Industrial Workers of the World Led Fight

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

How many people work only eight hours a day forty hours a week and take it for granted? How many people work for a decent wage and expect that that is the way it has always been? How many people complain about laborious safety procedures, not knowing that such protections from work related accidents as severe at death never existed? These issues and many others were once not a given in the work place; in fact, they were considered preposterous by many companies. In 1905, an organization was founded that fought for such things to be given rights. This organization was the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World.

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. Solely using unique ‘On the Job’ tactics, like civil disobedience to unjust laws and making agreements without written contracts, which was a step away from the methods of organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the IWW drew national and international attention 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. 1

“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, and is based around excerpts from oral history interviews that were originally conducted by these same individuals for 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? It would seem that these are very possibly a part of the motivation for the creation of the documentary and subsequent text.

The authors, themselves, state that the purpose of the project was to reanimate for new generations a sense of the passion that had once mobilized working America.2

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 a 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, and as evidence to support the research.

Consider the chapter entitled Bindlestiffs. This chapter spoke about the itinerate 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). To offer a vision into the lives of the workers who experienced these things, the authors interviewed Jack Miller, who worked in both timber and agriculture and had a personal run-in with the dangers of traveling on the railways between jobs when he had to face down a brakeman who had plans to collect fairs or beat him and his traveling companions down. They also interviewed Joe Murphy who, as an IWW job delegate, experienced the harshness of the timber and agriculture industries and who was present at the IWW’s response to the Centralia Raid that was carried out by the American Legion in November 1919.3

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 intense and even deadly, as Annie Lo Pezzo found out. There were successes, like the one in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in which male and female workers formed a mobile picket line that effectively shut down commerce across the city, and failures, like the one in Patterson, New Jersey, where the factory owners, seeing themselves as the last line of defense against the textile strikes, refused to yield, no matter the costs. 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, though she did long for another chance to be active.4

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, a union that was actually even able to open up offices in several foreign ports. This union also experienced government repression which, for them, was especially intense during WWI, as 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 with 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, but who was also fond of the unique sense humor that IWW workers maintained to help themselves endure the unpleasant conditions.5

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 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 preexistent 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 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 and extremely misunderstood.6


1 Stewart Bird, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer, Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW (Chicago: Lakeview Press, 1985), 1, 4-7, 8-10, 15-16, 17.
2 Internet Movie Database, The Wobblies (1979), http://www.imdb.com/media/rm45519360/tt0080142, (Accessed on February 22, 2012 at 9:30 PM); Bird, Georgakas, and Shaffer, p. 2.
3 Ibid, 31-36, 38-39, 47-49.
4 Ibid, 57-60, 69, 74.
5 Ibid, 177-180, 182, 185
6 Ibid, 226-236; Ralph Chaplin, Wobbly: The Rough and Tumble Story of an American Radical (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948); Philip S. Foner, The Industrial Workers of the World (New York: International Publishers, 1965); Patrick Renshaw, The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1967).

--Keifus