Sunday, January 4, 2015


Update: The New Mexican has left a great comment telling the story of when he and his family, while on a trip to visit relatives, drove into a Minnesota union town just as an actual war was breaking out between the union and the giant paper mill company Boise Cascade. It includes a link to Minnesota Public Radio's story (audio and transcript) about the great International Falls Labor Uprising of 1989.

IWW Poster - 1911

The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, was once a force in the Labor Movement. Formed in 1905, at its peak in 1923 it had 40,000 members, many of those in Western mines and logging camps. It wasn't among the union giants, but it's confrontational tactics influenced many other workers, if not always their more timid leaders, and continue to inspire workers today.

The "Wobblies," as they were affectionately called, didn't mind if they didn't have a contract, which to them was just a piece of paper. Their power lie in their willingness to exercise it and they knew how to do it. They knew they could shut down the machines at any minute and cost the boss a bundle. They wouldn't hesitate to destroy machines or burn down or dynamite factories, or club scabs over the head. As much as anything their power lie in how the bosses perceived them.

Wobblies believe there should be one big union instead of many small ones, which can be set against each other. Wobblies are also Anarchists. Anarchism shares much with Marxism. It accepts the Marxist critique of Capitalism and its materialist philosophy which holds that reality is the result of the material conditions of existence, and therefore that workers have to seize the means of production to control their own reality. Anarchism differs in Marxism in what to do after Capitalism is overthrown. Marxists would seize control of government and use its power to implement a Socialist economy, whereas Anarchists would do away with government, seeing it as an instrument of oppression. Local citizens councils would run things. A type of Anarchism, Anarcho-Syndicalism (syndicate is French for union) would have unions at the various workplaces running things in their areas.  

The IWW was pretty much done as a force in the Labor Movement after the US government went to war against it starting in 1914 and either imprisoned or murdered all its leaders, but it still in exists with a few thousand members at any given time scattered across the country and the world, many if not most of them individuals who like the idea of belonging to the IWW. Anyone can join as long as you're not a boss. Quite a few academics hold memberships. There's an Albuquerque IWW phone number and email address. I think that's an individual. I know of no local IWW organized workplaces. A few years ago some La Montanita Co-op workers tried to organize as an IWW union but their efforts were crushed by the Co-op board which hired union busting law firms and consultants. Things have changed since some hippies started the co-op movement in the 1960s.

The IWW has been making a comeback of sorts, organizing some individual Starbucks and a few groups of owner operator truckers; not good old boy anti union rednecks but more intelligent Latinos, African Americans and Sikhs whose cultural histories don't include the bend over and grab your ankles theory of  labor-management relations.

Various small factories and warehouses in the food supply industry in New York City are IWW organized and you occasionally read about a strike or a new workplace there being organized by the IWW, and a few months ago some contract workers at a Chicago rail yard organized as an IWW union and just recently won their NLRB collective bargaining election.

There is a national organization of the IWW, i.e., national officers who are elected every four years, I think it is, but it seems to be limited in what it does and seems to be somewhat unorganized itself. It probably doesn't have much of a budget and a new set of officers comes in with each election -- there's no being re-elected in the IWW.

I joined the IWW about ten or fifteen years back and was sent a union card, but lost it when I moved from Moriarty to Albuquerque. A few years later I inquired about getting another one and paying up my membership but my email went unanswered.

For me it was a symbolic gesture, and a way to get a couple of cool IWW baseball caps and black T-shirts with their iconic insignia. Various items are for sale at their web site (including genuine Palestinian made Keffiyehs.) The caps and T-shirts seem to be out of stock but here's a stocking hat with the insignia I'm talking about.

The IWW constitution is one of the most beautiful documents I've ever read. It's inspiring preamble is often re-printed by radicals, but it's the nuts and bolts of it that I like. The rules it lays down ensure that no individual or group of people can ever accumulate any power. It has term limits, and quotas for women and minorities. It was written more than 100 years ago.

Notes (Musical)

Matthew Grimm of the Hangdogs, a longtime staple of the New York City music scene, wrote and recorded One Big Union with the band he headlines, Matthew Grimm And The Red Smear, which, while not explicitly about the IWW is about the one big union concept. He's put together a video with a lot of different union images and images of struggle in general. Listen to it with headphones and the volume turned all the way up.

Here's a couple of good union/worker songs by the "American Celtic Punk" band Dropkick Murphys. You might as well just leave the volume turned up.

The second song, Which Side Are You On, is a cover of a union classic that's been recorded by many people. It was written in 1931 by Florence Reece, whose husband Sam was a United Mine Workers organizer at a coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, during a bitter labor dispute known of as the Harlan County War. One night, in an attempt to intimidate Sam, the mine owner had the sheriff and his deputies go to the Reece home and break in to arrest Sam. He had been tipped off and was not home but the incident terrorized Florence and their children and when the sheriff and deputies left she wrote Which Side Are You On?

It was also striking United Mine Workers, and their families, who were slaughtered in 1914 at their encampment by members of the Colorado National Guard in the infamous Ludlow Massacre just up the road from here in Ludlow, CO.


  1. In their day the IWW was quite active in the mines of the "Iron Range" or the Arrowhead Region of Northern Minnesota and also the Butte area of Montana. Both were big mining areas and a hotbed of union activism. My family and I were driving through International Falls, Minnesota, a paper mill town, in 1989 to go visit relatives in the area and we got caught up in one hell of a mess caused by the unions and Boise Cascade.
    We saw the commotion and the smoke as we drove into town, tried to get out but the roads were blocked by both the strikers and the police. Took us 2-3 hours to make it through town. It was quite an experience let me tell you, the whole family was amazed. Not scared or anything, just amazed. Even then the union was very strong in the area. In the Arrowhead Region Northern Minnesota then it was best if you were a union man.

    I have not heard too much about them here in this area, but ole Mother Jones was in the Trinidad, Colorado area during the labor problems that were manifest there in the early part of the 20th Century. The Ludlow Massacre was as a result of this labor strife.

    I still have my honorable withdrawal card from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as well as The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. I was a member of both, but not overly active in the "labor movement". Too young and dumb then.

    I am not so sure that the time of the labor unions has not past, it sure seems that way, a few unions remain but seem to mostly apply to state government workers.

    1. What a great story, NM. Thanks! And thanks for looking up that Minnesota Public Radio article. What a coincidence, showing up as war is breaking out and the town is going up in flames! Great comment.