The nonviolent foundation of history’s
most radical union.
Union organizer Matilda Rabinowitz took to the stage in 1913 to address hundreds of striking mill workers and the townspeople who came to gawk: “I apologize to the people of Shelton who came here out of curiosity. I fear the IWW speakers here tonight have disappointed you. None of them have come to the stage with a stiletto in their teeth. They carry no guns, nor do they bring with them bombs with sputtering fuses.”
And with that simple rebuke, Rabinowitz dispelled the prevailing myth of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) as mad bombers– a misrepresentation still used today against labor unions by the press, police and plutocrats. Sad to say, this charge has been one of the barriers between the U.S. labor and peace movements.
There has been no union more villified and lied about than the IWW. The fact that Wobblies’ promoted sabotage was proof enough to opponents that union dynamiters and assassins were everywhere. But the Wobs identified sabotage as a tactic to disrupt workplace efficiency and production, sometimes, but not always, with property destruction. One prime example, as the famous IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described it, was when silk workers used “open mouth sabotage” to expose how the boss was pawning off inferior fabric to customers as pure silk.
There is nothing in the IWW’s preamble or constitution that indicated an adherence to nonviolent direct action. But there is widespread evidence that the Wobbly founders consciously chose nonviolence over violence as a strategy for self-defense, for winning strikes, and in response to thousands of vicious assaults by vigilantes, the police, and the military.
Consider the following article published in Solidarity in 1912 entitled “The Passive Resistance Policy of the I.W.W. and How it Works:”
“As we have previously remarked in the columns of Solidarity, the policy of passive resistance is a very inconvenient proposition to handle.
For instance, when the Solidarity boys were arrested, tried and convicted; the law set the penalty at one hundred dollars fine each and cost… The authorities and Mr. Taxpayer (poor fellow) had their mouths watering over this $700 that they thought would drop like a plum into their mouths.
[T]he boys refused to pay the fine and costs and the 700 good dollars went up the spout. Then of course the boys had to go to jail for 90 days each, and the county has to pay the sheriff 50 cents a day per man for board… it was fully expected that Solidarity would have to go out of business. But it did not nor will not.”
Big Bill Haywood agreed. As an IWW founder and former leader of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), he was no stranger to militant labor violence. In fact, the WFM had built its own army to fight state militias and vigilantes. But by the time he was organizing the 1912 Lawrence, MA “Bread and Roses” strike, Bill told a reporter:
“I should never think of conducting a strike in the old way…I, for one, have turned my back on violence. It wins nothing. When we strike now, we strike with hands in our pockets. We have a new kind of violence– the havoc we raise with money by laying down our tools. Pure strength lies in the overwhelming power of numbers.”
For Haywood, nonviolent action was not necessarily a moral principle. It was, however, a conscious, strategic turn toward mass action without physical violence.
For the purposes of this article I define nonviolent direct action as a technique of struggle outside of institutional methods (laws, courts, voting) without the use of injurious force or threat to others. It is open and direct conflict that exposes oppression. It is protest, resistance, or intervention to stop injustice and/or to win control over the economic life of society. It uses a set of special methods that do not necessarily exclude coercion or property destruction.
Gandhi: Union Leader, Role Model
Whether they knew it or not, the Wobblies were building on the work of Mohandas Gandhi who was, during the same period, organizing the oppressed Indian minority in South Africa. From 1907 to 1914, he led massive peaceful protests of noncooperation to fight compulsory state registration and racist poll taxes.
Back in India beginning in 1916, Gandhi led the successful Ahmedabad textile workers’ strike. He had previously organized labor campaigns in South Africa and where he also promoted the eight hour day. The Indian leader organized indigo plantation workers in 1917, and believed in decentralized industry under worker control. Worldwide press reports followed his satyagraha movement. Here in the U.S., labor activists pledged their “assurance of support” to Gandhi in the fight for independence from England.
The early Wobblies perfected the strategic use of Free Speech campaigns and mass industrial strikes during the first two decades of the 20th century. Both types of action are classic nonviolent tools– even though both elicited violent responses from employers. Withholding labor, refusing to cooperate with authority, and filling the jails won concrete victories for the IWW.
Other nonviolent tactics were developed in response to specific conditions, as when in 1918 dozens of Sacramento, CA Wobs, who had been arrested on trumped-up charges, organized their “silent defense.” They refused to recognize the court’s authority by silently sitting in the courtroom, rejecting the use of attorneys and refusing to defend themselves.
These techniques of struggle proved to be so successful that they have been adopted by the civil rights movement and other social justice campaigns, most recently by Occupy Wall Street, the “Fight for 15” fast food organizing campaign, and against the Keystone XL pipeline.
At the IWW’s 1905 founding convention, Lucy Parsons foresaw that “the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production.” Her call was heeded just one year later by General Electric workers in Schenectady New York, where Wobblies and machinist union members cooperated in the first 20th century sit-down strike– thirty years before the famous Flint, Michigan sit-ins by union auto workers.
Parsons was no pacifist, having repeatedly called for workers to arm themselves with dynamite. And IWW rhetoric was sometimes just as violent. But a 1939 study at Johns Hopkins University found that despite the hundreds of accusations against the union, law enforcement never convicted one Wobbly for sabotage.
The Women Lead
Women in the IWW challenged the culture of violence, even in the face of ferocious capitalist brutality. As one Wobbly recently wrote about the Bread and Roses strike:
“Knowing all too well that violence always reverberates hardest on those on society’s lowest rungs, women strikers called the men on their beatings of scabs and their fights with police and militia. It was women who moved to the front of many of the marches in an effort to curtail state violence against the strike (though the police and militia proved not at all shy about beating women and children as well as men).”
In response to a textile strike in Connecticut, private detectives would “insult and aggravate the strikers in many ways,” according to a news report, while the workers “desire to conduct themselves peaceably.” In one of her daily talks, Matilda Rabinowitz warned the striking mill hands against the over-use of alcohol, which always led to retaliatory behavior. “In a time like this, men with strong drink are led to do things they ought not to do,” she said. “Let the strike breakers and the guards do the drinking. We must get along without it.”
Trade Their Clubs for Shovels
More often than not, picket line violence comes from a place of seething anger and the desire for revenge– an eye for an eye. As one Syrian silk weaver told told a New London, CT newspaper reporter in response to police violence: “We are not dogs. We will be as bad as they are if we cannot have some of our rights.”
Certainly, not all Wobblies were pacifists. IWW members fought in the Magonista revolt of 1911 on the Mexican border, and many joined the U.S. armed forces to fight in World War I (!). Wobbly organizer James Connolly founded and led the Irish Citizen Army during the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Wobblies have picked up the gun for self-defense, notably in the battles at Everett (1916) and Centralia (1919), both in Washington state.
At one time or another, Wobbly leaders argued for the use of violence if it would protect workers’ lives. “To kill is a great crime, but to be killed is the greatest,” wrote the rebel poet Arturo Giovannitti in 1913. Seven years later Gandhi wrote “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence.” But the real take-away is found later in the same essay where he argues that “strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
IWW organizers sometimes mixed their metaphors when cautioning workers about violence. Jean Spielman conjured up the Haymarket anarchists and the Molly Maguires to inspire striking weavers at Russell Manufacturing near Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Then he told them “We do not believe in using physical force. We possess a weapon stronger than physical force or violence; it is to use our labor power. We will quit producing.” Joe Ettor was even more pithy. “We are at war with war,” he said. The IWW’s goal was (and still is) social transformation, not personal revenge.
Wobblies were constantly under police surveillance. So it was not a surprise when Arturo Giovannitti saw cops spying on him from the back of a New Haven meeting hall. He pointed them out to the crowd and predicted that the time would come when “we will take the uniforms and clubs away, place shovels in their hands, and set them to work.”
In Good Company
Maybe one of the best indicators of the IWW’s successful practice is the impressive list of nonviolent activists the union has attracted. It’s hard to believe that “Howl” poet Allen Ginsberg would join the IWW if he thought it was a violent organization. Ammon Hennacy, tax resister and anti-war activist, was a longtime IWW member. He was also a Catholic Worker sent by Dorothy Day (a former Wob) to establish the Joe Hill House of Hospitality in Salt Lake City. He taught Utah Phillips, the great Wobbly troubadour, about the connections between personal and institutional violence.
Utah had became a pacifist as a result of his traumatic experience as a soldier in the Korean War. As he explains it, Ammon taught him that “you came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you’re not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.” (At his request, Hennacy’s ashes were scattered across the Haymarket Martyrs’ graves.)
Lessons of the IWW have continued to inform movements for social change. Bayard Rustin was a civil rights leader, gay activist and nonviolence advocate imprisoned as a draft resister. His labor affiliation was not the IWW but primarily with A.Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Rustin has been credited with profound contributions to the ongoing discussions about labor tactics and strategy.
This consummate organizer melded nonviolence theory with the Wobbly watchword when he said “We are nonviolent because an injury to one is an injury to all.”