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!

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George Clooney, McCarthy, and Commie Terrorists

edward-murrowNew Orleans In these politically cold, hard, and unsettled times, I took advantage of my new love affair with my library card to try and gain some perspective, maybe even insights, into the McCarthy Era that ravished the American politics, liberals, and the left in the 1950’s by ordering up “Good Night and Good Luck” a story of Edward R. Murrow, the celebrated media commentator, directed by huge movie star hunk, George Clooney in 2005.  I had missed the movie at the theaters, and was surprised at how well done it was, regardless of how many parts fact or fiction, since it is still a movie after all, not a documentary.

There were a lot of recognizable faces besides Clooney including Robert Downey, who always adds something to the mix.  Murrow was played by David Strathairn, who was ahead of me at Williams as I was passing through, and Patricia Clarkson from New Orleans the daughter of one of our Councilwomen.

In the early days of television when news still mattered and commanded an audience, those were different times and Murrow had come to the screen with his name and legacy already writ large from his wartime radio broadcasts.  The movie dates the turnaround, perhaps more symbolically than factually, with a down-the-line Air Force civilian employee in Michigan being pushed out of his job because of a sealed envelope filled with unknown evidence and charges, but provoking enough fear of red Commie taint.  Murrow, as this story goes, picked the piece up out of the back pages of a paper and highlighted the story provoking Senator McCarthy’s attack at him personally.  Now the attacks are shotgun blasts at the high and mighty as well as virtually anyone committed to working for change.

McCarthy in footage from the time accuses Murrow of having been a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical, syndicalist union, broken by the Espionage Act in WWI.  Other vintage footage includes McCarthy’s repeated assertions that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was included on numerous official lists of “subversive” organizations serving as fronts for the Communist Party.  None of which was true and all of which were denied.   A low level African-American civilian employee is wildly accused of having infiltrated the “code” room despite her denials of ever having been there or done anything but transmit messages as directed without any knowledge of their contents.

Sobering and depressing stuff that made for a great movie, but a miserable look at life in our country.  This week I read a right wing blog that listed me as the “founder of ACORN” and then added gratuitously, “America’s largest terrorist organization.”  Clearly just a blogger, not a US Senator, so proof, presumably not needed, assertion uncontested, another dangerous voice in the thundering herd, hopefully unheard and ignored.  Watching McCarthy smear with the IWW brush, I thought of the poor guy who was an Obama nominee for the federal court and throughout the summer had to defend the fact that 30+ years before he had been a door-to-door fundraising canvasser for a couple of months for ACORN, and now decades later teetered for months on the edge of the knife.  It goes on and on in the right wing witch hunts of bloggers, Beck, and others woven of whole cloth.

A poll in the New York Times, says only about a 30% surveyed believed that wild talk and hate speech contributed to the recent killings in Tucson, and that’s a good thing.  On the other hand the cumulative results of all of these allegations, accusations, ad infinitum, ad nauseum is guaranteed to chill action for change, participation of citizens, and our very democracy, while leaving many afraid of associations and support in fearful isolation.

None of which stops people like me from doing the work, but all of which categorically makes it harder to the do work and to work at the largest scale possible and necessary.

Watching the movie, it was hard not to be reminded that there are now dozens and dozens of McCarthy-wannabes, but very, very few Edward R. Murrow’s.  George Clooney could make another, more contemporary movie in America now.  The problem is that he probably can’t find enough effective heroes today, and with the new wave of Congressional investigations promised and coming, few lessons seem to have been learned from the McCarthy moments more than 50 years ago.

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