Lecture Notes: Wobblies cling to the cause | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: Wobblies cling to the cause 

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"November seems to be a bad month for people involved in labor," says social worker Robert L. Hopper, reciting a list of names and dates off the top of his head. "On November 11, 1887, the Haymarket martyrs were executed; in 1974 Karen Silkwood was killed; on November 5, 1916, several Wobblies were killed in Everett, Washington; in 1919, timber worker organizer Wesley Everest was lynched by a mob in Centralia, Washington; and on November 19, 1915, Joe Hill was executed by authorities in Utah."

Hill, a Swedish immigrant, was an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies. Founded in Chicago in 1905, the radical union--in its early days--comprised mostly industrial workers in the east and migrant loggers and miners in the Pacific Northwest. In its pre-World War I heyday, the IWW had over 200,000 members worldwide.

Hill was one of the union's most famous rabble-rousers, and his caustic protest songs played a critical role in organizing workers. "When the IWW people were going to do free-speech events--where they'd often get arrested for speaking out on labor issues--the Salvation Army would appear with their bands and try to drown out the speakers," says Hopper. "Joe would take their tunes, throw new words at them, and those would be used at those events. Sometimes people would start singing the tune with the new words, and end up drowning out the Salvation Army people."

Many of Hill's songs appear in the IWW's Little Red Songbook, first published in 1909 and now in its 36th printing. "The Preacher and the Slave," a song mocking the Salvation Army sermonizers, was set to the tune of "In the Sweet Bye and Bye"; "There Is Power in the Union" (aka "There Is Power in the Blood") went, in part: "Would you have mansions of gold in the sky / And live in a shack, way in the back? / Would you have wings up in heaven to fly / And starve here with rags on your back?"

Hopper's own interest in labor issues dates back to his childhood in Glencoe, where his father was a carpenter, his mother worked for Ma Bell, and both carried union cards. About a decade ago, after a stint in the army, a string of low-wage jobs, and a long flirtation with Marxism, Hopper began to embrace the IWW, although he didn't become a card-carrying member until this past April. He likes that the IWW organizes all workers into "one big union" rather than dividing them by trade, "so that we can pool our strength to fight the bosses together." All decisions and elections are determined by the general membership, and dues are voluntary. "When they organize a place, they don't come in and organize," says Hopper. "They say, 'We'll assist you, but you have to do the work yourself because it's your workplace. If you want to strike, we'll support you. If you want to end the strike, let us know.' It's antihierarchical and antiauthoritarian."

IWW membership fell off after antiradical purges in the 1920s resulted in mass deportations and arrests; by the 1960s the union had less than 100 members. But in 1999 the Wobblies made a strong showing at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. These days, says Hopper, "there are about 2,000 of us." In 1991, the membership decided that the IWW headquarters should be located in the city in which the secretary-treasurer lives, and the group is now based in Philadelphia. Current actions include organizing recyclers in Berkeley, adjunct faculty in Boston, and Godfather's Pizza employees and, ironically, Salvation Army workers in Portland, Oregon.

Hopper says that, worldwide, union members still have it bad, citing a report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which says that last year 209 people were murdered, 8,500 arrested, and 3,000 injured as a result of anti-union activities. Over 100,000 reported being harassed on the job and 20,000 were fired.

"The bottom line is that working people don't control their lives in the places where they work, and that's what we need to do," says Hopper. Earlier this month he became secretary-treasurer of the new Chicago Haymarket Local branch of the General Defense Committee of the IWW, which provides aid and zero-interest loans to persons "who have been imprisoned or under fire in the class war."

He also plays guitar and banjo. In the spirit of Joe Hill, he recently wrote "The New Wobbly Cannonball," to the tune of Theodore Dreiser's hobo ballad "The Wabash Cannonball": "Here's to Boxcar Betty, Emma Goldman, and Joe Hill / The voice of Solidarity cuts through the bosses' swill / When the workers of the world unite in One Big Union true / We can dump the bosses off our backs, for the world will be ours too!" He's sent it in for consideration for the next edition of the Little Red Songbook.

Hopper will perform and discuss his ballad--as well as songs by and about Hill and other Wobblies, including local Wobbly Mike Hargis's topical update of Country Joe & the Fish's "I Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag"--at an event called "In November We Remember." It's at 8 PM on Saturday, November 24, at the College of Complexes, which meets at the Lincoln Restaurant, 4008 N. Lincoln. Admission is $3, and a purchase of food or drink is required. Call 312-326-2120 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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