Review of The Wobblies in their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era by Eric Chester (Praeger, 2014, hardbound; Levellers Press, 2016, paperback).
The Wobblies are back. Many young radicals find the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the most congenial available platform on which to stand in trying to change the world.
This effort has been handicapped by the lack of a hard-headed history of the IWW in its initial incarnation, from 1905 to just after World War I. The existing literature, for example Franklin Rosemont’s splendid book on Joe Hill, is strong on movement culture and atmosphere. It is weak on why the organization went to pieces in the early 1920s.
Eric Chester’s new book, The Wobblies in their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era, fills this gap. It is indispensable reading for Wobblies and labor historians. One way to summarize what is between these covers is to say that Chester spells out three tragic mistakes made by the old IWW that the reinvented organization must do its best to avoid.
Labor organizing flourished during World War I because of the government’s need for a variety of raw materials. Among these were food, timber, and copper. Wobbly organizers made dramatic headway in all three industries. At its peak in August 1917 the IWW had a membership of more than 150,000.
Nine months later, Chester writes, “the union was in total disarray, forced to devote most of its time and resources to raising funds for attorneys and bail bonds.”
This sad state of affairs was, of course, partly the result of a calculated decision by the federal government to destroy the IWW. But only partly.
According to Chester another cause of the government’s successful suppression of the Wobblies was that during and after the Wheatlands strike in California hop fields in 1913 some Wobblies threatened to “burn California’s agricultural fields if two leaders of the strike were not released from jail.”
For years, Wobbly leaders had insisted that sabotage could force employers to make concessions, Chester writes. But what Chester terms “nebulous calls for arson” and “macho bravado” only stiffened the determination of California authorities not to modify jail sentences for Wobbly leaders Ford and Suhr.
Chester finds that there is no credible evidence that any fields were, in fact, burned. But after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, this extravagant rhetoric calling for the destruction of crops apparently helped to convince President Wilson to initiate a systematic and coordinated campaign to suppress the Wobblies.
Efforts to Avoid Repression by Discontinuing Discussion of the War and the Draft
International solidarity and militant opposition to war and the draft were central tenets of the IWW. Wobblies who had enrolled in the British Army were expelled from the union. At the union’s tenth general convention in November 1915, the delegates adopted a resolution calling for a “General Strike in all industries” should the United States enter the war.
What actually happened was that general secretary-treasurer Bill Haywood and a majority of IWW leaders agreed that the union should desist from any discussion of the war or the draft, in the vain hope that this policy would persuade the federal government to refrain from targeting the union for repression. At the same time, the great majority of rank-and-file members, with support of a few leaders such as Frank Little, insisted that the IWW should be at the forefront of the opposition to the war.
Self-evidently, what Chester terms the IWW’s “diffidence” was the very opposite of Eugene Debs’ defiant opposition to the war. When Wobbly activists “flooded IWW offices with requests for help and pleas for a collective response to the draft,” the usual response was that what to do was up to each individual member. Haywood, Chester writes, “consistently sought to steer the union away from any involvement in the draft resistance movement.” Debs notwithstanding, however, the national leadership of the Socialist Party like the national leadership of the IWW “scrambled to avoid any confrontation with federal authorities.” Radical activists from both organizations formed ad hoc alliances cutting across organizational boundaries.
The IWW General Executive Board, meeting from June 29 to July 6, 1917, was unable to arrive at a decision about the war and conscription, and a committee including both Haywood and Little, tasked to draft a statement, likewise failed to do so. In the end, Chester says, “the IWW sought to position itself as a purely economic organization concerned solely with short-run gains in wages and working conditions.”
Disunity Among IWW Prisoners Fostered by the Government
The reluctance of the Wobbly leadership to advocate resistance to the war and conscription carried over to a legalistic response when the government indicted IWW leaders. Haywood urged all those named in the indictment to surrender voluntarily and to waive any objection to being extradited to Chicago. In the mass trial that followed, the defendants were represented by a very good trial lawyer who was also an enthusiastic supporter of the war and passed up the opportunity to make a closing statement to the jury. Judge Landis’ superficial fairness deluded Wobs into hoping for a good outcome.
The jury took less than an hour to find all one hundred defendants guilty of all counts in the indictment. Ninety-three received lengthy prison terms. Judge Landis ordered that they be imprisoned in Leavenworth, described by Chester as ‘”a maximum-security penitentiary designed for hardened, violent criminals.” Forty-six more defendants were found guilty after another mass conspiracy trial in Sacramento.
Thereafter, Chester writes, the “process of granting a commutation of sentence was manipulated during the administration of Warren Harding to divide and demoralize IWW prisoners.” The ultimate result was “the disastrous split of 1924, leaving the union a shell of what it had been only seven years earlier.” Executive clemency, like that granted to Debs, was the only hope of the Wobblies in prison for release before the end of their long sentences. President Harding rejected any thought of a general amnesty, obliging each prisoner to fill out the form requesting amnesty as an individual. The application form for amnesty contained an implicit admission of guilt. The newly-created ACLU supported this process.
Twenty-four IWW prisoners opted to submit a form requesting amnesty. A substantial majority refused to plead for individual release. More than seventy issued a statement in which they insisted that “all are innocent and all must receive the same consideration.” The government insisted on a case-by-case approach. Fifty-two prisoners responded that they refused to accept the president’s division of the Sacramento prisoners, still alleged to have burned fields, from the Chicago prisoners. Moreover they considered it a “base act” to “sign individual applications and leave the Attorney General’s office to select which of our number should remain in prison and which should go free.”
Initially, the IWW supported those prisoners who refused to seek their freedom individually. Those who had submitted personal requests for presidential clemency were expelled from the union. In June 1923, the government once again dangled before desperate men the prospect of release, now available for those individual prisoners promising to remain “law-abiding and loyal to the Government.” This time a substantial majority of the remaining prisoners accepted Harding’s offer, and IWW headquarters, in what Chester calls “a sweeping reversal,” gave its approval.
Eleven men at Leavenworth declined this latest government inducement. In addition, those who were tried in California did not receive the same offer.
In December 1923 the remaining IWW prisoners at Leavenworth including twenty-two who had been convicted in Sacramento were released unconditionally. The damage had been done. Those who had held out the longest launched a campaign within the IWW to expel those who had supported a form of conditional release. There were accusations against anyone who had allegedly proved himself “a scab and a rat.” When a convention convened in 1924 both sides claimed the headquarters office and went to court. An organization consisting of the few hundred members who had supported the consistent rejection of all government offers “faded into oblivion by 1931.”
It is not the intent of brother Chester’s book, or of this review, to trash the IWW. This review has dealt with only about half of the material in the book, for example passing by the story of Wobbly organizing in copper, both at Butte, Montana and Bisbee, Arizona. Moreover, any one who lived through the disintegration of SDS, SNCC and the Black Panthers is familiar with tragedies like those described here. The heroism of members of all three groups who were martyrs, such as Frank Little, Fred Hampton, and the Mississippi Three (Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner), remains. The vision of a qualitatively different society, as the Zapatistas say “un otro mundo,” remains also.
What it seems to me we must soberly consider is what practices we can adopt to forestall disintegration when different members of a group make different choices. Hardened secular radicals though we may be, we can learn something from King Lear’s words to his daughter Cordelia: “When you ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down and ask of you forgiveness.”
Staughton Lynd is an American conscientious objector, Quaker, peace activist and civil rights activist, tax resister, historian, professor, author and lawyer. Staughton Lynd’s most recent book is From Here to There: the Staughton Lynd Reader.
Response by Eric Chester
Staughton Lynd and I agree that we can learn from the mistakes and errors made by radicals in the past and that, rather than covering these up, they need to be addressed. Still, it is also important to learn from the successes of the past, as well as the mistakes. The Industrial Workers of the World organized militant strikes involving tens of thousands of workers in the midst of a total war. Furthermore, it did so by creating a sub-culture that continues to influence contemporary popular culture. As the union organized effective strkes and key industries and developed solid roots in working class communities, it attracted the attention of the federal government, which launched a coordinated campaign of repression to destroy it.
My book looks at the IWW at its high point during World War I and during the immediate aftermath of the war. Although there are many monographs that examine the IWW within a narrow focus, there are only a few works that seek to place the Wobblies in a broader context. Many of the documents generated within the union were seized by government agencies during raids on union halls and were kept secret for decades. The government also kept secret for many decades the documents showing the extent of its effort to suppress the IWW. My book utilizes a wide array of archival sources, some of which have only recently been made available to public scrutiny.
By utilizing these archival sources, we can get a more complete picture of how the IWW actually functioned during its heyday and how the government responded to the challenge presented by the Wobblies. This should be helpful to contemporary activists as they develop a strategy and tactics that best correspond to today’s circumstances.
Lynd presents an analysis of three problematic areas in IWW history. On two of them, the events surrounding the Wheatland confrontation and the manipulation of the pardon process by the Harding administration, I have nothing to add. On the third issue, the IWW and its stance on the war, I would like to provide a further comment.
The IWW had a tradition of anti-militarism that began well before World War I. The November 1916 conference passed a militant resolution opposing the entry of the United States into the war and pledging to organize a general strike should this occur. Yet after April 1917, when Congress declared war on Germany, Haywood and a majority of the union’s leadership retreated, insisting that the union should focus its efforts on organizing at the workplace.
Nevertheless, there was a significant tendency within the union that opposed this position. Rank and file wobblies joined with left-wing socialists in initiating localized covert actions of resistance. Metal Mine Workers’ Union #490, based on the Finnish iron ore workers in northern Minnesota, distributed flyers denouncing the war and the draft. Within the General Executive Board, Frank Little battled to prod the union into organizing a collective resistance to the war. The union as a whole failed to meet the challenge set by the war itself, but many Wobblies acted in a principled and courageous manner.
The IWW was a unique experience in U.S. history. Its ability to organize militant strikes while also presenting a radical critique of capitalist society remains an inspiration for radicals to this day. Its legacy, both successes and failures, deserves to be taken seriously and not blurred into a romanticized fable.
Eric Chester is a member of the IWW, an activist and author currently living in Scotland.