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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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