REVIEW: Remembering the 'Wobblies,' a Fabled, Fighting Labor Union

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WOBBLIES OF THE WORLD: A Global History of the IWW edited by Peter Cole, David Struthers, and Kenyon Zimmer

Pluto Press (distributed by the University of Chicago Press) 298 pp.

By Peter Lewis

The Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) starts with, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”  The Preamble laid its cards on the table.

When the Constitution was adopted at the first IWW convention in Chicago in June 1905 — by a medley of socialists, radical unionists, anarchists, Marxists, Darwinists, Bakuninists, syndicalists, including “Mother” Jones, Eugene V. Debs, Lucy Parsons, and Big Bill Haywood — a closed circle of Americans found themselves smirking through their cigars, a greater number of Americans found themselves nodding yes. So many so, the world wobbled on its feet. And that is how they came to be known as Wobblies.

No, that’s not true. 

The origin of the terms “Wobbly” is lost in the mists. One cockamamie story has it that a Chinese restaurant owner extending credit to striking railway workers and who was unable to pronounce the letter “w,” would “ask workers if they were in the ‘eye wobble wobble.’” Begging how a gentleman who could not pronounce “w” was able to say, “wobble wobble,” this tale is also freighted with racism. The Wobblies were many things to many people across the globe, as testified in historians Peter Cole, David Struthers, and Kenyon Zimmer’s fine, original collection essays, Wobblies of the World but racist they were not. The by-laws stated that “no workingman or woman shall be excluded from local unions because of creed or color.” In 1905, when racism, sexism, and xenophobia marked everyday life, that was revolutionary. Still is.

The purpose of Wobblies of the World is to detail the IWW’s transnational reach, the importance it placed in embracing all workers in one big union, and cross-pollinating in the process. Each chapter of the book tells a story of Wobbly activity in some far-flung venue: South Asia, the far north woods, Spain and Mexico, New Zealand and Australia, South Africa. If capitalism was a global phenomenon, then its adversary would have to be as well. If the Wobblies syndicalist goal of a general strike to command the means of production, then all the better a general strike, changing the map of the world. And if that goal held the anarchist promise of egalitarianism and direct democracy—IWW’s particular anarcho-syndicalism—so much the better.

The editors’ Introduction is the meat of the volume, while its satellite chapters are the potatoes. Wobblies of the World is IWW Course 201. You may wish to bone up on IWW 101 history with Philip S. Foner’s incomparable, door-stopping History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 4: Industrial Workers of the World or the dynamic, informative Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. Or you may find the Introduction here to be history enough, covering the birth of the union; the chromatic and courageous years leading up to the First World War; the local, state, and federal crackdown on the IWW, including the denial of free speech; all written with brio and dash without getting sloppy, and including critiques of various Wobblie principles—they would not sign contracts, for instance, as contracts limited the right to strike again instantly—that may remind the reader of the Shakers. Principles can be beautiful, especially when they are survivable.

The potatoes are nineteen chapters that bring alive the global roaming of the Wobblies, who did not demand singular allegiance and would accept members from other unions, thus they were quite busily involved in solidarity strikes. The chapters bring to light, many for the first time, the international flavor of IWW publications—in its heyday of fourteen weekly and biweekly newspapers, only three were in English, and locals had open reading rooms—for the dissemination of knowledge was key to IWW general strike victory: you have to know how to run things if you are going to keep the great industrial engine turning through workers councils, with coordinated cooperation and without the Leninist afterthoughts.

The IWW was a social movement as well as an economic force; according to this anthology, for instance, the lumber handlers alone counted in their ranks “Scotch, French Swede, Indian, German, Norwegian, half-breed, Dane, Japanese, Arabian, Italian, Chil[ean], Filipino, Negro, Russian, Mexican, American, Portuguese.” The chapters range in subject matter from instances of international solidarity, to the Wobblie meaning of sabotage, to movement songs, to short vignettes of less-well-known Wobblies, including Ralph Chaplin, who drew the iconic Wobblie wildcat:

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Okay, some of the writing is as dry as the television show Dragnet’s Sargent Joe Friday -- “Just the facts, ma’am” -- and there are moments of turbidity and a dispiriting lack of wit—a Wobblie never passed up a chance to laugh—but this is data mining. This is knowledge of the Wobblies' vast international influence, brought together here under one big roof is a unique contribution to global history, and we should rarely pass up a chance for that.


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Peter Lewis is an editor of the Geographical Review, the flagship of The American Geographical Society, established in downtown New York City in 1851. He lives with his family in the Hudson Highlands of New York.  A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Lewis serves on the NBCC committee for the John Leonard Award to honor an author's first book.