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Paul Buhle, "The Wobbly Legend Lives On in Popular Culture"

"The Wobbly Legend Lives On in Popular Culture"

Paul Buhle, Chronicle of Higher Education

No title seems more likely to cause an academic publisher to dolefully predict sales in the low three figures these days than one stuck with the word "labor." More often than not, it is slipped into the subtitle, as if arriving in disguise. And no wonder, from one perspective: The American labor movement itself has been on a downward spiral, as a proportion of the work force, for more than two generations.


The aura attached to working-class studies by scholarly generations of the 1960s through the 1980s has also now badly faded. Despite a trove of well-crafted monographs, specialty journals, and annual meetings of regional groups with healthy admixtures of nonacademic enthusiasts, the mood in the field is insular, a holding pattern. Today's students with uncles, aunts, or grandparents in the labor movement often don't even know which particular unions so occupied their time and energy.


And yet the Wobblies continue to evoke interest, on campuses and off. The Industrial Workers of the World, as the movement was formally known, never exceeded 150,000 members and sank into memory by the 1930s. But its luster has somehow survived, perhaps because it never really depended upon numerical strength or bargaining power.This month marks a notable centenary. Just 100 years ago, on June 27, the IWW was founded when the one-eyed giant "Big Bill" Haywood declared at a Chicago convention that "the Continental Congress of the Working Class" was in session. During the following days, Eugene V. Debs, Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones, hard-bitten miners, and radical idealists climbed on stage with a message of solidarity across racial, gender, and geographical lines. Hereafter, they declared, common people would begin to make decisions in their daily lives for themselves, rather than deferring to business or political leaders. The fire of that particular Wobblyesque idealism has never completely died out.


At least that's the legend, with a certain basis in fact. The IWW was indeed something special, redolent of homeless men with red cards in their pockets, of free-lovers and birth-control agitators, of martyrs eulogized in stirring ballads and charismatic organizers who could bring together a dozen nationalities against the corporate might of Satan's dark mills. The romantic hero John Reed, famed journalist of the early 20th century and protagonist of Warren Beatty's Hollywood spectacular "Reds," even swore that he'd discovered the invisible thread connecting the IWW to Cubism. In a pardonable exaggeration, he meant that modern dance, modern painting, modern poetry, everything modern somehow connected with the lives of the dispossessed, including nonwhite people, impoverished immigrants, and footloose wanderers of the last American frontier.


Today's graduate students struggling for their own unions, along with a healthy chunk of undergraduate community activists, are clearly intrigued by IWW efforts to reach beyond the limits of organized labor. The renewed interest that I see around me on the campus marks a response to an emerging demographic reality that seems, these days, to be eerily familiar: the largest foreign-born work force since the birth of the Wobblies, and the most "foreign" city neighborhoods as well. If organized labor ever needed to be truly international, interracial, open to all comers with a variety of languages and sexual preferences, this must be the time.


Several conferences, usually with strong undergraduate participation, have already taken place -- or will soon do so -- at colleges that include Brown University, Rutgers University at Newark, the University of California at Santa Cruz and at Santa Barbara, and Simon Fraser University in Canada. Scholars and students have also participated in community events calling attention to the legacy of the Wobblies in cities across the country. The latter activities usually mix scholarly presentations with cultural doings that include renditions of old-time Wobbly songs and their punk-rock versions, old and new films, slam poetry that calls on the audience to interact with poets performing their work, and so on.


One of my students, a New Jersey Latina singer, first fell in love with the Wobs through her high-school reading, placing them along with Beat poets as her exemplars. Another student, who began interviewing Manhattan's dissident transit unionists before she left for college, went on to do a recitation for a student-produced CD of Wobbly music this spring. Typical students? Not likely. But they are surely among the most idealistic and creative. And the Wobblies speak to that creativity and idealism.


Recent scholarship has meanwhile begun to fill in some of the gaps in the legendary history of the Wobblies. Nigel Anthony Sellers, for example, in Oil, Wheat and Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma, 1905-1930 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), has told us considerably more about the Wobbly comeback in the 1910s than we knew before. Migratory workers, mostly white men between 20 and 40 -- including skilled laborers who had lost jobs to mechanization and college students out for adventure -- rallied in large numbers to the IWW's agitation for better wages and conditions.


For its part, the original publisher of much Wobbly material almost a century ago -- the Charles H. Kerr Company in Chicago -- has met the centennial with a veritable avalanche of volumes. In part, its books are local history, involving a forgotten story of "Chicago Renaissance" arts and culture. The Rise and Fall of the Dil Pickle: Jazz-Age Chicago's Wildest & Most Outrageously Creative Hobohemian Night-spot (Charles H. Kerr, 2004), edited by Franklin Rosemont, native Chicagoan and surrealist luminary, brings back the unique "Hobohemia" encouraged by the IWW on the North Side. It remained years after the national headquarters it surrounded ceased to inspire anxiety in the mighty. There, well-read hobos and hipsters of Bughouse Square (a noted free-speech zone), the Dil Pickle Club, and its institutional successor, the College of Complexes (where the administrator, who also served as janitor, helped mount a "Beatnik for President" campaign in 1960), constituted, according to some observers, definitive Windy City icons.


Rosemont's book makes a strong claim on old-time blue-collar Americana as something both precious and badly missing now. So does his monumental biography of a Wobbly organizer, Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture (Charles H. Kerr, 2003), and the Kerr anthology Dancin' in the Streets!: Anarchists, IWWs, Surrealists, Situationists & Provos in the 1960s (2004), collected from the pages of the magazines The Rebel Worker and Heat-wave.

Reflecting the turn to culture in the humanities, such books are often as much about culture as about work, or at least the mixture of the two. But the focus of the conference held at my university, Brown, in the spring -- "Beyond the Borders: The Legacy of the IWW, Organized Labor, and the Multiracial Community Today" -- was elsewhere. Perhaps spurred by the growing salience of an immigrant work force in a globalizing economy, scholars were looking at the forgotten transnational agitators of the 1920s and 30s, usually anonymous by choice. Offered there were stories of Mexican organizers traversing the border both ways, American Indian people hiding agitators on the run, foot soldiers in the cause shifting bases from Ireland to South Africa to Australia.


Devra Weber, a historian at the University of California at Riverside and longtime scholar of Western agricultural workers, spoke about following charismatic itinerants like half-Indian Wobbly agitator Fernando Palomarez through scattered newspaper items, family memories, and oral histories. Barry Carr, director of the Institute of Latin American studies at La Trobe University in Australia, spoke about his parallel path of discovery of forgotten rank-and-filers Down Under. Much of the new work discussed at the conference has not yet been published, but the scholars there clearly counted themselves part of a growing field.


The idea of the forgotten Wobbly is also picking up scholarly steam in some unexpected ways. For example, a recent history dissertation, "'I belong in this world': Native Americanisms and the western Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917," by Gerald F.W. Ronning at the University of Colorado at Boulder, offers a provocative suggestion. On the fringes of modernizing economies and cultures in the American West, Ronning argues, images of the Wobblies blurred with images of Indians. Heroic obstacles to commercial definitions of progress, they couldn't be penned in or bought off, only driven further outside society -- or killed. The legendary half-Cherokee Frank Little, a champion among harvest workers, beaten, arrested, and finally lynched, adds ballast to the impression: There, in the cultural set piece of the rapidly closing frontier, the Wobblies of old were fighting for the underdog.


Such images, some scholars argue, have cast a long shadow over American popular culture. Tragic heroes of various ilks, all clearly larger than life, have acted fearlessly in a gray zone where fate is determined in advance -- not thereby lessening the melodrama. Wobbly lore has fed numerous genres, from film noir to Westerns. Dashiell Hammett, who practically invented the noir in literature before it sprang to the screen, was rumored to have quit the Pinkerton Detective Agency after watching the lynching of Frank Little. The 1960s resurrected the cheerful rebels singing, making love, celebrating the available freedoms while re-envisioning what a cooperative society might be like. Call them Woodstock Wobblies.


If that rebel gave way to the mournful loner in the 1980s, the last decade has seen the rise of what we might call "collective loners," successors to both the Wobblies and the counterculture of the 60s, but not quite. The "diy" (do it yourself) music and art scene of today's poststudent populations in places like Eugene and Portland, Ore., Madison, Wis., and Santa Cruz, Calif., offers a new setting for devotees of the IWW. So do the emptied mills of erstwhile industrial zones of the East and Midwest. There you find semiemployed young people, often working at the marginal end of commerce, like bike-messengering. Thousands of them drift in and out of the IWW, not always staying long but giving it new life as a milieu, a sensibility that is palpable in small cooperative cafes.


It makes historical sense, after all. The IWW's labor organizing always merged into popular culture. The Little Red Songbook, out of print today (although the Big Red Songbook, edited by the labor folklorist Archie Green, is forthcoming), originally grew out of verses sent to IWW newspapers by readers, published together for the first time in Spokane, Wash., in 1909. The songs gained fame with group singers around campfires, in meeting halls, on the streets (competing with the Salvation Army bands for the attention of the itinerant poor), and in jail cells during the Free Speech fights of the 1910s.


The Wobbly legend is, indeed, closer to popular culture than real life. The memory of Joe Hill -- the most prolific IWW lyricist and, since his execution in Salt Lake City in 1915, famed martyr -- has stayed alive through a Popular Front tune written by Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes, and famously sung by Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall for audiences far removed from the Wobblies:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you and me.

Says I, "But, Joe, you're 10 years dead."

"I never died," says he.

"I never died," says he.

In that unbroken spirit, who knows where so much Wobblyness might lead a new generation of students and scholars?


[Paul Buhle is a senior lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University. He is coeditor, with Nicole Schulman, of Wobblies!: a Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (Verso, 2005).]