The Toil of an Organizer Seems A Lot The Same Even 100 Years Ago

New Orleans    Matilda Rabinowitz was a little heralded organizer for the International Workers of the World over 100 years ago. She became an active Socialist while doing factory work in Bridgeport, Connecticut beginning at 14 years old, and migrated to the IWW, as many Socialists did, as they became more active and visible in pioneering a unique organizing style on one hand and the belief in industrial, rather than craft unionization on the other hand.

The most famous women organizers connected to the IWW were Mother Jones, one of its co-founders, and a legendary figure particularly in coal country when coal was king, enslaving many workers, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, known for her prominent role in the biggest of the IWW strikes in the mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts and Paterson, New Jersey. Matilda Rabinowitz hasn’t shared the front-page-news of labor and organizing history, but her story of five years as an organizer behind the scenes at the backbone of the movement and its organization is a story that could be told thousands of times by workaday organizers that are the soldiers of the peoples’ army, even if not the generals.

Matilda was unfamiliar to me until I had the opportunity to read a labor of love in a book of her memoirs, Immigrant Girl, Radical Woman: A Memoir from the Early Twentieth Century, with commentary and illustrations by Robbin Legere Henderson, her granddaughter, who I also spoke with on Wade’s World. We covered the highlights of her organizing experience when she was called by the IWW to cover the Little Falls, New York strike, and later even more difficult organizing in Greenville, North Carolina. Her biggest accomplishment may have been helping run the strike at Studebaker Auto in Detroit, perhaps the first union-based wildcat strike that many in the city believe forced Henry Ford to institute his famous $5 per day wage to prevent unionization at least for a time in his giant plants.

What really struck me about Matilda’s memoirs where several passages that spoke deeply to the life experiences of organizers, generation after generation.

She spoke of her weeks supporting the strike in Little Falls this way,

“For me the days and nights were crowded with work. The picket line at six in the morning. Coffee, break, and perhaps some stewed fruit after that at the commissary. The daily meeting with the strike committee in the forenoon with a report on the response to appeals, funds, developments. Correspondence and bookkeeping: details of the office. A general meeting was held for all strikers every night at Sokol Hall, and once a week a social get-together with a fiddle or a harmonium for dancing and singing.”

Substitute the stewed fruit and the harmonium, and welcome to strikes for one-hundred years and counting.

Matilda was powered by her politics and her commitment, but like so many organizers, found life’s details dragging far behind. Her later comments also echoed universal organizing experiences:

“From Little Falls I carried away an increased sense of responsibility to the IWW, but I had a great reluctance at the same time to becoming a professional organizer. Some money was coming in, and I kept the accounts and was charged with the running expenditures of the strike, but there was no financial arrangement between me and the organization. I went to Little Falls at my own expense and had about forty dollars when I got there. When this was gone I didn’t know how I was going to get along. I paid room rent to the striker’s family where I was living, ate at least one meal in a restaurant, and there were incidental personal expenses: laundry and carfare, for example. I received no money from the national office and I did not know that the local organization was meant to assume my expenses while I was there.”

Big Bill Haywood set her straight on that account when he passed through, and she was a national organizer for the IWW for several years as she traveled later, but concluded that the organizing life was not for her when she decided to become a single mother.

Nonetheless it is clear from her memoir that her organizing time was a defining moment that gave meaning to her life, as it has for so many. She may have gotten off of the organizing track, but her politics and commitment to justice and equality never faltered. Her granddaughter, Robbin Henderson told me that a half-written column for the Socialist newspaper in Los Angeles was in her typewriter when she died in her mid-70s.

What a life and what a contribution!


Local 100 Puts Cowboys Owner Jones on Notice While Withdrawing NLRB Charge

New Orleans  Local 100 United Labor Unions notified NLRB Region 16 that it was withdrawing the charge filed over two weeks ago over threats made by Dallas Cowboy’s owner, Jerry Jones, to “bench” his players of they protested during the national anthem.

In a press release describing its action, Local 100 said the following about the situation:

…withdrawing its NLRB charges at this time, Local 100 did so because the National Football League after meeting with the owners and players has ruled that there will be no discipline of players for utilizing their “platform” and protesting the societal situation of racial injustice and police brutality that is impacting their working conditions and lives. Furthermore, the NFL committed to continued dialogue about these situations and taking positive, though unnamed steps, to address them in the larger community. NLRB rules allow the union to refile these charges at any time.

Since the filing of Local 100’s charges, Jones has not repeated the threats against the players that were the subject of the charges. United Labor Unions’ Chief Organizer, Wade Rathke said, “If Jerry Jones threatens or disciplines any players of the Dallas Cowboys despite the clear position of the NFL and others, we will immediately refile these charges with the NLRB and pursue them to their conclusion. We are hopeful that Jones has learned that there are legal limits that guide his treatment of his workforce and rights that cannot be abridged, regardless of his own personal opinion. We will continue to monitor this closely. We hope a lesson was learned, and that we had some small impact on this debate, and the actions of the NFL doing the right thing.”

Has Jones really learned his lesson? We hope so, but we doubt it. We believe in fact that it is more likely that a combination of our action emboldening his own lawyers to tell him he was across the line and to shut up, the NFL overlords telling him his position was untenable and he needed to back up, and the anger of his own players at his bullying all forced him in retreat. As reported among many others, “Cowboys players were reportedly angered by Jones’ public hard-line stance, and the team had a meeting with Jones about it during the bye week.” There were no public comments, but privately it was well-known that players told Jones he was out of line.

The final straw convincing the union that it was best to withdraw for now and leave the matter hanging became clear after Jones’ vacillating in reaction to defensive tackle David Irving raising his fist after anthem in the last game. Jones tried to walk the line saying as long as it was not during the anthem, no problem. Jones again was exposed as “all talk, no cattle.” Or, as The Nation’s David Zirin has written, “… the fact Jerry Jones now has to smile his way through it is just another sign of how much ground the owners lost and how much of their own humanity the players have reclaimed.”

And, besides reclaiming their “humanity,” the players have also learned the power of their labor rights both under the NLRA and their own contract, which the NFLPA shrewdly enforced in the meeting with the owners. As Local 100’s statement said as well, we were

…also glad that … [our] action in stepping in to file charges against Jones and Cowboys for their treatment of their players ignited a national debate about the rights and entitlements the players had as workers under the National Labor Relations Act. Lawyers, professors, and others have joined the debate in newspapers, blogs, and websites on the question with the preponderance of them supporting Local 100’s standing to file and the fact that the union drew attention to the role of the NLRA in protecting workers’ rights in these situations. The union is hoping that its action will prompt other workers caught in difficult situations in their jobs, too often unrepresented, to understand the law and take advantage of its provisions to protection themselves and exercise their rights.

This clearly isn’t over. The protests, though diminished, continue. And so does the debate, and that’s a good thing for the players, the cause, and workers and their communities everywhere.

Professor Tim Wu, free speech, computer expert, and occasionally columnist for the New York Times threw another brick at the window, this time at the White House, which was pulling the strings on the Cowboys’ Jones, saying...

…the White House needs to be held accountable when it tries to use private parties to circumvent First Amendment protections. When it encourages others to punish its critics — as when it demanded that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.

The fat lady won’t sing on this one until victory is complete. There will be many test questions in the future for Jerry Jones and his ilk on the lessons they are being forced to learn now.