Keeping the Faith – “Wobblies! A Graphic History” and 100 Years of Labour Martyrs

wobblies


Title: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World
Contributors: Mike Alewitz, Seth Tobocman, Sue Coe, Sabrina Jones
Edited: Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman
Published: Verso Books, 2005
Length:
306 Pages

 

“Happy May Day, friends and fellow workers!”

It is hard to imagine these words would once have been enough to land the speaker in a cramped jail cell, crammed with dozens of fellow workers like so many salty, tinned fish. ‘Wobblies!’ chronicles the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World from a promising start in Chicago. We are taken through several major strikes and biographies of bohemians and revolutionaries by the comic’s several contributors. Curiously, what unites many of these tales is the suffering of their subjects.

frankhanged
A ghoulish portrait of organizer Frank Little’s murderers.

Perhaps there is nothing surprising in this. There is a peculiar allure to martyrdom. Saints, mystics and secular heroes of humanity the world over have been canonized by their suffering long before any state or patriarch could place the laurels on their bloodied brows. Hagiography, the genre of saints’ biographies, owes much of its enduring popularity to stories of the suffering of those early Christians.   In a modern context, today is a commemoration of the deaths of the Haymarket Martyrs, Chicago anarchists who went to the gallows for a crime none had committed. “Wobblies” continues in this tradition.

benbranded
Famed “hobo doctor” Ben Reitman wasn’t even a wobbly, but that didn’t stop the San Diego thugs that did this to him.

In its entirety, the book is a collection of short narratives surrounding major events in the history of the IWW. It begins with a detailed recounting of their founding convention, rich in historical personages such as perennial Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs and Haymarket widow (and ass-kicking anarchist heroine) Lucy Parsons. From there, it outlines several major strikes, particularly those associated with the Western Federation of Miners, and the textile strikes in Lawrence and Paterson, a high watermark for union organizing under the IWW banner. This is followed by more strike accounts, then biographical sketches of the highly eclectic bunch of radicals who swelled the ranks of the IWW during its heyday and kept its memory alive through long decades of irrelevance. It ends with two modern episodes. The first details the life of environmentalist and Wobbly Judy Bari, while the second recounts a port strike in Jefferson, Indiana.

bleedout
Calling life in the mines “hard” would be a tragic understatement.

Nothing in this critique is meant to belittle the value of the struggles, or the bravery of participants. These are struggles that shaped the lives of generations of Americans by putting a pressure on state and capital alike. The fights found between these pages paved the way for the eight hour day, for wage increases and safety regulations. But they also fell short of the ultimate goal; a society in which the wealth of society is shared equally amongst those who produce it.

These vignettes are a mixture of victory, defeat and sentimental reminisce. Shot through all of them are scenes of agony, of sometimes lethal suffering. Martyrdom is an old and popular theme in heroic narrative, and echoes from Calvary to Tahrir. Looking at these graphic re-tellings, it is impossible not to be reminded of paintings of saints caged in cells, pierced by arrows. They are ennobled, it would seem, by their suffering.

Two graphic depictions of martyrdom: LEFT: Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of holy Christian death, among other things. RIGHT: martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution are depicted in the cartoon "The Massacre of Maspero" The text reads: 'I died as a martyr on October 6, in a tank.' (the war with Israel) / 'I died as a martyr on October 9, under a tank.' (Courtesy of CartoonMovement.org)
Two graphic depictions of martyrdom: LEFT: Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of holy Christian death, among other things. RIGHT: martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution are depicted in the cartoon “The Massacre of Maspero” The text reads: ‘I died as a martyr on October 6, in a tank.’ (the war with Israel) / ‘I died as a martyr on October 9, under a tank.’ (Courtesy of CartoonMovement.org)

 

The success of the Lawrence strikers came at a high cost.
The success of the Lawrence strikers came at a high cost.

So it is for the workers in the pages of “Wobblies!” They are shot, beaten, jailed, defamed, tortured, bombed, ridiculed and betrayed. The outcome of the struggle is secondary to these latter-day passion plays, showcasing the divine agony of the downtrodden. Anguish is often compounded by anguish, with strikers blamed for the deaths of other strikers.

abolishcapitalism
Big Bill Haywood addresses the founding convention of the IWW

There are courage and beauty both in the struggles of IWW organizers and members. Their suffering is a credit to their devotion. But it is their vision that matters most to the future, not their pain. They were not shot so our eyes could blear at the mention of their memory. Not for nothing are the words associated with Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize!”

wobblies1

In other words, the image of Frank Little that captures our imagination is not his battered corpse hanging from a Montana Bridge, but of the cantankerous old bastard hobbling around America on two crutches. With one leg and one eye, Little walked farther and saw more in the name of industrial struggle than many activists could imagine today. As he is said to have remarked “All we’re gonna need from now on is guts!”

weneedguts

It is fitting, then, that the image of Judi Bari that concludes her story is not one of the car bomb that took her legs, but of Bari fiddling. It would be too easy to dwell on the pain of these Wobblies, to accept the tacit coupling of corporal agony and moral ecstasy. But on this May Day, and every day, we have to remember that this is not why blood was shed. This is not why bones were broken.   Our antecedents suffered not so that we could romanticize them,  but so that we could follow their lead.  The general strike is our best hope, and it will take one big union to get there.

judibari
There’s hope for us yet.
Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Keeping the Faith – “Wobblies! A Graphic History” and 100 Years of Labour Martyrs”

  1. This is a very kind and sympathetic commentary. The WW3 group provided over half the artists and so deserves big credit; the other artists were my old pals from the UG days, including the (now) late Spain Rodriguez. Why did it hold together better than the SDS comic? I learned, in launching an SDS art show with the comic, that a surprising number of SDS veterans did not much want to remember, while the Wobblies remain vivid and iconic. We mostly middle class youngsters failed, those old fellows (and women) were crushed but left behind a legend….

    1. Paul,

      Thanks so much for commenting! I only just noticed this. I liked both the SDS comic and this one, but I felt like this one flowed better. I think authors take on a difficult project in trying to capture the history of a national (in the IWW’s case, international) political movement. There were IWW events I would have liked to see but didn’t, but understand it can’t include everything.

      I felt like the history in the SDS comic was stitched together better. The SDS comic was a valuable resource in terms of sorting through a history I’d never understood, but the Wobbly comic gave me a sampling of the movement’s status through the decades. I guess if I had my way they’d both be serialized and run for a decade, but that’s just greedy on my part.

      I don’t know that the SDS or the Wobblies failed. There is a radical lineage that connects the two and other movements. Not everyone gets to put the torch of liberty to the wick of revolt’s cannon, but keeping the flame going is a proud thing in and of itself. For me, I look back on the SDS and the Wobblies (among others) and think “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” Even if the cranky historian in me wishes those giants arranged their adventures in a more explicitly chronological narrative structure 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s