What does it mean to be a Wobbly? - Colin Bossen

Federico Arcos (l) and Albert Meltzer (r) Source: The Kate Sharpley Library

An article by Colin Bossen that sees CNT member Federico Arcos as an example of what it means to be a Wobbly.

Last year I interviewed Staughton Lynd a few times for an essay I am writing on his religious ethics (given that Fellow Worker Staughton is a Quaker). During one of our conversations I asked him what he thought of the recent essay, “Wobblyism.” I can’t remember his exact response, or even if he had read it. But one thing he said in response to my question has stuck with me. I paraphrase, “The most important theoretical question that members of the IWW can wrestle with is: What does it mean to live a Wobbly life? What does it mean to commit yourself to 20, 30, 50 years of struggle?”

I have thought about Staughton’s question a lot in the intervening months. It has particularly been on my mind since I learned a couple of weeks ago that my friend Federico Arcos was in the hospital after suffering a heart attack. Federico will turn 95 this year. A lifelong anarchist and member of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist labor union Confederacion Nacional de Trabajo (CNT), Federico has lived in Canada since the 1950s, when he fled fascist Spain. By the time he left Spain he had spent close to two decades fighting and organizing against the forces of Spanish fascism, first as a union militant, then as a militia member, and, finally, as part of the antifascist underground.

Federico has never joined the IWW. The CNT, of which he is still a member, is a bit like a Spanish version of our union. It is committed to the vision that people can run the world without bosses, cops, or soldiers. Like other members of his union, Federico believes that working people have everything that we need to create a peaceful, sustainable society. All we need to do is get together and organize. At the same time, he is very practical. Since moving to Canada he has been involved in the Canadian Auto Workers—for years he was a tool and die maker at an auto plant—and in countless efforts to create and sustain the anarchist movement in Detroit, Windsor, and throughout the world. When I think of living a Wobbly life, Federico is one of the people I think of.

Commitment, love, and memory are three important principles that he has emphasized throughout the years that I have known him. It might seem odd, but probably the most important of these is love. He believes in its transformative power and often says, “Life without love is like a long death.” Federico has quite a romantic spirit and was devoted to his wife Pura until her death almost 20 years ago. For him, love is what makes life worth living: not just the love one might have for a partner but the love that one can have for one’s comrades and for all of humanity. This love is what has sustained across more than 80 years of struggle.

Throughout that time he has remained committed to the vision of the CNT and the ideas that working people have power to change the world. No matter how harsh the odds, he hasn’t given up on his ideals. This is an essential element to the Wobbly life. I doubt that revolution is coming anytime soon. If, and when, things change for the better, it will be because people organized for and stuck with their vision over decades.

As for memory, our union is more than 100 years old. We embody the hopes of those who came before us. There’s a story that Federico has shared with me that I think expresses this well. On the day of the fascist coup in Spain, it was the workers who rose up in the streets and resisted. While the government did nothing to defend itself they seized arms from the army and the police and distributed them to the masses. When Federico went to the Anarchist Defense Committee to get his gun he was given an old rifle and six bullets. He and his friends demanded new weapons. They were told, “There are people here much older than you who will need the newer rifles. When they die you will take their place. That is your responsibility and our trust in you.”

What is a Wobbly life? I admit that I am still trying to answer Staughton’s question. But I think there’s something in studying a life like Federico’s. It provides a model for the rest of us to follow and a reminder that, as Brazilian popular educator Paolo Fiere used to say, “We make the road by walking.”

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (March 2015)