Friday, July 22, 2016

Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW - A Review


"The mine owners do not find the gold, they do not mine the gold, the do not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy, all the gold belongs to them." - "Big" Bill Haywood, IWW Founding Member

Bird, Stewart, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer. Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW. Chicago: Lakeview Press, 1985.

        How many people enjoy the comfort of eight hour work days and forty hour work weeks and don't think twice about how they got that liberty? How many people work a job that pays, at the least, a living wage and go to the bank each week thinking that such has always been the case? How many people complain about laborious safety procedures, not knowing that such protections from work related accidents, some of which may cause debilitating injuries, or even death, have not always existed? These positive worker's benefits were not always a given in the American workplace; in fact, they were considered preposterous by many companies, many of whom, found such concessions to be an unreasonable threat to their bottom lines. In 1905, an organization was founded that fought for such things to be made given rights for American workers. This organization was the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. If it had not been for this organization, many of the common benefits that people take for granted now would not be available to American workers. Perhaps, if people were to put more stock in this reality, they would be less willing to watch their companies strip them of their rights and jobs in front of their very eyes.
        People around the country, in the early twentieth century, were growing very tired of how poor their working conditions were, and knowing that they were not getting better, despite the existence of trade unions, they began to look to other methods and other organizations for answers to their problems. Many looked to the IWW. The IWW was known to use tactics that other organizations found to be too risky. They would regularly engage in ‘On the Job’ actions, rather than doing most of their work outside the job. One of their more common actions was the 'Sit In,' where their member workers would occupy the production floor of a factory and halt production until their needs were met. They were also known for making unwritten agreements with companies and organizing by industry rather than by trade. This was contrary to the methods of organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL); but it was effective, for companies knew that if they violated the terms of a verbal agreement, they would be facing another 'Floor Strike,' as they liked to call it. They would also run the risk of a strike that could possibly encompass multiple facilities and trades, all at once. Such tactics were more feared because they made it harder for companies to bring in Scabs, or replacement workers, to continue production while they stalled with the unions. Through the use of such tactics, the IWW drew national and international attention to the plight of the American working class and helped to improve working conditions for common working Americans. The organization was not without it problems, though. It faced government repression, internal disagreements, and resistance from unsympathetic co-workers and trade unions. As a result, after 1924, the organization’s sway began to fade; however, its legacy cannot be ignored. The IWW provided the momentum needed for future organizations, like the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), to make even further gains for working Americans.
        Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW was published in 1985 by the Lakeview Press based out of Chicago, Illinois. It was authored and edited by Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer. It is based upon excerpts from oral history interviews that were originally conducted by these same individuals for use in the documentary “The Wobblies,” which was released by DocuRama in 1979. One wonders why this time frame was chosen for this project. Could it have been that the old Wobblies were getting so old that there was a risk that their memories would be forgotten? Could it have been the anti-Union sentiment of the time, as can be evidenced in the anti-labor actions of the Reagan Administration? Both of these factors played a part in motivating the creation of the documentary and the subsequent book. The authors, themselves, stated that the primary purpose of the project was to engender, in a new generation of Americans, a sense of passion and dedication to rival that of the IWW that had once mobilized the American working class to take the improvement of their working conditions and their future into their own hands.
        The book was divided into thirteen chapters, The IWW Reconsidered, Fanning the Flames, Bindlestiffs, Women in Textiles, The Home Guard, Timberbeasts, Hard Rock Mining, Civil Liberties for All, Comrade or Fellow Worker?, On the Waterfront, Continued Repression and Decline, A Better World, and Solidarity Forever. Each of the chapters, minus the last one, opened with contextual research, which covered the given theme and was then backed up by anywhere from one to four excerpts from oral history interviews that served as voices for the people or events addressed. The interview excerpts also served as further evidence to support the research.
        Consider the chapter entitled, "Bindlestiffs."  This chapter spoke about the itinerant workers who numbered in the millions in the United States before World War I. It mentioned some of the very harsh conditions that these workers had to face, such as low wages, poor provisions, irregular work, unsafe working conditions, and the dangers encountered on the railways between jobs. These workers, primarily agriculture and timber workers, facing such deplorable conditions, sought to organize and faced even more dangers then. Such a task was very difficult, as the workforce was so mobile and the workplaces were so spread out. It was also difficult because many employers and local governments were resistant to the IWW and its affiliated organizations that were doing the work. The Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO) and the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW) were just a couple of many such organizations. To offer a vision into the lives of the workers who experienced these things, the authors interviewed Jack Miller, who worked in both the timber and agricultural industries and had a personal run-in with the dangers of traveling on the railways between jobs. He had to face down a railroad brakeman, who had plans to collect fairs from him and his companions. The consequences of non payment was a beatdown at the hands of hired thugs. They also interviewed Joe Murphy who, as an IWW job delegate, experienced both the harshness of the timber and agricultural industries and the lethal reprisal of people who feared the communist influence of the IWW. This fear was manifested during the first 'Red Scare' in 1919. Murphy was present at the IWW’s response to the Centralia Raid, which was carried out by the American Legion in November of 1919.
        Consider, also, the chapter entitled, "Women in Textiles."  In this chapter, the authors discussed the IWW’s commitment to organizing female workers. The work that went into the attempts to organize the women in the textile industry was extremely intense, and even deadly, as Annie Lo Pezzo found out. There were both successes and failures. The action in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in which both male and female workers formed a mobile picket line, effectively shut down commerce across the city, and garnered huge concessions for the textile unions there. This was a success. The action in Patterson, New Jersey, however, where the factory owners, seeing themselves as the last line of defense against the textile strikes, refused to yield, no matter the costs, was an unfortunate failure. To offer a vision of how these strikes affected the female workers, the authors interviewed Sophie Cohen and Irma Lombardi, who had both been involved in the failed strike at Patterson. Despite the failure, Cohen retained her IWW membership after becoming a nurse; whereas, Lombardi fell away afterwards and went back to work in the textile industry for another forty years. Both women retained their desire for another chance to be active in the labor struggle.
        Finally, consider the chapter entitled, "On the Waterfronts."  In this chapter, the authors discussed the influence that the IWW was able to maintain in the maritime trade industry through the work of the Maritime Transport Workers Union. Interestingly enough, this union was actually even able to open up offices in several foreign ports. This union also experienced intense government repression which, for them, was especially rigorous during WWI. This was so because the the workers in this union handled shipments that were bound for war torn Europe. To offer a vision into this industry, the authors interviewed James Fair and Fred Hansen. Fair was especially adamant that the MTWU never once hampered or delayed shipments to American troops in Europe, and Hansen recounted some of the harsh conditions that maritime workers were forced to endure while at sea, such as poor food and unsafe conditions. Though they endured some difficult times, both men had a common memory of their days in the union. They were both fond of the unique sense humor that IWW workers maintained to help themselves endure the unpleasant conditions while on the job.
        Is this approach to the history of the IWW in Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW beneficial? First, one must consider that the history of the IWW is not unwritten. The text of the book and the notes at the end of the book offer countless references to other books on the history of the IWW, such as Ralph Chaplin’s, Wobbly: The Rough and Tumble Story of an American Radical, Philip S. Foner’s, The Industrial Workers of the World, which is Volume 4 of his series entitled, History of the Labor Movement in America, or Patrick Renshaw’s, The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States. Despite this preexisting body of work, the answer is, most assuredly, yes. It is easy to come to such a conclusion when one considers the awesome potential of first-hand accounts of historical events. Anyone who is well versed in the history of the IWW, and who knows the aforementioned texts well, can use a book such as this to compare and contrast what they know from their historical research with what these people, who actually experienced the events, remember from their direct involvement with the IWW. They can then come to a much deeper understanding of the IWW and the impact that its operations had on the people that were directly involved in the events. They can also come to a better understanding of how the IWW provided momentum and inspiration to the labor movement in the United States. To people not involved in the historical field, this book can serve to put a human face on an organization that has been attacked by the government for being radical and dangerous. It can also serve to clear up a great many of the misconceptions about an organization that brought motivation and innovation to the labor movement in a time when when the government was coming down hard on the labor movement as a whole. Solidarity forever!

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