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Wobblies Aren't So Wobbly Nowadays

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  • Clore Daniel C
    [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
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 5, 2000
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      [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]

      The IWW:

      Wobblies aren’t so wobbly nowadays

      Wobblies preaching radical labor message to new generation

      Iconoclastic IWW still trying to unionize the world

      By Dru Sefton

      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.” They’re radical syndicalists, as they have been
      since the IWW’s 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 it’s 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 “Don’t 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
      temporary employees.

      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 it’s symbolic of the wobble saw,
      mounted to cut a groove wider than the saw is thick. Others
      think it’s based on an immigrant’s 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 don’t need
      him.” “Good pay or bum work.”

      They’ve 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


      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 it’s 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, it’s 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 it’s a workplace with just two people and one
      boss, we’re there to organize,” she said.


      “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, they’ve 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 Hammett’s “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 didn’t 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 it’s 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 Hill’s 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.

      “I’d like to get an urn, but we can’t afford it,” Buss
      said. “We’ll have to raise some money.”

      Dan Clore

      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),
      &c., &c.,"
      -- The Book of Dzyan.
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