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June 9, 2005
by BOB DORAN
The Wobblies are coming
"THE IWW IS COMING! WE'RE
GONNA organize a branch here," writes "Anarchist Andrew"
in an invitation posted on the Redwood Peace and Justice Center
Those who "want to join
the one big union and improve the conditions in the workplace
and our community" are urged to attend an informal gathering
at the RPJC Thursday, June 9, to celebrate the organization's
100th birthday, eat free pizza and learn about the IWW's past,
present and future.
It's likely if you're familiar
with the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the IWW or the
Wobblies, it's because of their illustrious past. Founded in
Chicago 100 years ago this month, the "one big union"
brought together radical trade unionists with socialists and
anarchists from across the United States.
Some look back with an odd sense
of nostalgia at strikes put down by Pinkerton violence and murdered
union leaders like Joe Hill. Among the union's early leaders
were Eugene Debs, who ran for president of the United States
under the Socialist Party banner, Big Bill Haywood from the United
Federation of Mine Workers and Mary Harris "Mother"
Bruce Valde, an IWW organizer
from the Bay Area, is in town to speak to people interested in
forming a branch of the Wobblies here in Humboldt County. He
realizes that people have a romantic notion of his union.
"And right well they should,"
he said. "Certainly the history of the IWW is filled with
some of the more interesting episodes and characters in the history
of the labor movement in this country, even worldwide. One of
the things we find is that those who might be sympathetic to
our ideals will approach us saying, `Oh, my goodness, you're
still around. I'm amazed.' Then there are those who really love
us -- because we are dead. That's their opinion; we are dead
and therefore lovable."
Is the IWW still alive and relevant
in this day and age? If so, how?
"First and foremost, the
IWW is a labor union," said Valde. "In significant
ways we're no different from any other labor union. We are interested
in bringing some kind of economic and social justice to workers
on the job whether they be young, old, women, men.
"We're a small union and
comparisons with gargantuan unions are fruitless," he continued.
"Do we represent workers in specific industries? We in fact
have signed contracts with workers in recycling, in retail, in
social services and other small industries, but all on a very
small scale. It has to be emphasized that the IWW has never gone
away, but it nearly has."
"Survival is not the most
interesting element about the IWW's hundred years," says
Alexis Buss, who serves as general secretary treasurer of the
international working out of the IWW's main headquarters in Philadelphia.
"It's kind of boring to say `Isn't this cute: the IWW is
"The thing that keeps me
involved with the union is that the work the organization is
doing is very much relevant to the condition of the labor movement
today. In many depressing ways that condition is not dissimilar
to where it was 100 years ago. While we have made a lot of bread
and butter gains, we've lost a lot of ground too. While our bosses
have globalized their efforts, right now there is no movement
for international solidarity sufficient to address the problems
created by globalized capitalism."
Valde suggests that the IWW
can offer workers something different. "Today we're a small
union but we're growing. Why have we gained validity? Why are
we an option for the working class? To answer that you might
look to the business unions and see where they have failed. They
don't offer the worker a lot today because they're on the run.
They are consolidating, trying to keep up with the changing reality
of the world economy and keep what they've got," in face
of a union busting government and union jobs that have moved
His plan for the IWW meeting
in Arcata is to paint a picture of the organization in broad
strokes, then let those who are interested decide what they want
to do locally.
In addition to Valde's presentation,
Erik Rez and Star Pahl of the local Earth Rhythms Performance
Co. plan on performing a portion of their latest piece, Songs
of Labor and Love, at the Wobbly gathering.
Rez explained that the music/theater
troupe originally put the show together for the worker's holiday
May Day. "We chose to go back 100 years and pull out some
of the songs from around the time May Day was first celebrated.
The IWW was one of the key groups that came along at that time.
"Our company tries to create
unique pieces telling history outside of the mainstream, history
that's often forgotten or not told. Music is part of that, and
the beat and the rhythm. The rhythm of history repeats and recycles
just as the songs go on. We also use text, clip bits from old
newspapers and books, writings and speeches, using them in between
The labor show includes songs
like "Solidarity," a few tunes written by Joe Hill
and others collected by Pete Seeger in his songbook, Carry
It On. "We wanted to get back to a time when working
values were discussed and fought for. That seemed to be the turbulent
times at the turn of the 20th century.
"It's relevant now to help
Americans relate to struggles going on around the world right
now. All the problems we touch on -- troubles in the sweat shops,
mills and factories -- have been exported to Third World countries
where they're going though the same sort struggles to get the
rights they deserve to have a decent standard of living. That's
why we're talking about these things again."
The IWW 100th Anniversary
Celebration takes place on Thursday, June 9, from 4 until 9 p.m.
at the Redwood Peace and Justice Center 1040 H St., Arcata. The
IWW will provide snacks and pizza. For more information about
the new local IWW branch, call 616-4700.
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