Growing up in a suburb, before involvement with civil rights, student movement, youth movement, SDS, labor union activism, and demonstrating a few weeks ago at a rally in solidarity with Wisconsin public workers, I used to seek out the funky low-rent offices of Old Left organizations in Chicago. At the height of the Cold War for me the pleasures of the urban environment included conversations with radical activists, perhaps more properly labeled radical thinkers, their movements were at the time so marginal.
People of my generation or a few years older were to define the New Left in distinction from these organizations, but anyone who knew American history realized that each of these groups had been influential at critical moments of America’s past. The Socialist Labor Party was the very first revolutionary labor organization; the Socialist Party built support for such proposals as Social Security and unemployment insurance when the Democrats wouldn’t touch them; Communists were instrumental in CIO organizing during the 30s; Socialist Workers led the Minneapolis general strike of 1934. And in the late 50s and early 60s, in spite of shaky finances were and tiny memberships, they all survived in Chicago including, in offices over the Assyrian-American restaurant at 2422 North Halstead, the international headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World. While on the ground floor, old men with a language and culture unknown to most Midwesterners ate stewed lamb with rice and pickled cabbage or retired behind a curtain to gamble, in a suite of rooms above, among decades-old heaps of leaflets and stickers and books and pictures, were the remnants of the Wobblies, old men even then for the most part, who had fought the good fight for a truly just society.
I later knew people my own age who joined (as did some of our mentors such as David Dellinger and Noam Chomsky), but the hangers-on on Halstead Street were the original crew -- Carlos Cortez, the artist who had been born in 1923, stood out as the sole younger activist. Most of these guys had spent considerable time on the road, hopping boxcars and hitch-hiking in search of work. Most had spent time in jail as well, since the group was targeted by all levels of government from the day of its creation. Though they discussed their ailments and problems with social security (apart from being radicals, they tended to have irregular work histories), they also reminisced about the days when the workers’ commonwealth seemed on the horizon.
Most of the members of this revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist union, long featured on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations, were advanced in age, as the group’s numbers (and the repression directed against them) had peaked around the time of WWI, but they retained the apocalyptic vision of a time when, in the words of “The Internationale” “le soleil brillera toujours, c'est la lutte finale . . .l'internationale sera le genre humain.” Seeking, in the words of the Wobbly preamble “to build the new society within the shell of the old,” they imagined a community of love while fighting in the streets for their rights.
They stood out not only from their class enemies, but also from other unions and socialists in the acceptance, from the very start, of women, foreigners, and blacks. Whereas the AFL had taken the route of organizing the elite workers, those whose highly developed skills, made them most difficult to replace with scabs, the IWW invited all, with a special warmth for those on the very bottom: itinerant workers, farm laborers, lumberjacks. Most had spent time on the road and in jail.
Even more than the utopian purity of their vision, the Wobblies had my affection and that of many of my generation because of their art. Apart from their posters and the music written by Joe Hill, T-Bone Slim, Ralph Chaplin and other contributors to the The Little Red Songbook, the group pioneered street art with their encounters with the Salvation Army and their distinctive adhesive mini-posters with slogans like “for more of the good things of life” and “slow down.”
Their actual membership never reached much past 100,000, oddly, not far from the membership of the Communist Party in the 40s or of SDS just before its collapse as a mass organization. They won some hard-fought strikes such as the Pressed Steel Car strike of 1909 and the Lawrence textile strike in 1912, but found it difficult to deal with negotiating contracts and building a bureaucratic union. After all, in the words of the preamble “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”
May we remember the highest American traditions, those who worked for abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, labor unionism, and peace, and even earlier, the “levelers” who imagined equality and started the struggles that have allowed us to secure what comforts we have.