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Posts Tagged ‘IWW’

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As we near the end of November, Meg is returning from the bargaining table, and I am about to take off for union meetings in Ottawa, with a fresh tattoo on my arm of the IWW sabocat – symbol of the wildcat strike and industrial sabotage.

I won’t write much myself today, but instead want to take a moment to remember our martyrs of the struggle – those few names we know, and those countless others in un-marked graves or left by the side of the road. They are in all times, in all countries, in all struggles, so what is here is only the smallest remembrance.

The IWW has long marked Red November, Black November – an occassion to recall all of those killed by state and capital – because that month, particularly, is the anniversary of some of the most notable murders, among them:

Nov. 22, 1886 – Thibodaux Massacre. Dozens of striking Louisiana sugar workers massacred. Newspapers of the day note, “Lame men and blind women shot. Children and hoary-headed grandsires ruthlessly swept down! The Negros offered no resistance, they could not as the killing was unexpected.”

Nov. 11, 1887 – The Haymarket Executions. Four leaders of the campaign for the 8-hour day in Chicago, Illinois, are executed by the state.  Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle, and Adolph Fischer, whose struggles and murders are commemorated in the mural that is reproduced as the banner of this blog.

Nov. 19, 1915 – Murder of Joe Hill.  IWW organizer and author of countless labour songs and poems, Joe Hill is executed by the State of Utah on a trumped-up murder charge that even the US president of the day, Woodrow Wilson, didn’t swallow.

Nov. 5, 1916 – The Everett Massacre. Cops and deputies kill 11 Wobblies when they open fire on a peaceful crowd of 200 attempting to dock at Everett, Washington, for a free speech fight.

Nov. 11, 1919 – IWW organizer Wesley Everest, arrested after a confrontation between Wobs and Legionnaires,  is taken from his cell, castrated, and hung beneath a railway bridge. After his death, his body is riddled with bullets and returned to the jail to be laid on display as a warning to the other Wobs in custody.

November. A time to remember struggle and resistance, and captured by another Wobbly songwriter and poet, Ralph Chaplin:

Red November, black November,
Bleak November, black and red.
Hallowed month of labor’s martyrs,
Labor’s heroes, labor’s dead.

Labor’s wrath and hope and sorrow,
Red the promise, black the threat,
Who are we not to remember?
Who are we to dare forget?

Black and red the colors blended,
Black and red the pledge we made,
Red until the fight is ended,
Black until the debt is paid.

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Damn

Only a matter of days after I wrote about Utah Phillips here, this old Wob has passed on. Rather than write anything more myself, I’ll simply refer those who don’t know him to this video, and copy here the words of Jim Page that are circulating.

Rest well, comrade.

—————

In the night of May 23, 2008, Bruce Duncan Phillips died in great peace,
asleep in his bed in Nevada City, California, with his wife Joanna by his
side.

Amazingly, at the very same instant that the scholar Bruce Phillips finally
discovered his angle of repose, U. Utah Phillips flagged a westbound freight
train. Yes, a mighty fast rattler, on a long west-bound track. He needed no
ticket, he was welcomed on board.

The immediate family and neighbors of Bruce Phillips, along with any
Wobblies who happen to be passing through, are gathering in Nevada City to
do all the things that must be done. Please give them the quiet respect they
so need right now.

But you can wave “So Long!” to Utah when that train moves west. Hey, hear
the whistle? He’s passing by right now!

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I was 15 years old, and a friend of my folks’ made a few tapes of political music for me to take along for our year in Zimbabwe. That’s where I discovered Billy Bragg, Little Steven and a whole host of others. And it’s where I found Bruce “Utah” Phillips – storyteller, songwriter, keeper of the oral history of American workers.

Utah’s a wobbly – a member of the Industrial Workers of the World – and he’s the reason I became a wobbly, too. That first bit of music came off his We Have Fed You All for A Thousand Years, an album recorded during a tour he did of the Pactific Northwest in the 80s, exclusively of songs and stories out of the early radical union movement.

I listened to it intently, over and over, learning every one of those songs. I raced out and found whatever I could on the history of lahour generally, and the IWW in particular. I spoke to my grandfather and other elders who’d been active in their own unions, gathering their recollections and myths and songs. And then at some rally or other I got handed a copy of the Industrial Worker and saw for the first time that this old IWW was still kicking around. Not only that, it was being rejuvenated.

After a lengthy decline after being identified as the greatest domestic threat to US capital and state – a status that resulted in the imprisonment, exile and murder of countless organizers – the Wobs were for a long time a relic, more a historical society than anything else. But now, around 1990, this was union that was growing. Judi Bari and other EarthFirst!ers had come in, and were actively organizing around the northern California redwoods. Strippers at San Francisco’s “Lusty Lady” were talking union, and work was being done to organize collectives among sex workers. And it kept growing, particularly in those places of work disproportionately populated by over-educated and under-employed twenty-somethings – Starbucks, bike couriers, student newspapers including Langara College’s Gleaner right here in Vancouver.

Well I signed myself up, of course, getting my first red card in early 1991 and heading down to San Fran for that year’s IWW Convention, crashing with Clif Ross, a writer and radical who lived just outside of town. I watched and learned and marvelled. Utah sang and story-told. Judi and Darryl Cherney brought new music from the redwood struggle, and talked about the FBI campaign against them. (She’d been hurt in a car bombing a year earlier – then promptly accused of knowingly-carrying those explosives and plotting terror. I’ll try to blog on it in the future, but for now you can get the basics of her story here.)

Since that time I’ve only kept up my wob membership very intermittently. I was around for a while, engaging in the debates, doing some writing for the newspaper and so on. But it lapsed as I travelled and studied. I never stopped thinking of myself as a wob, though, whether dues-paying or not.

Anyway, back to Utah.

After a stint in the Army he worked a variety of jobs and wrote some songs, eventually falling in with Ammon Hennacy and the Catholic Workers – rooted in an earlier and more anarchist version of the radical Catholicism I’d find around the Central American revolutionary movement in the 1980s. Utah lived and worked in Hennacy’s Joe Hill house in Salt Lake City – Catholic Workers fairly regularly set up collective homes on the skids in various places, offering open doors, food, and so on for whoever needs them, and trouble-making as much as possible while they’re at it.

And then, when that house closed its doors in the late 1960s, it was mostly music for Utah, so he’s spent the last several decades writing, recording, performing, seeking out old stories, making up new ones, and generally trying to keep alive the tradition of political organization and education through song and humour and oral history.

Utah had his birthday the other day, but he’s not doing as much singing anymore. Heart trouble has plagued him for the last number of years, and he’s had to undergo some pretty extensive medical treatment. As you can imagine, singing on picket lines and telling radical stories ain’t much as a get-rich-quick scheme, no matter how much Ani DiFranco talks about ya.  So – and only now do we get to the real reason for posting this at all – Utah’s friends are in support mode, with benefit concerts being held across the States, and folks raising money to make sure this elder gets the care he needs.

To give some love and solidarity in the only form capitalism knows, visit here.

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Today, May 16, marks the 90th anniversary of the US Sedition Act. It’s purpose? From History.com, hardly a radical information source, here’s the gist.

“Aimed at socialists, pacifists and other anti-war activists, the Sedition Act imposed harsh penalties on anyone found guilty of making false statements that interfered with the prosecution of the war; insulting or abusing the U.S. government, the flag, the Constitution or the military; agitating against the production of necessary war materials; or advocating, teaching or defending any of these acts.”

This was the Act that resulted in Eugene Deb’s ten-year-sentence for anti-war organizing, a case in which the US Supreme Court ruled that the state had the right to constrain free speech in order to prevent something called “substantive evils”.

Now, with the end of the First World War the Act was abolished, and Debs’ sentence commuted in 1921. It’s still important, though, because it is a direct fore-runner of the legislation we’ve been seeing since the attack on the World Trade Centre, and because it reminds us that such laws are no knee-jerk reaction, but part of an ongoing criminalization of dissent whose history is continuous for all its ebb and flow. In Debs’ time, it was the IWW that was the number one threat to domestic order; not so many years ago it was the eco-anarchists targetted in the green scare. And in-between it’s been indigenous activists, black nationalists, student radicals and more. And in each instance, the goal of the legislation is to cast a wide net, to inspire fear, to encourage self-censorship, to bolster faltering myths of consensus.

And are surprised? Not really. I mean, liberal appeals to universal rights aside, it’s pretty logical that a state apparatus will always impose whatever legislative and coercive tools it can to prevent threats to order. No, not surprised, nor even morally offended. Such acts are just expected of states and other institutions of control. That doesn’t, however, make resistance any less necessary. Rather, it means we need to recognize that the strategy and tactics of resistance take place in a wider social context, which at various times is more or less conducive to using the “universal rights” call to generate support from political liberals. And it means that we need to expect that in times of crisis such appeals are less likely to fall on fertile ground – and indeed in such times much of the left can and probably will actively move to identify and isolate radicals in order to protect itself from association with lawlessness and to carve out a greater legitimacy with the state.

But now I’m just ranting, and that wasn’t entirely the point of this post. Rather, the point is to remember. Remember that, in the eyes of the state, any meaningful protest is sedition. Remember that, in the eyes of capital, any autonomous organization of workers is a terrorist act. Remember that appeals to liberal values are only ever a tactic, because that line between liberalism and fascism is a thin one.

Remember the Wobblies who were hanged from trees and railway trellises, the Black Panthers and AIM activists killed in manufactured “shoot-outs”, the women anti-war activists raped as censorship, and the kid, Eric McDavid, just sentenced to 19 years in jail because an FBI plant seduced him into talking about direct action.

The Sedition Act is alive and well. Fortunately, too, apparently so is sedition.

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Stepping Down

A busy day yesterday, and strange. Reflection, grief, anger. There’s lots happening in my home life, with uncertainties and conflicts with my ex, so that’s all hanging in the background as a generalized anxiety and exhaustion. Right now, though, at the forefront has been work.

Yesterday was the last day I am performing the duties of Executive Director. Come Monday, I am officially returning to my previous position handling grievances, working with members. And while it was my choice, it was also not my choice. As I’ve mentioned here before, my employer has decided that its Executive Director must be willing to cross staff picket lines and discipline staff if necessary. And that’s not what I do. I’m a union rep, and that job has plenty compromise enough for me as it is. Working as a supervisor? Fine. Providing guidance and advice? Fine. But don’t make me take on the role of boss, cause it’s a line I won’t cross.

So, here I am today after this little experiment in changing the structure of the workplace has come to an end. We had a good run, we union staffers. A few years ago, we were all close to quitting, some on sick leave, entering and leaving the workplace in silence, sitting at computers behind closed doors. The last while we’ve been having potlucks, sharing personal stories and struggles, laughing. 

Now I certainly won’t pretend to have performed particularly well in all aspects of my job – the work on budgets, in particular, was never something I could muster much interest in, and there were definitely times I was not available for people to consult with. But in co-ordinating the grievance and policy work, in facilitating some organizational up-dating, in pushing for a deeper (or any!) democracy, and in building a unified staff – these things, I think, did improve substantially.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since I announced my return to the ranks, with organizing our internal union stuff, sorting through the implications of my decicion, constant discussion with members of the union leadership about what the problems are, why I won’t change my mind, what other options we might have had – it all takes its toll. But as the effective date of my resignation has ticked closer, I’ve increasingly felt something I can only describe as grief.

There is loss here. As a staff group we are losing a workplace culture, and moving from a sense of camraderie based on general support to one based on a specific antagonism toward the employer; I personally am giving up some respsonsibility, and though I didn’t really want all of that there is loss there, too. With that, I am waiting for the word to go out and the questions from members and the university community generally; and though I know this is a political dispute, and I know the choice I made was the right one for me, it comes with a lot of discomfort and insecurity because most people will simply presume I wasn’t up for the job, or was “removed”. It’s hard to know that a political decision will be invisible to most, who will seek explanations in personal or professional failure instead.

In the grand scheme of things, though, I can’t really complain.

One of the many things I’ve been aware of through this is the IWW card in my desk. Though I confess I haven’t paid my dues for a long long time, if I’ve ever second-guessed my decision because a new boss might be worse than me, because I’m worried about the loss in pay I’m taking, because I am afraid to face questions or gossip about my shortcomngs – though all of this, that wobbly membership keeps me pretty fucking clear on what I have to do. And if this little bump in my own job causes some emotional distress and some confusion, it’s a pretty minor event in a pretty tiny union and with few consequences other than the immediate discomfort and adjustment. I’ve said, “I’m standing with the union”, and for that I’ve taken a bit of a financial hit and faced some professional uncertainty. But I’m not getting chased out of town or locked up indefinitely or hung under a railway bridge for my commitment to union membership. Perspective, perspective.

So, I’ll take most of the next week off, let myself adjust to my self-imposed demotion, focus my energies on the staff union I now officially belong to and preparations for bargaining a first agreement this summer. And I’ll try to remind myself that it’s just work, and without all the personal turmoil in my life this might not be nearly so hard to take. Again, perspective, perspective.

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