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Romanticizing the IWW

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This is as good a time as any to announce what I think my next book project is going to be, or at least what I am starting to work on. I want to write a new history of the Industrial Workers of the World that evaluates the union’s successes and failures in terms of what might be useful for modern activists in their own struggles. I am interested in this because the IWW basically exists in leftist memory as a romantic alternative to bureaucratic unionism, the promise of the revolution never achieved thanks to state repression, the AFL, corporate media, name your reason. Especially in an era where activists often don’t see the state as part of the solution, nor 20th century versions of socialism and certainly not the AFL-CIO, the free-flowing, culture producing, decentralized IWW seems an ideal. That the IWW promoted worker participation, bottom up organizing, democratic unionism, and all the other things that modern left critics of labor wants to see makes their vision of it, however accurate or not, powerful.

Theoretically, that should be fine. People are going to use whatever pasts they choose to inform their present. But there are problems. First, the IWW couldn’t actually win anything. Part of that has to do with the conditions in which it organized with a hostile state. But no small part of it was with problems in the IWW organizing model that almost made long-lasting victory impossible. The modern left stance toward the union also leads to cheerleading for a past movement at the expense sometimes of analyzin it. Even professional labor historians are guilty of this, sometimes worse than anyone. When the 2013 Labor and Working Class History Association meeting was coming up, I noted to one of the organizers that it was taking place in New York on the 100th anniversary of the Paterson Strike Pageant. So I was lucky enough to then moderate the panel remembering the event. Before the panel, one of the participants, a major labor historian, was openly talking about how this event should be a celebration.

Well, why? Should any historians be rooting for our protagonists? Does that help? Or is hard-headed analysis pulling no punches about both failures and successes more useful? I’d say the latter. The Paterson Strike Pageant was a complete disaster. The IWW’s cultural production may be appealing to modern leftists, but in this case, it actually split the workers with jealousy since only some workers could participate. It also drew workers away from the actual strike, allowing the factory owners to bring in strikebreakers. It was a horrible decision that doomed that strike (which probably wouldn’t have succeeded anyway). It also basically killed the IWW in the east. After 1913, the Wobblies focused almost exclusively on western resource extractive labor for its campaigns.

But the modern left loves the pageant. Why? Because it brought together workers and culture in fun and radical ways that seem to portend a bread and roses culture that is a dream today. Take this essay, which led me to write this post. It’s well researched and well written, yet seems to present a really heroic view of the strike. I haven’t read the book where this is excerpted, but while a People’s Art History of the United States is cool and all, don’t we have to talk about all the ways the Paterson pageant failed miserably? In this case, isn’t the people’s history of the Paterson pageant that it turned workers against one another? If we want to learn lessons from the IWW, shouldn’t they be the right ones? Isn’t the goal to organize workers and win? And if that is the goal, shouldn’t we think about how the IWW did that well and how it did that poorly, without sweeping the latter under the rug in favor of vague notions of solidarity?

So basically what I want to do is write a decidedly unromantic history of the IWW that considers their actions in the context of thinking about usefulness for modern activists. What should we learn and is there anything they did a century ago that might give us pause today? Moreover, I want this to focus more on the rank and file and less on ideology and leadership. Unfortunately, for all the left loves to talk about “the people,” leftists love their Great Man history more than anyone. Joe Hill. Frank Little. Big Bill Haywood. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But what about everyday loggers, miners, textile mill workers? Did the IWW work for them? How did they respond to the Wobblies? What did they want and how did the IWW succeed or fail in providing that to them? By exploring these questions, I hope to peel away some of the romance and provide people a more useful past than I think most writers on the IWW give. Even if some people will be mad that I am far from a partisan for the organization.

A This Day in Labor History post next week will expand upon these ideas in the context of a single incident.

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