Tag Archives: wobblies

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

Sabo-Tabby Vs. The Bosses: The Political Cartoons of North America’s Most Radical Union

SaboTabbyAlthough the name might mean little to modern readers, there was a time when the initials ‘IWW’ struck fear in the hearts of bosses, police and all other respectable elements of society.  The Industrial Workers of the World, formed in 1905, was one of North America’s most radical and militant unions.  Though much diminished since its heyday in the 1910s and 20s, there are still active IWW chapters around the world, including here in Toronto.  What is less well known about the Wobblies, as they have been called for generations, is their rich history of political cartoons.

Their most enduring contribution to the graphic vocabulary of the left is undoubtedly the Sabo-Tabby.  Seen here with claws out and back arched, the Sabo-Tabby was probably created by Ralph Chaplin, more famous for writing the union hymn “Solidarity Forever”.  But their work also includes the hopeless ‘boss-head’ Mr. Block who could never quite see where his interests lay, and a proliferation of other editorial cartoons. The IWW truly forged an iconography of both union pride and class consciousness in their decades of activity.

An organized worker walks proudly with his good friend. Note the wooden clogs, another early symbol for workers' sabotage.
An organized worker walks proudly with his good friend. Note the wooden clogs, another early symbol for workers’ sabotage.

In their cartoons, the IWW often sought to entice workers away from electoral politics.  The IWW emphasis on direct action – strikes, foot-dragging and packing jail cells over free speech – finds ready expression in this cartoon.  The heroic figure of the worker is coaxed by the politician on the one hand and the Wobbly on the other – where should he struggle?  Washington’s distance is matched by the factory’s immediacy, emphasizing the workers’ true and immediate priorities.  The stakes of this struggle are expressed in the preamble to the union constitution:

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”


In the first half of the 20th century, when millions of working people lived in conditions of poverty unimaginable today, the rich enjoyed lives of equally unimaginable luxury. The appeal of the IWW’s call is all too evident.

HeUnderstandsTheGame

The refusal to deal with politicians, seen as agents of the capitalist class, is recurrent in Wobbly cartoons.  The IWW’s antipathy to politicians began early, with a break from socialist politician Daniel DeLeon, who insisted on the primary importance of political struggle and the potential irrelevance of demands for higher wages.  The Wobbly response to this attitude is summed up wonderfully in “Now He Understands The Game”, where the looming figure of a class-conscious worker looks skeptically on the capitalist’s puppet show.  The demands clutched in his hand and the rising sun of the IWW at his feet are all a part of him seeing the political façade for what it is, and so the worker is labeled accordingly on his overalls.  That the various political puppets are all on the strings of the same boss, symbolizing the capitalist class as a whole, showed that the bitter partisanship of mainstream politics was an irrelevance to workers who could legislate on the shop floor.

Migratory_WorkersIWW cartoons tended to construe politicians as a class, usually not differentiating between Democrat or Republican.  But their jabs were also aimed at the parties of the socialist left. In this cartoon, the artist mocks the notion that transient workers can have their interests served by sedentary politicians belonging to the more mainstream Socialist Party, led by former Wobbly cofounder Eugene Debs.  Farmhands, lumberjacks and other temporary migrant workers were the focus of many successful IWW campaigns; the idea that these precarious workers would cast their lot in with a politician representing a congressional district they might not be in for even a year was duly mocked by the Wobbly press.  The only way to catch the pork chop of gainful employment was to join a union that would see to your getting a square deal – or at least a square meal!

Organize

IWW_misconceptionThe Communist Party USA was, if anything, less favourably regarded by the Wobs.  Like a great many other left organizations operating in North America, the IWW was constantly confronted with accusations that it was doing Bolshevik Russia’s work and that its members were agents of the communist state.  This allegation was not helped by the emigration of leading Wobbly ‘Big’ Bill Haywood to Russia following the revolution, and the publication of his happy memoirs.  But as this comic shows, the IWW did not want to be seen as leading the Russian Bear behind it.  The cartoon draws on the popular representation of Russia as a bear, and the high population of lumberjacks in the IWW to create an image of a sinister woodsman.  Other than the label, ‘One misconception of the IWW’, nothing in the cartoon indicates that the Wobblies and the Bolsheviks were anything other than friendly.

Although they were drawn by dozens of different artists, some of whom are speculated to have had separate careers as established comic strip artists working for commercial features, IWW cartoons share some commonalities.  They are seldom subtle, and some feature such extensive labeling of elements of the image that one suspects the artist harboured grave doubts regarding their abilities as an illustrator.  At times they attempt to incorporate too many elements to be coherent, though most of those selected here avoid that prospective pitfall.  But they serve their purpose in their simplicity: politicians and businessmen are ugly with expressions of sinister intent on their face. For hungry workers making a pittance for long hours, the straightforward message of these comics must have helped to win them over to the Wobblies’ cause.  When all the fiery manifestos in the world won’t do, sometimes a few comics can close the gap.

MORE WOBBLY ‘TOONS…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


 

Further Reading

Preamble of the IWW, by its membership:  http://www.iww.org/culture/official/preamble.shtml Rebel Voice: An IWW Anthology Edited by Joyce L. Kornbluh.  2011, PM Press. The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years. Fred Thompson and Jon Bekken. 2006, IWW. Bill Haywood’s Book: The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood New York: International Publishers, 1929

For a comic book history of the IWW, check out:

Keeping the Faith: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Mike Alewitz, Sue Coe, Sabrina Jones. Edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. 2005, Verso Books.