Before the internet and social media, ‘the Wobblies’ could mobilize 300,000 workers across the United States. Whoa, dude… whoa. One of the most infamous labor unions in U.S. history, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) are known for their radical socialism, freedom of speech demonstrations, and their goofy, slanderous nickname. In honor of Labor Day, here are some fun facts about the Wobblies as an indelible political subculture within the United States. (Oh yea, and the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany. What’s up, international community.)
5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about the IWW:
1. They had an unusually high percentage of Finnish-Americans as members. In the early days, their only daily newspaper was published in Finnish, out of Duluth, Minnesota.
2. They led the way for inclusive identity politics. When it was founded in 1905, the IWW was one of two American unions “to welcome all workers including women, immigrants, African Americans and Asians into the same organization.” LEGIT.
3. They changed labor policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. An integral part of the four-day 1934 San Francisco general strike and the eighty-three-day West Coast Waterfront Strike, the IWW helped unionize all ports on the West Coast. Today, “the city of Berkeley’s recycling is picked up, sorted, processed and sent out all through two different IWW-organized enterprises.”
4. They chose pickets over process. In 1908, the IWW split over a perennial debate in activist circles: is political action (working within the system to change it) or direct action (shut down the system so it’ll have to change immediately) more effective in achieving collective goals? Direct action won out for the IWW, starting their reputation for massive worker strikes and boycotts.
5. They’re still around. In the last twenty years, regional IWW efforts have organized bike messengers, sex industry workers, foodchain workers, food co-operatives, and Starbucks baristas (for real).
You don’t have to agree with their principles or even like the idea of unions, but the IWW has indisputably left their mark on politics in the United States. Over one hundred years before Occupy and the 99%, the IWW was more articulate, better organized, and ultimately more effective in achieving their goals. All of that, and before the Internet. Hot damn, that’s impressive.
Excerpt from the current IWW Constitution:
“There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”
All quotes and info synthesized from Wikipedia.org and my nerdy recollections of U.S. history classes.
Photo from Machete 408.