Wobblies! and Strike! :

Two Labor Histories from an Ultra-Left perspective



  [Note: This is not a proper critical review in the academic sense, but more a collection of elements I found interesting and important from these two books regarding workers’ self management outside the usual avenues.]



Brecher, Jeremy. _Strike!_ San Francisco, Straight Arrow Books, 1972


Buhle, Paul, and Nicole Schulman editors. _Wobblies!: A Graphic History of   

     the Industrial Workers of the World_. New York, Verso, 2005.



      What are the “rights” of workers, and what role have spontaneous mass uprisings and grass roots workers’ movements played in labor history over the past century? These two books describe and, more so in the case of _Strike!_, analyze workers’ movements in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not only were these movements struggling against capitalist owners and bosses, they were quite often independent of and even in opposition to ostensibly radical parties and official unions.


     _Wobblies!_ uses text and graphic novel representations to tell the history of the  Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the “Wobblies”). The combination of text and comics effectively delivers an overview of IWW personalities (from rank and file, to theorists, to musicians and poets), history, achievements, and losses. The comic format allows a unique access to the sense of joy  and solidarity IWW members achieved in their many victories, but also provides a moving portrayal of the hardships they endured in the workplace and the openly criminal treatment  at the hands of the bosses.  In its 300 plus pages, the divide between labor and capital is made clear, as well as the lengths capital will go to smash workers’ movements, including terrorizing, torturing and killing radicals, union members, and strikers.

     The  history moves from first IWW meeting in 1905 in Chicago, through the movement’s peak,  leading strikes, and “inventing” the sit down strike, between 1910 and the end of World War I. Their actions influenced both the U.S. and European labor scenes (53). The establishment fought back utilizing police repression, anti-immigrant legislation (immigrants led many IWW strikes), the criminalization of syndicalist activity, and appeals to patriotism to paint the IWW as “pro-German” (38). Many Wobblies were deported.

     Compared to unions like the American Federation of Labor  (A.F.L.), which was the most powerful union in the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the Wobblies were emerging,The IWW was more radical in its willingness to strike when other unions were not,  and its open anti-capitalism, stating in its Constitutional preamble that “[t]he working class and the employing class have nothing in common”  (18). In this, the IWW had more in common with the Knights of Labor, who were opposed to the wage system, but who had been decimated by the first “Red Scare” following the Haymarket massacre of 1886. The IWW also organized along a much broader social base than the A.F.L. As opposed to unions which targeted certain sectors and crafts  often favoring more skilled workers and white workers, the IWW was antiracist, and in the words of Big Bill Haywood, a charismatic organizer and miner, recruited “every man that earns his living either by his brain or his muscle” (20).  

     Before organizing could happen, there were serious obstacles to overcome. The section on free speech rights serves as a reminder that while the concept of free speech is often a bourgeois ruse in which the rich have access to freer speech than anyone else, it nonetheless had to be fought for at a a heavy price. Wobblies who “soap boxed”, speaking in the streets to workers, were targeted by authorities and locked in jail to rot merely for organizing.

     Workers faced manipulations by companies, treating them intentionally as surplus labor, being told to head to certain cities for "guaranteed jobs" only to find out they were used to create a labor glut to drive down wages. "Mr. Block" who looks suspiciously like the inspiration for the "blockheads" in Gumby, is a character from some old IWW original comics at the back of the collection. He never does join in solidarity to challenge the bosses, and he is always made a chump for it, losing what he thought he would gain by being an isolated individual only out for himself, being chased out of town at the business end of a cop’s billy club (286).

     There is also material on the influence the Wobblies continue to have to the present day. Former Wobbly Joe Brundage ran his “College of Complexes” bar which was a center of free speech from 1951-1961, bringing together  disparate elements of the Left and working class including beatniks, feminists, Anarchists and Communists (233-34). In the 1960s movements like Students For a Democratic Society pushed for a break from Trotskyist and Old Left ideology, favoring participatory democracy and an organizing “from below” that was in many ways an echo of the Wobblies’ stances. In fact, many SDS members sported IWW buttons on their lapels (243). Also in the 60s, there was an infusion of youth into the IWW, many of the new members being centered around a chicago radical magazine called the “Rebel Worker”. They wrote about everything from Revolution to pop culture, printed classics of revolutionary theory that were long neglected, and were also active in the Civil Rights Movement and organizing “at the point of production (238-239). In the Twenty-First century, IWW have organized Starbucks workers, “where the mainstream labor movement had given up trying” (244). The last sections of the book elaborate the many ways that Wobbly history and tactics can and should inform today’s labor struggles, even as the terrain has changed.


     Like _Wobblies!_, Jeremy Brecher's _Strike!_ is a mostly ultra-Left elaboration of workers' uprisings in the United States. Brecher, despite his preference for antiauthoritarian and direct democratic action, maintains an even hand, treating all who strove for labor rights and power for workers with respectful portrayals,  from Communist party leaders involved in organizing, to mainstream union organizers, to anarchists and others. But he does show a consistent pattern of mainstream union collaboration with management, and provides some analysis on why that inevitably happens, as well as clarifying the limited role of radical parties and organizations in actually instigating worker uprisings and resistance, as opposed to having a militance that coincided with that of other workers (177,257).

     The first section of the book   takes the reader from the 1877 series of strikes known as the "Great Upheaval", mainly centered around the rail road industry, which was the key industry in the U.S. at the time, through late 19th and early 20th century strikes. These include the Homestead strike of the Carnegie Steel Works, and the take over of the city of Seattle by workers in 1919, and many others proceeding through the World War II period, ending with the early 1970s. (I don't have the updated edition.) The World War II period actually saw a huge amount of strikes during and in the immediate aftermath of the war, despite government/industry/union collaboration to "discipline" labor and keep war production steady. In 1944, there were “more strikes than in any previous year in American history” (224). The strike wave extended after the end of the war. Despite the massive postwar strike wave, unions served as a mediating force between labor and management, often stepping in to lead strikes, and thereby lessening the impact of confrontations between workers, and industry and government.

     Brecher makes a few things clear about the nature of workers' struggles and strikes. First, strikes are often carried out without the approval of the unions, as with the wave of sit down strikes in 1936-37, which the C.I.O. attempted to dismantle, and as with the "quickie" strike waves during World War II, which were often wildcat strikes due to the unions' promises not to strike or disrupt the war effort. Brecher explains that “[s]ince 1877, the trade union leadership as a whole has recognized the mass strike process and consciously opposed it...” (257).

     Secondly, Communist and radical leaders did not often instigate direct action or wild cat strikes, and when the members of their organizations did participate it was because their direct interests coincided with other workers in a given situation. Brecher goes so far as to say that "radical parties and organizations whose self-proclaimed goal [was] not just marginal improvements but a different kind of society..." such as "Communists, Socialists, Trotskyists...Socialist Labor and other parties as well as their members in the A.F.L., C.I.O. and other duelist trade unions...had little significance in instigating the mass struggles" described in his book. And when radical leaders did get organizational control over unions "the unions have operated within the framework of orderly collective bargaining like any others." (259). Brecher explains that during World War II the "unions with Communist leadership carried this policy [of disallowing strikes] the furthest" quoting a Business Week article which saw these unions as "the most vigorous proponents of labor-management cooperation," and having " the best no-strike record of any section of organized labor" (221).

     Brecher postulates that Mass Strikes have not gone over into revolution in the U.S. for the two main reasons: "While the conditions under which a mass strike develops revolutionary goals are not completely clear, the weakening of the apparatus of repression and the lack of a margin for making concessions seem to be most important." (As of the 1973 edition) corporations could afford to pay concessions to the workers which undermine revolutionary goals and solidarity. The police army and guard remain strong and loyal in the U.S. But he sees a third reason in "a lack of appreciation of their own potential power" by the workers, who "have always assumed that at the end of any strike, no matter how large or powerful, they would always go back to work for somebody else." This was due to lifelong conditioning that the workers would be unfit to manage their own lives

and would always need managers over them. This is a "division of labor" not just between different types of specialists, but between "those who decide and those whom they order to carry out their decision." These feelings are bolstered by the reality of economic dependence on employers. (258-260)

     I must say it is counterintuitive that Haymarket Books, run by the Vanguardist,Trotskyist/Leninist International Socialist Organization (ISO), would offer this classic, and largely more libertarian socialist labor history, on their website with high praise. Brecher is clearly antiauthoritarian, and anti-Bolshevik, stating that Lenin and the Bolshevik party opposed "workers' control" over industry, instead aiming at setting up control centralized in the Party itself, with the aim of State Capitalism. He quotes Lenin, who said that "Socialism is nothing else than a capitalistic State monopoly worked in the interest of the whole nation and therefore no longer a capitalist monopoly." Brecher also outlines how the Bolsheviks undermined the power of the Factory Committees, run by workers, by creating the All-Russia Council of Workers' Control," a top down organization run by the Bolshevik Party, and how, in yet another example of union collaboration with elites against workers, the Bolsheviks used the unions to attack the Factory Committees {296-297). Imagine an ISO member elaborating such a position! Brecher cares about such subject matter, because he is interested in elaborating the regressive effects of the State, parties, ostensibly radical vanguards, and mainstream unions on workers movements.

     The two books make clear, through example upon example, the connection between the State, with its police, army, and national guard apparatus, and business elites, and unfortunately, also with unions who in an effort to maintain their existence often become the police for the corporations "disciplining" workers against strikes and resistance. The myth that the "law and order" of the State is for all equally is easily exploded. Historically, worker uprisings have largely followed conditions determined by the material development of industry and the direct experiences of the workers with it, with meaningful actions emanating from workers themselves rather than from outside vanguards, elites, or official unions and their leadership. But Brecher was noting in the early 1970s that people had begun to question the role of “worker”  as defining a human being, instead aiming for a fuller life experience and a questioning of the results of industrial production on people and the environment (287). The goals of the full realization of human existence, through humor, art (or its realization outside the museum), eliminating wage and commodity relations, self-control of what is produced and consumed as well as over one’s surroundings, and joy in work, as Marx and others hoped for and saw as possible and as new generations of thinkers and workers also strive for, are  common threads in these two histories of American labor, with a decidedly ultra-Left slant.

Comrade Motopu

August, 2006