Wobblies Aren't So Wobbly Nowadays
- [It's pretty nice to see this on MSNBC, even though it somehow
fails to omit the words "anarchism" and "anarchist", and makes
a pretty big error in the line "A syndicalist favors bringing
government and industry under control of labor unions" --
practically all syndicalists are anarcho-syndicalists who advocate
abolishing government altogether. It also fails to mention the
IWW's role in the recent protest movement, in which many members
have played an important part. -- DC]
Wobblies arent so wobbly nowadays
Wobblies preaching radical labor message to new generation
Iconoclastic IWW still trying to unionize the world
By Dru Sefton
NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 4 The Wobblies, diehard
iconoclasts of the labor movement, are still
around. Still organizing. Still looking to transform
the world order.
OVER THE LAST few years, the tiny yet feisty
Industrial Workers of the World has seen its membership
grow to 1,000 worldwide, up from a low of fewer than
100 in the early 1960s.
And those members remain true to the concept of one
big union. Theyre radical syndicalists, as they have been
since the IWWs founding in 1905 in Chicago. (Quick labor
history review: A syndicalist favors bringing government and
industry under control of labor unions by means of direct
action, such as general strikes and, if need be, sabotage.)
They fight to transfer all profits and power from bosses
to workers, because its the workers who do all the work.
That victory would form the shell of a new society, they say
as they have said, loudly, for all these years.
Their idealistic battle was ignited generations ago by
Wobblies who became legendary: Mother Jones, who
agitated for labor rights into her 90s and inspired a magazine
that still bears her name. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a
co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Balladeer
Joe Hill, whose last words were Dont waste time in
mourning. Organize. Eugene Debs, who helped create the
Socialist Party in America.
That the Wobblies still exist, much less are growing,
runs against a decades-long decline in mainstream U.S.
labor union membership. It hit a high of 27 percent of the
workforce in 1953; its current 14 percent is an all-time low,
according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The IWW has made inroads recently, organizing
bookstores, small shops, college-student workers and
The national IWW headquarters shifted this year from
Ypsilanti, Mich., to Philadelphia, site of former glory days:
Back in 1916, all but two of the bustling docks at this port
were under IWW control.
And now, the top Wob is a young woman. She is
Alexis Buss, a slight, 27-year-old, freckled Philadelphian
who wears her IWW cap backward. Buss was elected in
January, after pledging to make the IWW a cohesive
fighting organization, rather than a collection of isolated
activists to reinvigorate the IWW, once known and
feared as the fighting union.
No one remembers exactly why members are called
Wobblies, or Wobs for short, as they have been since the
early 1900s. Some say its symbolic of the wobble saw,
mounted to cut a groove wider than the saw is thick. Others
think its based on an immigrants mispronunciation of the
letters IWW eye wobble-you-wobble-you.
From its founding, Wobblies have made up one intense
They wrote and sang the most enduring labor songs,
including Solidarity Forever, Rebel Girl and The
Preacher and the Slave, origin of the phrase pie in the
They staged dramatic job actions: In 1912, Wobs led
10,000 strikers at American Woolen Co. mills in Lawrence,
Mass., forcing managers to give workers significant pay
raises. Strikers were beaten, and a female worker was
killed by shots from the swarms of 22,000 military police.
They were famous for their propaganda: Keep warm,
burn out the rich. The boss needs you, you dont need
him. Good pay or bum work.
Theyve constantly fought for a seemingly unattainable
goal: As the preamble to the IWW constitution reads, a
struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize
as a class, take possession of the means of production,
abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the
BUILT-IN BARRIERS TO SUCCESS
Buss heads a movement based on ideals that, ironically,
hinder it from gaining any real power.
The IWW is a pure democracy, controlled by its rank
and file without a traditional leadership structure. Dues start
at just $5 a month, so its perpetually cash-poor.
Members, tasked with literally organizing the entire
world, are themselves difficult to corral. Most are
independent thinkers who lean toward the cantankerous.
They are socialists, atheists, intellectuals, dreamers. Some
have multiple piercings and tattoos; others have gray
Even determining just how many Wobblies there are is
tricky. It varies by month, when people pay their dues,
Buss said. There is no demographic information on the
thousand or so members. (By comparison, the AFL-CIO
has about 13 million members.)
Wobbly locals are active across the country, from
Boston (Education Workers Industrial Union 620) to San
Francisco (Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union
510). There also are branches in England, Australia and
South Africa traditional Wobbly strongholds, Buss
Tradition is what lures, and inspires, most Wobblies.
I believe in unionism, that all labor unions must come
together, said Miriam Fried of Philadelphia, who was fired
after trying to organize a Borders bookstore in Philadelphia
in 1996. The Wobblies are the most dedicated union
around. I believe workers should make their own decisions.
In the IWW, its direct democracy, from the bottom up.
Sharon Vance, another Philadelphia Wobbly, said the
IWW has the big advantages without the big disadvantages
of other unions.
That includes representing workers usually overlooked.
Even if its a workplace with just two people and one
boss, were there to organize, she said.
SMALL BUT CONSTANT PRESENCE
The IWW reached their real peak during World War I, said
Melvyn Dubofsky, a history professor at Binghamton
University-State University of New York
and author of We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial
Workers of the World. So, actually, theyve survived as a
miniscule force for more than 80 years.
Along the way, the passionate Wobblies have become
part of the cultural texture of America, he said. They appear
as characters in Dashiell Hammetts Red Harvest, in John
Dos Passos U.S.A Trilogy and in From Here to
Eternity by James Jones.
Not to mention the enduring myth of larger-than-life
Wobbly martyr Joe Hill, executed by a Utah firing squad for
a murder that many insist he didnt commit.
As the song goes, And standing there as big as life, /
And smiling with his eyes, / Joe says, What they forgot to
kill / Went on to organize, / Went on to organize.
What union bosses forgot to kill was the Wobbly
dream of one union for all, regardless of race, nationality,
sex, income or occupation.
Different people and different generations find parts of
that dream that appeals to them, Dubofsky said.
And that is what keeps the movement going. Just barely.
Buss is a pragmatist. When she took over, the IWW
had an $8,000 deficit; now its solvent. She aims to be able
to accept a small salary so she can drop her part-time
typesetting job. She wants to reach out to younger retail
workers and workers toiling too many hours without
overtime. She hopes to circulate more literature, increase
the Wobbly Web presence, organize job actions, build cash
reserves and, of course, sign up more members.
And she has one more goal:
After his cremation, Joe Hills ashes were divided and
sent to IWW delegates to be scattered around the world. A
small pillbox of his remains, after taking a circuitous route,
finally ended up back at the headquarters of the IWW, the
union Hill helped make famous.
Id like to get an urn, but we cant afford it, Buss
said. Well have to raise some money.
The Website of Lord Weÿrdgliffe:
The Dan Clore Necronomicon Page:
"Tho-ag in Zhi-gyu slept seven Khorlo. Zodmanas
zhiba. All Nyug bosom. Konch-hog not; Thyan-Kam
not; Lha-Chohan not; Tenbrel Chugnyi not;
Dharmakaya ceased; Tgenchang not become; Barnang
and Ssa in Ngovonyidj; alone Tho-og Yinsin in
night of Sun-chan and Yong-grub (Parinishpanna),
-- The Book of Dzyan.