the un-people: throwing the off switch

Pull the legs out from under the wage system. The Wobblies. The I.W.W. It was an America in which those who did protest were often locked out, replaced by scabs, and prevented from picketing by injunction and by naked force. At Homestead, Pullman, Coeur d’Alene, Cripple Creek, Ludlow, and other places where strikers clashed with troops or police between 1892 and 1914, the record of labor’s frustrations was marked with bloody palm prints. And at the bottom of the scale was the vast army of migrant workers who beat their way by rail from job to job- not only unskilled, unprotected, and underpaid, but unnoticed and unremembered.

---While some people may be most familiar with the fist icon through its later development in Socialist Realism, it has a long history of use by labor movements in this country, particularly in the political imagery of the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies. The Wobblies’ political aim and motto—“One Big Union”—is graphically represented in this 1917 poster that prominently features farm workers (note the pitchfork) alongside their industrial counterparts. ---Read More:

Out of such a situation grew the I.W.W. It gained much not only from the horror of its surroundings, but from the spirit of an infant century when the emancipation of almost everyone- women, workers, artists, children, – from the dragons of the past seemed to be a live possibility, and “new” was a catchword on every tongue.

The opening years of the organization’s life were not promising. Its founding fathers were numerous and diverse. These ranged from discontented trade unionists, Socialists like Eugene V. Debs and the whiskered professorial Daniel De Leon, and veterans of almost every other left-wing crusade of the preceding twenty years. There was, among them all, according to an I.W.W. historian, ” such a warfare as can be found only between competing radicals.” They were however, united in objecting to the craft-union principles of A.F.L. chieftain Samuel Gompers, whom William D. Haywood described as “a squat specimen of humanity with small snapping eyes, a hard cruel mouth, and a personality vain, conceited, petulant and vindictive.” In short, the complicity and collaboration was the most irksome.

---The convention produced a preamble that sought to link the immediate struggle to the wider aim of overthrowing capitalism. The main tactic was unambiguous; the newly formed IWW was to set about organising workers into “One Big Union”, whose aim was revolution, after which the union would take over the running of society in the newly established co-operative commonwealth. In the build-up to the revolution, the IWW would wage class war against the capitalist class, developing workers’ revolutionary consciousness in the process. From the outset, the new union condemned racism. The convention declared that any wage earner could be a member regardless of occupation, race, creed or sex. Anti-discrimination and internationalism quickly became part of its culture and two of its major strengths. Racism especially was recognised as a major factor used by capitalism to divide the working class, affecting both black Americans and newly arrived South East Asians and Europeans. The American Federation of Labor (AFofL) was openly racist - for example, it produced stickers drawing consumers’ attention to those goods that had been produced by white workers. --- Read More:

Gomper’s plan of organizing only skilled craftsmen and negotiating contracts aimed only at securing a better life from day to day struck the I.W.W.’s founders not only as a damper upon whatever militancy the labor movement might generate to challenge capitalism, but also as a betrayal of the unskilled laborers, who would be left to shift for themselves. The new leaders therefore created a “single industrial union” as far removed from craft divisions as possible.

It was the idea of the One Big Union. A grievance of one lowly set of workers in a single shop could bring on a strike that would paralyze an entire industry. And some day, it was felt, on signal from the One Big Union, all workers in all industries would throw the “Off” switch, and the wage system would come tumbling down. Much of the scheme came from the brain and pen of a priest, Father Thomas Hagerty, who while serving mining parishes in the Rockies had come to believe in Marx as well as Christ. He had a scheme of industrial unionism worked out in a wheel shaped chart of which Gompers called a wheel of fortune which he did not expect to spin for very long.

---The IWW called for a boycott of the agencies and for workers to be recruited via union halls - similar to the recently successful syndicalist union CGT campaign in France. “Soapbox orators”, the most common form of IWW agitation, set up outside employment agencies to denounce their corrupt practices. The police responded by prohibiting street speaking. From 1908 to 1916, the free speech campaign became the focus of a bitter battle between the IWW and the US state, during which some 5,000 IWW members were imprisoned. The prisons rapidly filled, forcing the state to back down. In the process of winning the campaign, the IWW also exposed the brutality of the US prison system. --- Read More: image:

Nor during the I.W.W.’s first three years of existence, did it seem likely too. Factional quarrels wracked the national H.Q, and the Western Federation of Miners, the biggest block in the I.W.W. pulled out. By 1908 the union had only 5,000 members, was broke and apparently heading toward the graveyard that seems to await all clique-ridden American radical bodies.

But the death notices were premature. The headquarters brawls were among and between trade unionists and Socialists, and the I.W.W’s future was, as it turned out, linked to neither group.

---In the first few years of its ex

nce, the IWW concentrated on organizing miners and lumber and agricultural workers in the West. But by 1912, the union’s attention had been captured by the difficulties experienced by textile workers in the East. The IWW is perhaps most famous for organizing and leading the massive textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912.--- Read More:

Many assessments of America from de Tocqueville on are laced with a dialectic of love and hate. Yet not all Europeans are or were ambivalent. Sigmund Freud’s apparent anti-Americanism puzzled Max Eastman. Why, Eastman once asked him, do you hate America? Freud responded that he did not hate America but, rather, regretted it. The withering assessments of the American culture industry penned by Theodor Adorno were not counter-balanced by a passion for America. Adorno in exile was estranged from the culture of his adopted home. He perceived the political culture of America to be the embodiment of commodity fetishism. To a certain extent, so did the German sociologist Werner Sombart. Yet his classic and wrongly neglected Why is There no Socialism in the United States?, reverberates with a simultaneous suspicion of and admiration for the United States. The image of the anarchist Alexander Berkman kissing the American flag, having been tortured by vigilantes during an IWW struggle in San Diego, captures this ambivalence. Read More:

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