In November we remember

In November we remember

An article by Colin Bossen about the IWW's decline and if there are lessons to learn from that period today.

For more than 100 years it has been a Wobbly tradition to remember all of those who gave their lives to struggle for a better world during the month of November. The historian Franklin Rosemont argued that this tradition predates the founding of the IWW itself, and harkens back to remembering the Haymarket martyrs. In his essay, “In November We Remember: The IWW & the Commemoration of Haymarket,” he quotes an unnamed Wobbly writer that this tradition, “gives a sense of continuity to the struggle of workers, not only from year to year but from generation to generation.”

As a young Wobbly in the late 1990s, I felt a palpable connection to that tradition when I joined the San Francisco General Membership Branch. One of the elder members, Franklin Devore, had been the long-time lover of the legendary soap-boxer San Francisco Phil Mellman. Mellman was credited with mastering the art of “windmilling.” That was the practice of speaking rapidly and dramatically in public to attract attention for the IWW cause. A windmiller like Mellman would stand at a street corner and broadcast as much Wobbly wisdom as possible before the cops came. In the 1910s and 1920s, windmilling was an effective way to spread the Wobbly gospel.

I learned a lot about Wobbly culture, history and philosophy from elders like Devore. I was privileged to know Utah Philips and Carlos Cortez, and Wobblies who joined the union in the 1960s and early 1970s like Mike Hargis, Jon Bekken, Penny Pixler, F. N. Brill and Neil McLean all passed on to me the lessons that they learned from Wobbly elders.

Recently though, I have been wondering if I learned the wrong lessons from those elders. The lessons that they taught me were primarily about the IWW’s dramatic successes: our successes organizing migrant workers in the forests and in the agricultural fields; our victories in the free speech fights in San Diego and Spokane; and our dramatic strikes in Lawrence and Lowell.

The narratives of those successes were frequently matched by the narratives around the IWW’s decline. I learned three. One was that the union was essentially destroyed around 1919 when the U.S. government jailed the majority of IWW leaders. A second was that the union’s demise came about in 1924 when it split into two factions around a debate over centralization vs. decentralization, to generalize. The third was that the union survived these two catastrophes, saw its membership recover in the 1930s with organizing amongst metal workers in Cleveland, only to finally collapse in the wake of a refusal to sign McCarthy-era loyalty oaths.

A couple of weeks ago I received some pages from the August 1950 edition of the IWW’s internal publication, the General Organizing Bulletin (GOB), that has me rethinking these narratives. A graph from that GOB depicts the union’s membership in a free fall from 1943 to 1949. Over the course of six years the union lost more than 60 percent of its membership. This means that by the time the loyalty oath controversy caused the Cleveland branch to leave the union it was already in an institutional death spiral.

Accompanying the graph is a list of 20 questions drafted by William Henkleman and Kenneth Ives, entitled “Groups of Questions on IWW Problems and Policies.” One group of questions runs:

“Can the IWW make progress best by:
a) Trying to educate and organize individuals, isolated workers as it mostly has done in recent decades..? (sic)

b) Trying to organize individual shops, as we have some times done in the last fifteen years..? (sic)

c) Trying to educate within some inde pendent unions, such as the Confedeated Unions Group..? (sic)

d) Trying to set up an affiliated but self-supporting organization for edu cation as distinct from propaganda... for former members, sympathizers and other workers want to study the extension of workers control and operation, union democracy, etc., who may feel that the IWW as a union can’t help them on their present job..? (sic)

e) Or some combination of those pro grams..? (sic)

For each of the above methods, what amount of activity by members, what skills, what trained organizers, what funds, what programs are needed, and what types of situations will these be likely to succeed in..? (sic)”

When I read these questions I thought that they were quite contemporary. That observation, coupled with the 1940s membership statistics, has prompted me to ask: How can we learn from the IWW’s failures? The IWW’s membership now is close to what it was in the early 1940s. Our organizing over the last decade-and-a-half has been quite similar to the organizing that Henkleman and Ives complained about in 1950. It has been targeted at individuals and individual shops, and it is rarely industrial.

This observation leads me to want to know how we can break these patterns. They have haunted our union for most of its existence. They are as much a part of our legacy as the wonderful stories we tell about free speech fights and textile strikes. Studying our failures is the way we learn not to repeat them. This November, instead of just celebrating the rich legacy of the IWW, take time in your branch or at your workplace to think about the ways in which you have been stuck in your organizing. Look to our organization’s failures and ask the question: What could have been done differently to avoid the mistakes that were made? It is not an easy question to ask but in its answer may lie what we need to move the IWW up from 2,000 to 100,000 members. And that would be the best way to remember all of our Fellow Workers.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (November 2012)

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Comments

kevin s.
Nov 4 2012 02:31

I like this article a lot, I think it asks a lot of the same questions I've been asking and pushing (mostly through conversations, and a few scattered, short written pieces). And I think it accurately conveys the sense, which I think all of us have, of being "stuck" where we are and not being sure how to move forward. I think the IWW has been "stuck" for a long time, and pretty much repeated, with slight tweaks, the same answers over and over again.

I don't have much more to add at the moment, but I appreciate this piece as a more than welcome antidote to the kind of IWW-positivism that I see some folks resort to, out of seeming lack of any better ideas. We gotta keep wrestling with these questions if we want to "move forward."

rebop888
Dec 3 2012 20:27

The author states:

"One of the elder members, Franklin Devore, had been the long-time lover of the legendary soap-boxer San Francisco Phil Mellman."

This is total bs.

I knew Phil and Frank over many years and spent many hundreds of hours with them, particularly in the early 70's.

That Franklin was gay and Phil was legendary and that they were both long-term members of the IWW - frequently known as the Wobblies - and also long-term room-mates who had a very mutually supportive relationship - is all factually true but that they had a sexual relationship of any kind is entirely false.

Phil WAS a dedicated pot-smoker and I don't remember any evening at their flat that didn't involve a couple of joints or three.

Quite often I would drop by with a small baggie of anything especially nice that might have come my way and Phil would immediately command: "Frank, get the scissors" and would use them to prepare it for consumption himself in his own particular manner.

I'm delighted that Phil and Frank are both remembered but appalled that such inaccurate information about them should be perpetrated by Juan Conatz who was obviously very late on the scene.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 4 2012 00:51

I have no idea about those two folks (and I don't really care to be honest), but Juan's not the one who wrote this. I don't think he'd have any idea whether those two had a sexual relationship or not.

I'd think the IW and Collin Bossen are probably the best two people take up your beef with.

In any case, I like this bit of the article alot:

Quote:
I have been wondering if I learned the wrong lessons from those elders. The lessons that they taught me were primarily about the IWW’s dramatic successes: our successes organizing migrant workers in the forests and in the agricultural fields; our victories in the free speech fights in San Diego and Spokane; and our dramatic strikes in Lawrence and Lowell.

I love the connection those elders give/gave us to the past, but I think it's large part of the reason the IWW has been a re-enactment society for politicos and lefty historical nerds for the majority of it's existence.

syndicalist
Dec 4 2012 02:19

Chili:

Quote:
I love the connection those elders give/gave us to the past, but I think it's large part of the reason the IWW has been a re-enactment society for politicos and lefty historical nerds for the majority of it's existence.

I dunno. Having spent near 40 years in the movement, I'm not sure how to reply without being snarky. My friend, we all get old and it ain't always pretty. And newer generations all want to reinvent the wheel....as generations before.

I hope I'm here in another 30-40 years to see how your generation is spoken about.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 4 2012 10:56

Ah shit syndicalist, I hope that didn't come across as offensive.

FWIW, I would have never put you in the category. I'm thinking of some of the folks I used to encounter on the national IWW list when I was a member five or so years ago. Someone would discuss an organising problems they were having in the bar where they worked and certain old-timers would go off on one about the problems the AWO faced in the mid-nineteen-teens and how the situations are clearly analogous. Then they'd reference how when they joined the IWW, they were mentored by X wobbly historical figure as a mark of their supposed knowledge of the topic. And if was a fucking useless conversation.

Any advice I've seen from you always seems, while obviously informed by your experience, to take into consideration the differences between when you were organising, now, and ya know, 100 years ago. You are definetly not the kind of person I had in mind when I wrote that.

syndicalist
Dec 4 2012 15:37
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Ah shit syndicalist, I hope that didn't come across as offensive.

FWIW, I would have never put you in the category. I'm thinking of some of the folks I used to encounter on the national IWW list when I was a member five or so years ago. Someone would discuss an organising problems they were having in the bar where they worked and certain old-timers would go off on one about the problems the AWO faced in the mid-nineteen-teens and how the situations are clearly analogous. Then they'd reference how when they joined the IWW, they were mentored by X wobbly historical figure as a mark of their supposed knowledge of the topic. And if was a fucking useless conversation.

Any advice I've seen from you always seems, while obviously informed by your experience, to take into consideration the differences between when you were organising, now, and ya know, 100 years ago. You are definetly not the kind of person I had in mind when I wrote that.

Chili, I'll come back to this later. I get what you're saying, have experienced similar types and so forth. But some of this runs in reverse as well. That past experiences are not current experiences and so, well, shut up and sit on a rocking chair.

And the arrogance of all generations saying they know best is unacceptable as well.

Ironically, before I saw your comment I read the is piece on multi-generations: http://libcom.org/library/supporting-multigenerational-union Although directed towards the IWW, there are some cross-over aspects that cover the libertarian workers movement in general.
Perhaps I'll just comment on that piev=ce, taking in some of how I feel about multi-generational stuff.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 4 2012 16:09

Thanks Syndicalist. Just on a small point:

Quote:
the arrogance of all generations saying they know best is unacceptable as well.

That wasn't the point of my post. In fact, I honestly feel like I'm part of a lost generation of militants (owing to Thatcher, Reagan, and the general decline of class struggle) and I wish there were more militants left over from the last generation to pass on those lessons. My post was specifically aimed at my experience in the IWW and those particular elders who didn't pass on their practical experiences in struggle, but constantly banged on about the heyday of the IWW.

syndicalist
Dec 4 2012 16:31
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Thanks Syndicalist. Just on a small point:

Quote:
the arrogance of all generations saying they know best is unacceptable as well.

That wasn't the point of my post. In fact, I honestly feel like I'm part of a lost generation of militants (owing to Thatcher, Reagan, and the general decline of class struggle) and I wish there were more militants left over from the last generation to pass on those lessons. My post was specifically aimed at my experience in the IWW and those particular elders who didn't pass on their practical experiences in struggle, but constantly banged on about the heyday of the IWW.

Chili....actually, my quoted comment was not directed at anything you said. It was more like an unsolicited commentary based on my own general movement observations/experiences.

Well, I left the IWW in like 1982ish for many reasons. I only rejoined in May or so. So, sorry, if I wasn't speaking to your personal experiences but offering a broader commentary. groucho

Jayman
Dec 7 2012 00:33

The means for expansion I'd say is expanding our current campaigns. Starbucks and Jimmy Johns (although more people focus on Starbucks) are the big IWW campaigns going on. The organizer training is really solid. It's logistics of getting training to all salts and getting more people to salt at these locations. There's more to it, but with the expansion of right-to-work legislation in the US north (traditionally the manufacturing union stronghold for organized labor in the US), the IWW should be gaining popularity. I am a wob and put in 9 months on the JJs campaign.