Pearl River No question. We live in hard times of division and reaction now. Could it be worse? Absolutely! In fact, it often has been worse, as I was reminded in reading the efforts of the Wobblies to organize in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century and then visiting with Professor Ahmed White on Wade’s World about his new book, Under the Iron Heel: The Wobblies and the Capitalist War on Radical Workers. It was little comfort to feel how eerily familiar some of the backlash is now, especially in the courts, high and low, but still it pales in comparison to the extralegal, but often allowed and supported, attacks on informal and itinerant workers making demands for justice in their workplaces and communities.
The Wobblies were members and activists in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) founded in 1905 and organized until largely decimated by corporate and employer action supported by all levels of the state in the pre-World War I period. They hold a place in the labor pantheon for the great “bread and roses” textile strikes against the giant mills in Paterson, New Jersey and Lawrence, Massachusetts, but perhaps their most unique efforts were in organizing farmworkers in wheat and other harvests across the west, as well as in mining and timber, which have rarely been equaled subsequently. They are also well-known for their “free speech” fights in California, Washington, and elsewhere, which were largely counterattacks to direct oppression. White makes no bones about it. Their program was radical and in opposition to the bare-knuckled capitalism of the time, even though their demands were frequently just for fair wages and basic justice on the job. Their leadership and activists were deeply committed class strugglers, and often heroic in their resolve. They were also often seen as a direct threat to the economy, culture, and society where they organized and took a stand, provoking the “iron heel” in author Jack London’s terms, to come down on them hard.
They organized tens of thousands successfully and won some victories, and then they were crushed mercilessly under the full weight of state power in league with employers in field and factory. White makes an unassailable case that this was not done, as Melvin Dubofsky’s 1969 classic, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, argued in the hysteria of the WWI sedition trials, but in the relentless, multi-year devastation of criminal syndicalism trials and targeted vagrancy expulsions and jailings that preceded the war. Strikes were broken by vigilante actions supported by local police beatings, arrests, and sometimes killings. Hundreds and thousands were sometimes shipped out on trains to break strikes. Wobblies were arrested, tried in court, and jailed for having IWW literature in their possession. Criminal syndicalism is a fancy term of declaring unionization a criminal act. These statutes were allowed to stand even under challenge with so-called liberal judges, part of the Progressive movement in other contexts, bringing the hammer down. Often there were baseless accusations of sabotage as the excuse for arrests and jail terms for making simple wage demands. Going on strike by definition was proof of vagrancy, since the Wobblies weren’t working, and this was also upheld by courts.
Professor White was trained as a lawyer as well as a historian, so his hair must have been on fire researching this book. It took decades before the Supreme Court revisited these laws and voided past decisions, although some of these controversies continue, like whether or not states are preempted by the federal government on questions of sedition. Free speech has supposedly been buttressed now, but given the current book banning rage, which has even seen the Bible taken out of libraries as pornographic in some Utah school districts, maybe we haven’t gotten as far away from guilt by reading, as many Wobblies suffered.
We can’t really compare anything about the level of repression faced by these unions and their activists and members, as we find today. Reading Iron Heel and talking to Professor White, I was also struck by the depth of the commitment and courage of these organizers and activists. They took the beatings, did the hard time, and in many cases went right back to organizing heedless of the personal cost for causes that they believed in, no matter the odds. That kind of courage and grit still exists among workers everywhere, but it’s rare that we see that level of solidarity and sacrifice today. I have no nostalgia for those times, but we could sure use some of that their personal strength and steel to confront the iron heels of our times.