Home / General / Book Review: Eric Thomas Chester, The Wobblies in Their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era

Book Review: Eric Thomas Chester, The Wobblies in Their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era

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Eric Thomas Chester’s new book on the rise and fall of the Industrial Workers of the World before and during World War I provides several key new insights about this union that plays such a large role in the American radical imagination. In particular, Chester makes four key points I think deserve further delineation–that the IWW’s overly masculine rhetoric hurt them significantly, that the IWW vacillating on World War I was a terrible decision that did nothing to protect it from repression, that the IWW was on the verge of transforming the American working class at the point the war began, and that the response to IWW effectiveness is what led to its complete crushing by the combined forces of business, the states, and the federal government during and after the war. Three of these I agree with, one I find problematic.

The IWW started in 1905 and struggled to hold together for several years. The strikes in Lawrence in 1912 and Paterson in 1913 brought the organization to national attention, but the IWW could not gain a significant foothold in eastern states. In the West, however, the IWW had more success, organizing miners, farmworkers, and loggers. These industries had largely male workforces and between the masculine cultural the union developed and the ideological attraction of violent resistance to a lot of desperate men, the use of sabotage became an important principle for the IWW. Wobblies held that industrial sabotage was key to worker power and to punishing corporations for their actions. They talked about it in their publications all the time.

But the IWW rarely if ever actually used sabotage. There were probably isolated incidents—but I say probably because it’s almost impossible to prove, even though industries and government wanted to. The far greater problem was that the violent rhetoric opened the door for criticism and attack of the IWW writ large, which would come back to bite them during World War I.

IWW involvement in the Bisbee copper strike in 1917 plays a pivotal role in Chester’s story because when the Bisbee Deportation happened, it showed that a) business was ready for violent responses to the IWW when the government didn’t step in and when they were threatened by IWW organizing and b) that those businesses would use it an excuse to crush all organizing, including the AFL. This was not palatable to Wilson, who wanted the AFL as a wartime partner. In Butte, when Frank Little arrived from Bisbee, he found a left-leaning miners’ movement united but fractious. Little did not help soothe over those factions. Little’s militancy and his focus on class war prisoners, attempting to tie the Butte strike with the Bisbee Deportation and keep all workers out until the Bisbee workers were freed certainly did not make all factions in the diverse left of Butte comfortable and added to internal divisiveness. But Little was a powerful organizer and his presence frightened the copper magnates and local leaders, who responded by lynching Little in one of the most famous acts of labor violence in American history. Eventually, the Butte and Bisbee strikes both failed but more importantly to the story of the IWW, the violence used against the IWW by employers would demonstrate to the federal government both the threat of the IWW and the threat of employers taking violence into their own hands.

Although Wilson’s record on organized labor was stronger than any previous president, that certainly did not extend to the Wobblies, who Wilson, along with the AFL, held in contempt. Wilson had to walk a fine line here. He wanted the support of Samuel Gompers and other mainstream labor leaders, so despite the desire of many corporate leaders to use the war to crush all labor, Wilson decided to clearly demarcate between the respectable organized labor he valued as a partner and the traitorous organized labor that struck instead of working to defeat Germany. It was easy enough for Gompers to go along. Gompers always held that the AFL was the only true representative of American workers and saw all competitors as enemies to be crushed, even if those unions organized workers the AFL did not bother with. And since the Bisbee Deportation rounded up AFL workers too, Gompers wanted a clear separation between his membership and the IWW so this did not happen again. So with Gompers’ support, Wilson decided to crush the IWW. And crush it he did, with a multifaceted attack that included new laws, rigged courts, and the military. It was brutal and it was effective.

Probably there was nothing the IWW could have done to resist this onslaught. But Chester is right that the Wobblies waffling on the war did not help. The die was already cast with its long history of statements opposing war and supporting sabotage. His claim that it was the IWW’s effectiveness in Bisbee and Butte that caused such a harsh government crackdown is interesting and may be overstated, but the IWW proved enough of a threat in western industries to provoke that response. Had Haywood openly opposed the war instead of realizing, quite correctly, that opposition would be an excuse to repress the IWW, maybe it would have created a broader resistance that would have pushed back against repression. Probably not. But in any case, even without the absurd statements about the IWW being an arm of the Kaiser, the IWW had provided plenty of ammunition against itself with its statements over sabotage to convince enough of the public that it was a real threat that needed violent suppression.

In some ways, the greatest tragedy was the collapse of the IWW over the prison release issue in 1924. With the fanaticism of the war behind the nation, freeing the period’s political prisoners became a popular cause. While Warren Harding maintained a case by case basis for release, Calvin Coolidge wanted the issue behind him entirely. Chester sees this issue as the final government victory for having divided the IWW beyond repair. I am a bit less convinced here. I wonder what would have happened if Big Bill Haywood had remained in the country rather than fleeing to the Soviet Union to avoid prison time. Early in the Wobblies’ existence, there was a great deal of resistance to centralized leadership, but by 1913, Haywood was the clear leader of the union. His departure both demoralized fellow Wobblies and radicals and created a leadership vacuum at a time of crisis. No one could really fill this, especially with major leaders in prison.

My major critique of Chester’s book that is he occasionally projects a radical past he thinks was on the verge of coming into existence. He calls World War I “intensely unpopular in the western states” but that’s far from clear. Moreover, he claims that millions of Americans were looking for IWW leadership on the war and that the union failed them. I’m really unconvinced of that claim. Chester states that workers joined the union fully aware that it demanded revolutionary changes. That is no doubt sometimes true, but there were lots of reasons people joined the IWW, reasons that could be as non-revolutionary as that the IWW controlled some trains that people needed to ride to get a job. Its membership was in constant flux and was never very large. So I don’t buy his claims for a huge section of the American working class ready for forceful resistance against the state and that IWW leadership against the war might have sparked it. You never know, but it feels more like wish than reality.

Still, the major points of this book are spot on. The discussion of the violent rhetoric and its disadvantages is particularly useful in a world where the same kind of sabotage the IWW fantasized about is looked upon as an outright positive by certain, albeit small, sections of the left. Knowing more about the overwhelming state repression of the IWW also reminds us of how the state can be mobilized to crush resistance. Overall, this is a really good book that I strongly recommend.

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  • Happy Jack

    Those Western locals were primarily white. It seems to me that you can’t transform the working class if you exclude a portion of it. The most successful and powerful local in the East was highly integrated. How would those loggers and miners have reacted to the inclusion of Mexican and Chinese immigrants? I see that as another fracture point between east and west.

    • DrDick

      Not so many Mexicans up here in Montana at the time, but that is around the period when the relatively large Chinese population (about 3000 at its peak) was under physical attack and eventually driven out of the state.

    • I assume you are talking about that Philadelphia dock worker local that Peter Cole writes about? It’s an interesting story no doubt, but it’s also a very big exception even within the IWW. I have occasionally seen references to Japanese Wobblies, but never with any specificity. While the IWW did talk pretty good talk about race, their writings could also veer off into stereotype as well. For example, there’s a book, name escaping me now, that the IWW published about the 1919 trials where they were railroaded into prison by Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Much of it consisted of testimony from various Wobblies on the horrors of their lives, which Landis did allow. Regardless of where they are from or their ethnicity, their testimony is documented in regular English. Except for the black IWW, where “dialect” is used. It was very dispiriting to see that.

      So yeah, the IWW organizing was very white. On one hand, it was hard enough to smooth over the European ethnic differences, but in the fields and woods especially, there were significant non-white populations and I’ve never seen much evidence that the IWW successfully organized many of them.

      • Couple things:

        1. I suspect the IWW members, because many did work in areas far from cities, especially if they weren’t always in one spot, were less likely married than manufacturing workers in cities. Does the book (or anything else you’ve read) cover that issue, and if so, was that another significant cultural difference? It seems like the IWW was not as attuned to local communities as other unions, but that’s just a vague impression I have, I don’t know enough about that history to be confident it’s right.

        2. How much, if any, was reaction to the IWW influenced by what was happening during WWI in Russia, and immediately after when Soviet councils briefly took control of cities and regions across Central and Eastern Europe? And what was the IWW’s response to the Russian revolution?

        • Chester doesn’t talk about marriage or women much, but I do in my work and yeah, the constant itinerancy of the loggers basically made it very hard to get married. And if you did get married, you left the woods for the mills, which for people like Ralph Chaplin was a betrayal of proletarian masculine identity.

          Initially, the IWW was very happy over the Russian Revolution but by the time the Bolsheviks took over, it was already undergoing full attack and so was distracted from celebrating too much.

  • DrDick

    Worth noting that the IWW is still demonized in the schools and the community in Butte, which collectively suffers one of the worst cases of Stockholm syndrome that I am aware of.

  • JL

    I’m enjoying the very detailed couple of posts you’ve done in recent months on the IWW’s strengths and weaknesses – they’re much more interesting and enlightening than the more typical “The IWW was/is great!” vs “The IWW was/is crap!” debates.

    These industries had largely male workforces and between the masculine cultural the union developed and the ideological attraction of violent resistance to a lot of desperate men, the use of sabotage became an important principle for the IWW. Wobblies held that industrial sabotage was key to worker power and to punishing corporations for their actions. They talked about it in their publications all the time.

    But the IWW rarely if ever actually used sabotage. There were probably isolated incidents—but I say probably because it’s almost impossible to prove, even though industries and government wanted to. The far greater problem was that the violent rhetoric opened the door for criticism and attack of the IWW writ large, which would come back to bite them during World War I.

    Oh look, manarchists were a problem a hundred years ago too! Though I bet the actual word “manarchist” was coined more recently.

    I’m still hoping that people will eventually learn that what I’ve heard called “shit-talk” – violent rhetoric for the sake of venting or posturing – is not a great idea. I thought the NATO 3 trial, and seeing how much that sort of talk, even in private, can be used against the speakers if the government targets them, would do it, but I also remember there being a small subset of people arguing with the people who got that point.

    Chester states that workers joined the union fully aware that it demanded revolutionary changes. That is no doubt sometimes true, but there were lots of reasons people joined the IWW, reasons that could be as non-revolutionary as that the IWW controlled some trains that people needed to ride to get a job.

    I don’t know exactly what Chester’s argument is, but people also have varied ideas of what would constitute “revolutionary changes” and what means of achieving them would count as “revolution.” Were the changes accomplished by, say, the Civil Rights Movement, revolutionary? I think they were; they overthrew the long-established Jim Crow system. But for some people revolution means armed violence.

    • Chester is pretty vague about what he means by “revolutionary changes.” He’s more of an activist than a professional historian–which is fine and it’s a good book, but again, there’s the occasional slip into straight activist talk that is problematic in a history.

      And as for the masculine rhetoric, I thought it perhaps the best point Chester makes in the book. He’s very clear that all the masculine talk about violence was really a negative in the long-run. In my own work on the Wobblies in the forests, I discuss how major IWW writers like Ralph Chaplin (writer of “Solidarity Forever”) go into outright misogyny to discuss why the union struggled to organize married mill workers (those damn women destroying the proletarian manhood of their husbands!). This issue of gender, violence, and the IWW needs a good bit more study.

    • IM

      I’m still hoping that people will eventually learn that what I’ve heard called “shit-talk” – violent rhetoric for the sake of venting or posturing – is not a great idea.

      If I understand Erik right, it is more complicated: This rhetoric worked and attracted new members. Until it was taken at face value by the enemies of the IWW and used against it.

      Thomas Cheater meanwhile seems to think The Iron Heel was a documentary.

      That isn’t interfering with your own project, Erik, right? As far as I remember that is something like Fata morgana – the myth of the IWW and the postwar american left

      • No, I don’t think there’s much evidence that the rhetoric attracted new members. I mean, it’s a hard question to answer–why did workers join the IWW 100 years ago and how did rhetoric affect that? My own research suggests that what attracted new members was not ideology much but rather the doctrine of “any organization that would help me fight for a better life is an organization I will join.” To what extent did everyday loggers, miners, and farmworkers even read that stuff the IWW was putting out? I suspect it wasn’t much higher than membership reading union newspapers today, which is not a high percentage. Generally, these documents represent a more elite or ideologically active group of membership. So I’m skeptical.

        There are so many books on the IWW out there that another book is not going to affect me.

        • To put it simplistically, wasn’t the issue that the AFL view of unionism left a lot of industrialized workers in “non-skilled” fields out in the cold? The IWW was an attempt to organize those left out and the CIO was a later and more successful attempt. The difference between the IWW and CIO has always seemed to me to concern the differences between the 1900s and 1910s and the 1930s – obviously the New Deal and the creation of the NLRB were a better context for organizing the industrial workers even though times were worse – rather than any rhetorical or political essentialism of the IWW and CIO.

          Bias note: my father’s job from shortly before I was born until his retirement in the late 90s was for a union founded by the CIO; my great uncle was an organizer for a CIO-affiliated union.

          • Basically, yes. These were heavily exploited workers and the AFL had no interest in organizing them–even if they didn’t want anyone else to either. So they were going to gravitate to pretty much whatever options they had. There was certainly ideologically inclined workers in both the IWW and CIO, but that’s always a minority and overrepresented in union publications.

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