Wednesday, June 28, 2000

The Industrial Workers of the World

"By industrially organising the most oppressed, the IWW automatically came into bitter conflict with the capitalist state and employers. Because of their impoverished constituency and low membership fees, the IWW had to rely on dedicated activists rather than salaried bureaucrats. The harsh conflicts between the WFM and the employers had already convinced most in the IWW of some form of socialist politics. The conflicts of the years to come entrenched this."


On June 27, 1905, 203 individuals and delegates from various trade union and socialist organisations met in Chicago for the Continental Congress of the Working Class. Bill Haywood -- leader of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) -- called it to order. Twelve days later, the congress closed and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) -- the Wobblies -- were born, beginning one of the most inspiring chapters of US labour history.

A product of the WFM's merger with other militant unionists and socialists, the IWW set itself against the conservative American Federation of Labour (AFL) by proclaiming the need for socialism and for industrial unionism. The AFL organised workers by the craft or trade they performed rather than by the industry they worked in. As a result, the AFL restricted union organisation to skilled workers.

The early years of the IWW were marked more by factional disputes than organisational successes. The majority of the leadership and membership of the WFM split away. In another split, the followers of the sectarian socialist Daniel DeLeon left. Both groups unsuccessfully attempted to set up their own rival IWWs.

The Chicago-based IWW was left with a group of veteran labour activists who had little mass support or recognition. These activists threw themselves into organising the unskilled, underprivileged, and unorganised timber workers, immigrant factory labourers, miners, farm workers and longshoremen (wharfies).

In its early years, the IWW organised massive free speech campaigns for the right to speak in the streets. This was an important battle as the IWW's main method of recruiting itinerant workers was to address them as they spent their pay in town. In the free speech battles, and in industrial campaigns, IWW members were frequently imprisoned for real or invented “crimes”. They were beaten by police; vigilantes and scabs harassed, attacked and occasionally murdered IWW members.

The IWW turned to organising Western itinerant labourers on the job. During the period before WWI, a period of high employment generated by a growing economy, IWW membership peaked at more than 100,000. The Wobblies recruited widely among agricultural labourers, timber workers and miners.

Anti-war

When the US entered the war, the IWW -- like the far left of the socialist movement in other countries -- opposed their government's entry. IWW newspapers instigated a propaganda war on nationalism and militarism and did their best to combat the vast quantities of patriotic rubbish propagated by the state and the capitalist press.

Rather than outright anti-war organising, the IWW simply continued organising industrial battles in the war industries. Although these struggles were over purely economic demands, capitalists pressured the government to suppress the “German-influenced saboteurs” of the IWW.

Supposedly acting against this “treason”, the US government moved against the IWW. Army personnel were used to break strikes, hundreds of Wobblies were imprisoned, and the organisation -- politically beheaded by the imprisonment of its middle and top leadership -- was nearly bankrupted by the massive legal defence campaign it had to wage.

Following the war, with most IWW leaders still in jail, members attempted to reestablish the organisation. However, partly due to inexperience of the new leaders and partly due to changed objective conditions, the IWW continued to decline.

The 1917 Russian Revolution captured the imagination of radicalising workers, who were mostly attracted to the new Communist Party. The post-war prosperity allowed US capitalism to grant higher living standards to larger sections of the working class, weakening the militancy of migratory and super-exploited workers. Despite a few well-run campaigns through the 1920s and '30s, the IWW steadily shrunk.

IWW in Australia

The IWW was formed in Australia in 1907 by Australian supporters of DeLeon and for the first years of its existence it was part of DeLeon's rival IWW. In 1911, a branch of the Chicago IWW formed in Adelaide, and later in Sydney. It grew to eclipse the rest of the Australian socialist organisations. The IWW in Australia organised miners, shearers and other unskilled labourers. While being relatively small -- a few thousand members -- the IWW's militant agitation in the front lines of industrial strife during the war caused a stir.

The Wobblies' industrial agitation and vocal opposition to conscription brought them to the government's attention. In 1916, 12 leading members of the IWW were charged with arson, jailed and the IWW was suppressed.

While some of the ideas of the IWW lived on within Australian trade unions, and the syndicalist idea of forming a “One Big Union” gained in popularity for a time, the IWW in Australia itself never recovered.

Lessons of the IWW's rise and fall

The US revolutionary James P. Cannon -- an organiser for the IWW before WWI -- called the IWW “the great anticipation” of the industrial trade unions that took off in the US in the 1930s and of the revolutionary cadre party that the communist movement sought to build following the Russian Revolution.

By industrially organising the most oppressed, the IWW automatically came into bitter conflict with the capitalist state and employers. Because of their impoverished constituency and low membership fees, the IWW had to rely on dedicated activists rather than salaried bureaucrats. The harsh conflicts between the WFM and the employers had already convinced most in the IWW of some form of socialist politics. The conflicts of the years to come entrenched this.

In organising the unorganised, the IWW did not distinguish between workers on the basis of colour, nationality or sex -- unlike the racist AFL (and the Australian unions). In this they were years ahead of the official labour movement. On the other hand, the IWW did not wage “political” struggles apart from those for free speech and legal defence. It usually saw no use for non-industrial activity. Anarchist?

Many have labelled the IWW as anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist. Despite broad similarities (such as anti-parliamentarism and an anti-political sentiment), the great majority of Wobblies saw themselves as socialists and syndicalists; few conscious anarchists were involved. The IWW had no formal ties to socialist organisations, but much of the left-wing of the US Socialist Party sympathised with or joined the IWW.

To some extent the IWW was cut off from the mainstream labour movement. As well as the hostility of the conservative labour tops, this isolation was also partly due to the sectarianism of the IWW. By seeking to build a new, ideologically comfortable union, rather than relating to the existing unions, the IWW separated itself from many other left-wing labour activists and workers. The AFL ranks were not only the proletarian elite, but also included some unskilled workers such as coal miners. The AFL did organise militant strikes on a few occasions.

The Wobblies saw themselves as building the new (socialist) society within the old. The “One Big Union” was to administer the new society. This was a better conception than the gradual parliamentary reformism espoused by many of the mainstream socialists -- an idea the IWW firmly opposed. Yet, the IWW did not devise a strategy for abolishing the capitalist order.

With all their revolutionary intent, the IWW focused on the workers' day-to-day economic struggles. When faced with concerted attack by the state, the Wobblies had no strategy to deal with it, either by transforming economic struggles into insurrection, or by going underground. The Wobblies strategy in the end also proved to be gradualist, seeking to ignore the capitalist state rather than destroy it.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 410, 28 June 2000.

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