Skip to main content

Building a New World from the Shell of the Old; The Old Time Wobblies

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common."

--From IWW Preamble  

In my Street Journal days I was only able to get a limited understanding of what the IWW was all about. It was not until I my trip to the IWW convention in Chicago for Los Tres that I was able to meet other Wobblies outside of our group in San Diego. I had caught a ride with a few Wobs from the San Francisco Bay area. On that road trip I was able to learn more about the IWW, particularly from Eugene Nelson. Once in at the convention I was greatly impressed to see revolutionaries of all ages. I spent some time with Fred Thompson because of Los Tres, and he simply amazed me. Here was this guy who had spent so many years in the struggle, who I could never hope to know as much as he did, but he acted like an ordinary guy. The only older  radical guy I had every dealt with was Marcuse and he would look down  at people like me as if we were also too insignificant to be noticed. Fred and most of the other old time Wobblies did not have that superior attitude. I found each old time Wobbly to be very unique in their own way. I learned my IWWism from these old timers and I wish to acknowledge them in the following way.

1. Fred Thompson:  Fred was an amazing source of knowledge. I sometimes wondered how he could keep so much information in his head. Any time a subject came up dealing with IWW history or the rest of the labor movement he would just let lose with a ton of information on the subject. And no matter who you were he was more than willing to sit down with you and talk. Though he was also a long time member of the Socialist Party and a Marxist he was not sectarian about it. He was most always the first to jump in and support those in need in the struggle. He was one of the first in the IWW to be open for supporting AIM activists Leonard Peltier. It was once asked of Fred what his role was in the IWW? And he replied “Encyclopedia”. The older I get the more I can relate to that.

2. Walter Westman:  When you first dealt with Walter he could set you back a bit. He could be one of the most cranky people who talked the face of the earth. But once you got past that you could see that there were few people ever involved in any struggle that was more dedicated then was Walter. He had been a mule skinner and lost a leg in an accident. After that for many years he kept the IWW going as either the General Secretary-Treasurer (GST) of as the Business Manager for the union. If it were not for the work of Walter I do not think the IWW would have survived it's lean years. I learned a lot from sitting and listening to Walter and also found that under all that crankiness he had a good sense of humor. There are many Walter Westmen stories that used to float around. There was the time that SDS was having a big convention in town and one of there more radical factions came over to the IWW hall. One of their big shot leaders came over and sat down on Walter's desk and then proclaimed himself " I'm Mark Rudd!" And Walter very unimpressed by that said "I'm Walter Westmen, get off my desk!" Or the time that the hall had a problem with rats. One day a rat was found drinking from Walter's water glass. When asked about what should be done about that all Walter would say was "keep the damn thing well supplied". Another time the GST's dog was under the table crewing on Walter's wooden leg and Walter commented "better the wooden leg than my other leg." 

3. Frank Cedervall:  Fred and Walter were storehouses of information, but it was Frank who had the old fire and brimstone of the old Wobblies. In the old days Frank was an IWW soapbox speaker and when I knew him he still had his stuff. Now days there are few speakers around that can cut right threw you and reach the center of your being. At that first convention that I attended it was decided that Frank would go on tour to promote the IWW. His first stop was in San Diego. We had set up three events for him. The first was in downtown San Diego at a square where the San Diego Free Speech fight had taken place 60 years earlier. At that square were a lot of people waiting for buses and some homeless people. Without announcing anything, Frank got up on a soap box and started to speak. Within a few minutes there were near a hundred people gathered around listening to him. He asked me to introduce him at one of the events and to give a little IWW history. I told him that I had never done any public speaking before and did not know how to go about it. He then told me that it was about time that I started. He sat me down and started to teach me what he could. He first told me that no matter who you were speaking to people can only remember a small amount of what you say. You can either ramble on and hope that they get the most important parts, or you can decide which parts you want them to remember. You do this by drawing greater attention to those parts. He also said that there are two ways to affect people. First, you can affect them intellectually. And this is important that you state your case in such a manner that people will agree with it intellectually. But, that alone with not light the fire in them to become active. You need to reach their spirit. In other words you must not only reach their mind but you much also reach their gut emotions. For that is where you will convert them. 

Frank was a key Wobbly organizer in the '30s in the Murray Body drive and later in organizing machine shops in Cleveland. Those shops the IWW was able to hold on to until the early '50s. 

4 & 5. Fanny and Carl Keller:  I met both of them when they came down to San Diego when Frank was on tour there. They had retired to a small community about 90 miles north of San Diego. Fanny had been a part of Emma Goldman's group in her younger years and hearing her talk about that gave me a sense of connecting to the past. Carl had worked at the IWW's headquarters for many years and had been the GST and the editor of the Industrial Worker. 

6. Joe V:  I met Joe in Chicago when later I spent a few months there. He was an old Hungarian Wobbly with a thick accent. He would sit around the hall telling stories of the old days and about being on the IWW hit squad. The hit squad use to take care of those that would rob IWW delegates on the box cars. One day Joe layed down a line of talk that I will always remember. In a voice that trembled with age and the passion of years in the struggle, he said; " Everybody say I'm crazy. My Mother say I'm crazy. My wife say I'm crazy. My boss say I'm crazy. Everyone say I'm crazy. Ah, but what if everybody were crazy like me. No more war, no more starvation, no more workers enslaved. Everybody is so smart, and look at our world. But everyone say I'm crazy. If only everyone was crazy like me, maybe we would have a better world.

7. Mike the International Window Washer:  Mike was another old Hungarian Wobbly. He was a soft spoken man who had a great passion that you could see in his eyes. He was one of the most active members in the Hungarian community and he was always trying to find ways to support what ever was going on. One humorous story stick to Mike over the years. One day when he was washing windows of a living. A women spotted his IWW button and asked him about it. He told her that the IWW was a labor union. She the said "oh, the International Window Washers."

8. Sam Dolgoff:  Sam was born in White Russia and came over here with his parents. Sam was not only a Wobbly, but also a very active anarchist. He wrote and spoke under the name Sam Weiner for some 40 years. He is the author of many very good books on such subjects as the anarchists in Spain, an anarchist critical perspective on the Cuban Revolution, a very good memoir and he edited the best book in English of Bakunin's writings. I first met Sam at my first IWW convention, but it was not until a few years later in Portland that I was able to sit down and spend some time talking to him. I was able to talk to him for awhile about my plans to put out an anarchist paper. He gave me some advise on that which the most important was to always stay grounded in your readership. And don't comprise your principals for easy solutions. I heard him say a number of times that when he spoke as a Wobbly he was a Wobbly and when he spoke for anarchism he was an anarchist. And that it was important not to confuse those two things. Over the years until he died from time to time he would send me a donation for the paper I was putting out with little notes of suggestions.

9. Henry Pfaff:  I was elected to the General Executive Board (GEB) in 1972, and on that GEB was one old timer Henry Pfaff. Henry showed me that you could be pragmatic and still hold to your principles at the same time. He always seemed to be able to see past our squabbles and stay focused on the issues at hand. He wrote a beautiful small book of antiwar poems that I tried to get published without any success.

10. Patrick McMillen:  On one of my trips across the country I stopped in Duluth, Minn. to visit with Patrick. He was very old then and could not get around much, but he had a Wobbly spirit that would not die. He talked to me for hours, and I had to wonder how such a person, old, alone, in bad health and stuck in an old run down tenement building could still carry so much hope and fire in his gut for the struggle. He spent much of his time listening to radio talk shows and calling and giving them a piece of his mind. The man even had the IWW label tattooed to his chest. Later he took me to visit with the old time Wobblies that put out the Industrialisti. The Industrialisti was a paper in Finnish that had been for many years an IWW paper. Back in the old days of the IWW there were many IWW papers published in different languages here in the U.S. such as Russian, Yiddish, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, German, Croatian, Lithuanian and Polish. The Industrialisti was the last of these papers. When I visited the paper it was no longer an official IWW paper because in order to survive it had to take advertising. But it still was a Wobbly paper in spirit and it became the paper of the old radical Finnish community in Minnesota and Florida where a number of old time Wobblies had retired to.

11. Gilbert Mers:  Gilbert was an old time rebel longshoreman and the Elder of the labor movement that I became the closest to. Back in '74 my family and I had moved to Houston, Tx and Gilbert was the IWW delegate there. Gilbert looked like someone's stern grandfather, for he was a very serious man. But as they say looks can be deceiving. He was one of the most open and tolerant people I had ever met. Back in the '60s he use to write for the local underground paper. From when I started publishing Bayou La Rose in '78 until he could write no longer he was a continuous contributor. He was an amazing writer. He could take any subject and write about it in simple terms so that anyone could understand what he was saying. His book, Working the Waterfront; The Ups and Downs of a Rebel Longshoreman, is, in my opinion, one of the best labor books every written. The reason why I say this is because, not only does it give you good labor history, but it gives it to you from a person who lived it and you clearly can see that he completely understands what he is writing about. Most labor books are written by people who never experienced what they are writing about. Most of those people if they were ever place in the industry that they were writing about they would be completely lost. Gilbert's book and his other writings greatly infused my writing. Gilbert use to say to me, "write about what you know and leave the other stuff to those that directly know what they are writing about." This I have tried to do over the years.  

12. Blackie Vaughan:  Blackie was a legendary figure among marine transport workers. Few older seamen had not heard of Blackie Vaughan and most could tell you stories about him. Some were true, some were just tall tales, for Blackie was the Paul Bunyan of seamen. I truely wish that back then I had the sense to make a collection of Blackie Vaughan stories for that would have been a great book indeed. Did Blackie really pack boilers with dynamite in times of a strike? Who knows, but Blackie struck great fear in the hearts of the bosses and great love in the hearts of his fellow seamen. When I met Blackie he was tending bar in a seamen's dive on the Houston waterfront. In his 80s he could still bounce a drunk seaman anytime that was needed. He was still a MTW delegate and when the Wobbly seamen would hit town they would all pay up their dues to him. It did not matter what shape the IWW was in, it was out of their great respect for Blackiethat they would pay their dues. It was their way of honoring him. 

13. Paul Ware:  Paul was an old time Wobbly longshore worker who helped us during the Long Beach IWW strike in 1972. The thing I remember the most about Paul was the night I spoke to the workers of the plant and he sat there up close with a big smile on his face. I never told him how much that helped me, for at that time I was a young Wobbly who had not done much speaking and his smile gave me encouragement.

These were the old time Wobblies, the Elders of a great struggle that I got to know the best. There are others that I met, some I don't even remember their names, but those that I do I should acknowledge. Jack Miller, Art Shields, J.F. McDaniels,  Fania and Nicolass Steelink, Art Nurse, Fred Hansen, Herb Edwards, Phil Melman, and Jennie and Charles Velsek. Then there were some folks that did not reach as far back as these Wobblies did, but I should acknowledge anyway. Carlos Cortez, Patricia and Richard Ellington and Bruce "Utah" Phillips.

These people were and those few that are still around, are the Elders of the Wobbly struggle. No matter how hard things would get for the Wobblies they never lost hope, they never gave up. I have always felt honored to belong to the same organization as these people. It is my view that these Elders gave my generation a magnificent gift, and its up to my generation to add to that gift and then pass it along to the next generation. For as long as there are working people who are exploited by the employing class there will be a need for the Wobblies.