WOBBLIES OF THE WORLD : A GLOBAL HISTORY OF THE IWW
Edited by Peter Cole, David Struthers, and Kenyon Zimmer
Pluto Press. 312 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-0-7453-9959-1
Reviewed by Jim Burns
It’s often customary to use the term “legendary” when writing about the Wobblies – the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – who, for a time (a short time lasting no more than a few years between roughly 1910 and 1919), captured the often-hostile attention of the press and public in the United States. The IWW had been formed in 1905, and it carried on after 1919, but it’s the period referred to that probably saw its main focus of activity in America with a programme of strikes and propaganda that gave it a reputation for militancy. And eventually led to the government using the full force of the law (unfairly in some cases) to crush the organisation and cause it to splinter and fall apart.
Most previous accounts of IWW activities have understandably focused
If the IWW was, in many ways, an organisation designed to function
within (or against) the boundaries of a capitalist system that had
Unions were nothing new, of course, but they frequently appealed largely to skilled workers and were mostly conservative in character. The aim of the “new” unions was to enlist the support of workers in the growing labour-intensive areas of employment, such as the docks, gas works, mills, and other centres, plus migratory workers who had previously been unorganised, and so subject to poor working conditions, long hours, and low pay. The idea was to have all workers in an industry, for example, in the same union, with all unions eventually combined as one big union.
I think it’s necessary to say that syndicalist or industrial unionist theories mostly appealed to a minority of union activists. The rank and file members might go out on strike, or take other forms of action in support of a pay claim or an improvement in conditions, but the IWW notion that every small local strike was just a rehearsal for the big general strike when the one big union would take over, wasn’t likely to be more than a dream in the minds of a few militants.
Still, the point was that for a period some unions were led by men who did think that syndicalism could work in terms of allowing the working class to achieve a victory over capitalism. Events like the 1913 strike and lockout in Dublin, and the unrest in English ports such as Liverpool and Hull around the same time, might not have got anywhere near what the syndicalists wanted, but they certainly persuaded the government and employers that there was more to the militancy than mere demands for shorter hours and higher pay.
I don’t think the IWW ever had more than a token presence in the
Verity Burgmann, writing about Wobblies in
Individuals often stand out in accounts of strikes and other
expressions of dissent, and in Australian IWW history the name of
Tom Barker is prominent. Born near Kendal, Barker started work
early, spent some years in the British Army, then emigrated to
The Australian branch of the IWW probably didn’t ever have more than
a few thousand members, but in their promotion of strikes, their
campaigning against conscription during the First World War, and in
some cases, their determination to carry out certain forms of
sabotage, they were more than comparable to the most militant of
American Wobblies. There are a couple of books that deal with the
adventures and escapades of the IWW in
As for Tom Barker, he was deported to
It might be appropriate to mention that the IWW often attracted its
share of larger-than-life characters. Among them in
The fact of the matter was that, in both
I’m perhaps straying a little from the contents of
Wobblies of the World,
where the presence of the IWW in
There’s also a chapter about the involvement of Wobblies in the
Spanish Civil War. They were mostly sailors who saw themselves as
aligned with the anarcho-syndicalists of the Confederación National
del Trabajo (CNT). They were at first welcomed in the International
Brigades, but frictions soon developed which paralleled those being
experienced in the
By 1936, the IWW was a shadow of its former self, and as its
membership and influence declined many ex-IWW members were attracted
to the Communist Party, and unions organised and controlled by it.
And the fact was that, in
It’s probable that most people will only know of the IWW because of
a few songs that have survived and, in one or two cases, gone into
popular use. And because their creator became something of a martyr
to the cause when he was framed (or so his supporters claimed) on a
murder charge and executed in 1915. A poem by Alfred Hayes, “I
Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night”, was set to music by Earl
Robinson, and recorded
by Paul Robeson. It was sung by Joan Baez at
It hasn’t been possible to comment in detail on every contribution to Wobblies of the World, so suffice to say that it’s a much-needed addition to the library of books, articles, and other material relating to the IWW. It broadens our knowledge of the syndicalists in a wide sense, as well as that of the IWW in particular.
Arguments will always continue as to whether or not the organisation could ever have grown to a size where it might have been capable of carrying out its proclaimed aim of one big union bringing about a general strike that would overthrow the capitalist system. I suspect that most workers saw this as a dream never likely to be realised, and their membership of the IWW, if they were members, mostly related to bread and butter matters like shorter hours and higher pay and conditions on the job. It has always seemed to me that the very nature of the IWW, and the sort of people it often appealed to, wasn’t ever likely to make for permanency in terms of establishing local branches with a reliable membership. Young Wobblies with no family commitments could move on, but many others needed to hold on to jobs and stay in one place. There were, perhaps, too many contradictions at work to enable the IWW to have long-term viability. It could only burn brightly for a short time. Having said that doesn’t lessen the value of the dream, nor the very real bravery and dedication of many of those who tried to make it come true.