IWW shop since we lost the Cleveland shops, J. Edgar Hoover had died. Hoover, who had worked so hard to suppress the IWW, was dead! Though he had died in Washington D.C. and back there because of the time difference died very early in the morning of May 2nd, on the west coast it was still May Day and his death came shortly after those workers had signed up into the IWW. It seemed as though a great evil had died and a new beginning was taking place.
At the plant we signed up the night shift. The branch was a nice mix of Chicanos, Anglos, and Puerto Ricans, both women and men. The next day the boss fired George Roberts, who was one of the key people behind the organization of the plants. When George asked why he was being fired all the boss would say was that he "had a feeling about him." George knew this had to be about the union because a short time before the boss had talked George out of quitting.
We held a meeting that night and it was voted to place the rehiring of George at the top of the list of demands. At that time one of the plants was behind on some important orders and the workers felt that this was the time to act. It was decided that the next day lawyer Alan Rader and myself would present the list of demands, which were signed by all the workers but three. We had a long talk about whether there would be a strike and if so what type of strike it would be. By a vote of the workers it was decided that there would be a strike but that officially the strike was a protest over the firing.
The next day we presented the list of demands to the boss and he refused to talk to us. Then at 11:00 am workers from both plants turned off their machines and walked off their jobs. The workers picked up picket signs and a 15-foot IWW banner was unfurled. At lunch time those few workers who had not joined the union left and did not return. That meant the two plants were completely shut down. Joining the striking workers on the picket line were the Wobblies that had been at the meetings in support of these workers plus old time member Nicolass Steelink who had been the first IWW member arrested in California for Criminal Syndicalism. Also there were younger Wobblies from throughout the area, people from the Peace and Freedom Party, and other local radicals. Wobbly musician Joel Glick led the picketers in a number of Wobbly songs. The plants were located on a side street in a poor, mostly people of color community. People came from throughout the community to watch our picket line and to listen to the singing Wobblies.
The surrounding community was supportive of the union while the strike was going on. After things settled down we organized the workers into picketing teams, for we had to maintain an around the clock picket line. We then organized a support committee, which would work on building support for the strikers' needs. First we put out an appeal to Wobblies everywhere for donations to our strike fund. Most of those who responded were the old timers; money was raised at a meeting of Hungarian Wobbies in Buffalo, a $200 donation from the Hungarian Book Committee, and another $134 from the Chicago GMB. Then we got food donations from the UWF. UE gave us a stack of their book "Labor's Untold Story" to sell with all the money going to the strike fund. At a local concert hall the Chicano rock band El Chicano asked me to speak between sets about the strike and a hat was passed for donations.
I went down to the Longshoremen's union hall in nearby San Pedro to talk to them about the fact that some of what was produced at the plants was shipped overseas. The union rep. told me that if that happened while the strike was going on they would view it as scab contraband. He also offered longshoremen to help with the picket line, and some of them did walk the line from time to time. He then told me of another form of support they could offer. They could put some of our people to work on the docks while the strike was going on.
I called up the local Teamsters union and asked them if they would honor our picket line and their truck drivers refused to cross the line. The lunch wagon that normally would park out front at lunchtime was also a Teamster and when he would show up at lunch, he refused to serve anyone but union members.
Though we did get real support from other unions, there were some that refused to support the strike, and also some who actively tried to break the strike. The local labor council told us that they refused to recognize our strike. AFL-CIO drivers were told to cross our picket line. The laborer's union sent down scabs to try to take our members' jobs from them. When they came down they threatened our picketers with violence. Their attempt to break the strike was unsuccessful because when they went in they found that the boss did not want anything to do with any union, even a reactionary scab union. A few organizers from the UAW came down and tried to talk some of the workers into breaking away from the IWW and said that if they did then they would use the resources they had to help them build a "real" union.
There were other attempts to break the strike. The V.A. sent people down to take jobs. The Unemployment Department sent people down telling them that if they did not go that their unemployment benefits would be cut off. One of our members was on probation and his Probation Officer told him that if he did not cross the line and go back to work that his probation would be revoked and he would be jailed.
The local cops harassed our people on and off the picket line. I was stopped two times after leaving the picket and both times threatened by the cops who "did not want any damn commies disrupting their town."
After about a week the boss got an injunction limiting the number of pickets we could have. What he wanted to do was to move out of one plant some of the finished products. The first truck that showed up we were able to stop and the driver got out and went into the plant for help. While he was gone we ripped out every wire we could from his engine. They had to send for a tow truck to haul it away. The next truck that came had a bunch of cops with it. While the cops were trying to clear the picketers away some of our people dumped dirt in the truck's fuel tanks. That stopped that truck for a while, but the cops were able to get the truck into the plant where the tanks were emptied and cleaned out. On that day the cops arrested two of the picketers.
On the next day the cops showed up to let the loaded up truck out of the plant and through the picket line. We had one person arrested as the truck made its way through the line. But once the truck went through the cops left. Some of our people had taken their cars down the street and once the cops were gone they chased the truck through the streets of Long Beach and up onto the freeway. Then a load of cop cars came up from behind and our people got out of there. After that the boss did not try to bring in any more trucks.
We started to have problems late at night on the picket line. Our people were being harassed and one night a firebomb was thrown at them. After that we kept arms in a nearby support van for self-defense.
In this struggle we had another tactic. We felt that maybe we could break the boss emotionally. One of the demands was that "Management personnel were not to operate machinery in a state of intoxication." The boss would from time to time drive the forklift while drunk. Having learned the hard way about making statements, I told them that it was better to turn this into a demand that made no direct charges. A radio news station called us up about the strike and interviewed us live. We were asked about this demand and we said that such a demand was something that everyone should support. They then interviewed the boss and when asked about this demand he blew up on live radio. So we started to go after his mind. There was a local bar in which he went for lunch and after work. Some of our people went over there and talked to some of the regulars. They started to give him a hard time, so the boss stopped going to his watering hole. We picketed his home, we picketed his church, and we handed out fliers in front of the stores near his home.
I had put out a call to try to get a few experienced Wobblies to help. The GST took this as an opportunity to send in some people to try to take over the strike. The GST had no such power to do what he tried to do and in my way of thinking it was a violation of everything the IWW stood for. Two of the three people who came started to try to boss people around by telling them what they had to do. They became a very disruptive force in the struggle. Here are two examples of things they did. One of the problems we had was the drug culture. I had convinced everyone to keep all drugs out of the struggle, the picket line, and the meetings. What they did outside of all this was up to them. This was important also because the foreman of the plant was also a drug dealer that a few of these workers bought from. But this whole mess was opened up when these two "leaders" appointed by the GST sought to have some of the workers buy drugs for them. And they spent a lot of time "partying." I had set up educational meetings for the workers. Again, these two appointed “leaders” messed that up by bringing in philosophical anarchists from L.A. and turning the educational meeting into a debate over abstract anarchist ideas. In less than 15 minutes all the workers had left, but the pie in the sky anarchists kept on debating for hours.
Needless to say I was very angry. The workers were starting to view the IWW as some type of flaky organization. A meeting was called without the "leaders" and I told them that I was just as angry as they were and that not all Wobblies were like those two. George was so mad that he said he just wanted to leave town and did not care about getting his job back. It was decided that since this was just a protest strike, that the workers would go back to their jobs and regroup and then hit the boss with other short strikes and other job actions.
We had, with the help of our lawyer, filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB and we petitioned for an election. This was something that I did not much care for because I did not trust anything that had to do with the government.
We notified the boss that the next day all the workers would return to work. As they returned the boss talked to each of them before they returned to their jobs. He told each one of them that they could return to work if they agreed not to testify to the NLRB. Some agreed, thinking that we could fight that and some refused. At a meeting later that day the lawyer told the workers that what the boss had done was illegal and that he could quickly get a ruling against it. But the NLRB refused to rule against it and refused to grant us an injunction and ruled that those workers that had walked back out had quit their jobs. This threw everything into chaos, with some of our people inside the plant, including some of our strongest people, being fired. The boss then hired scabs to replace the fired workers. When it came time for the election there were more scabs in the plant than union workers and we lost the election.
I came out of this very disappointed. I felt that there was much internal work to be done in the IWW for the union to be able to truly support organizing. I came under attack by the GST and one GEB member, Ottilie Markholt, who issued a statement against me that was full of outright lies. She and the GST tried to blame all of the problems me, saying that I should not have called the workers out on strike. That fact of the matter, which they knew to be true, was that I did not call anyone out on strike. Not then, nor since, nor anytime in the future would I ever call any workers out on strike. Workers call themselves out on strike. I did not even give them a recommendation. All I did was tell them what I saw as their options. The actions by the GST and Ottilie behind my back angered me so much that I almost quit the IWW in disgust. If it were not for some of the old timers and other Wobblies that came to my defense, I would have.
What I learned in Long Beach was that the IWW had to rebuild its foundation in order to give the type of support needed for organizing and that we had to develop experienced members that had some idea of working class life and struggle.
I was involved in a few other attempts that encountered the same problems. Then I made my way down to Houston and found work in a local shipyard. I was able to sign up three other workers there. Since the shipyard was taking in most anyone who was willing to be trained and since there were three old timers in town willing to help, we put out a call for Wobblies to come in to the shipyard. Three Wobblies came from the outside and got jobs there so at that point we had seven Wobblies on the job.
I then spent a lot of time talking to the old timers about what could be done to overcome the problems in the IWW and get us started rebuilding the organization. They came up with an idea to form an organizing team of people who were willing to learn what the old timers were willing to teach. And after teaching the team, we would have them target some places for organizing with the help of the old timers who were also willing to raise the needed money.
I took this idea to an IWW convention and out of a committee meeting the Industrial Organizing Committee (IOC) was formed. But this got shot to hell when two groups used it to continue their ongoing factional fighting. So most of the old timers dropped it and so did I. In any human grouping there are going to be differences and even some people who do not like each other. That is just a combination of human nature, competitiveness, and different points of view. Maybe in political organizations you can afford to try to create something where everyone is like minded, but a union is different because you are seeking to organize everyone on a job and in an industry, and in the case of the IWW, all the workers of the world. Given the reality of union organizing, like it or not, there will be many differences and we must learn how to organize and function without letting our differences keep that organizing from happening. There is nothing wrong with having strong views and expressing them. But at the end of the day we need to stop and ask ourselves if our differences are things we just disagree with or are things we must oppose such as racism and sexism. I may disagree on a tactic or the way to deal with an issue, but after I have expressed my point of view, if the majority disagree with me I will still support them.
One of the problems with the IWW is that it was suppressed to the point of only having a few members left and no organized shops. As the IWW grew again people would have different ideas on how to rebuild the IWW. The different ideas would some times conflict with each other. Rebuilding the IWW was well worth the effort but it was not easy. First you have the time that had passed: some people would say the IWW was just old history. Every organization must evolve with new ideas and the reality of the modern world and, with the IWW, we had to do that while keeping the basic organizational ideas of the IWW in place. In part we have done that with the new means of communication like websites, email, and e-mail lists.
I decided that what I needed to do was to go into industry and learn as much as I could about unions and working class issues. I was involved with IWW groups in San Diego, New Orleans, and Kansas City. I also wanted to work on rebuilding the foundation of the IWW and was involved with the IWW's General Defense Committee, on which I served three years as Secretary.
Then in the early '90s the General Headquarters was moved to San Francisco. Out of that move and a General Assembly that was held there, a new core of people started to join. Much of this was helped along by Judi Bari of Earth First! who joined and made connections between the radical environmental movement and the IWW.
Though we lost some of these people in another senseless division, we did not lose everyone and the IWW started to grow again and become more active. There were some very good groups in Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, East S.F. Bay Area (which has some union shops), Portland, and other places.
I have been involved in a number of smaller efforts, including two attempts to create a Wobbly rank and file group in shipyards that already had unions (at Todd Houston and at NASCCO in San Diego), an attempt at organizing farm workers in Portland, and among workers on fish processing ships.
I moved to Tacoma, WA in 1989 and there was a Tacoma/Olympia Branch at that time but the problem it is hard to have a branch that covers such a large area and though it had been around for a number of years in 1990 it folded. Then shortly after that there was an attempt to create a Puget Sound Branch, but in 1993 I decided to focus on Tacoma and stopped going to meetings in Seattle. A while later that branch became the Seattle GMB. I became a delegate again so that I could sign up people and collect dues in Tacoma but for a few years I was not trying to build a branch.
I had worked in the maritime industry, in the railroad industry, and after I was laid off from Todd Shipyard I drove a big rig at the Port of Tacoma and then drove long haul. I decided that I wanted to work on gathering information on industrial transportation in the hope of producing some IWW literature on the subject. For that purpose the Industrial Transportation Project was created. A while later I went back to working ship repair.
I had signed up a few workers on a fish processing ship who I had known from my work for Leonard Peltier and I ended up seeing them again when I was doing some repair work on their ship. Then I worked on an overhaul of a ship that had a Russian crew and after a few long talks with some of them there was some real interest. After the ship left contact continued through the workers I had signed up on the other fish processor who would relay literature, copies of the Industrial Worker, and two-way communication through Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
We had a relay in the ship's home port in Siberia. I knew that at this time the IWW did not have the resources for a real drive in that industry, but I had hoped to plant some Wobbly seeds.
I ran into the problem of not being able to get any literature in Russian and those groups that had volunteers to translate stuff never came through with anything. Then before we could establish any form of organization, the Russians pulled a job action based upon a tactic that I had once explained to them.
Conditions on the ship kept getting worse with the crew having to work longer hours and having to put up with an abusive strawboss. So most of the crew engaged in an on the job direct action which we called a “tired strike.” The strike had two parts to it: when a worker is tired they don’t work very efficiently, so the crew worked tired all of the time and on a ship the lack of efficiency can greatly affect its operation, which is exactly what happened. The other part of the “tired strike” was to ware the strawboss out, in other words make him tired. So the crew had him running all over the damn ship with worker-created problems. The poor man could get little sleep. At the next port the straw boss left the ship and the conditions improved greatly. But when the ship next returned to its home port the crew was replaced. Most of the crew shipped out on other ships and my main contact took a land job in a repair yard in Siberia. I still hear from him from time to time. The two workers on the other ship that I signed up worked a few more fishing seasons and in the off season stayed in Tacoma and helped some with local projects. Later they moved to Montana and in time opened up a little store.
After that I signed up three members of my family and they helped me with a new project, the Working People's Library, which sought to publish working class literature. Then in 2005 a new local Wobbly talked to me about trying to organize a Tacoma General Membership Branch of the IWW and in time that branch was set up and it still continues today.
As of this writing I have been a member of the IWW for 40 years. I have been a delegate, a branch secretary, Secretary of the General Defense Committee, and I have served on the GEB three times and on a number of committees. I have been a member of 7 branches (San Diego, Chicago, Long Beach, Houston, Tacoma-Olympia, the Puget Sound branch, and the Tacoma branch). I have also been a member of a number of non-branch Wobbly groups. I don't know what the future has planned for me but I do know this much: I will be an active Wobbly to my dying day. As for the IWW, it continues to organize among truck drivers, construction workers, Starbucks workers, Jimmy John's workers, and others as these words are written. It has grown way beyond North America with other organized branches in Europe and a regional general administration is being organized there.