Fellow Worker : Barry Pateman reviews Cole, Struthers, and Zimmer, Wobblies of the World

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Formed in June 1905 at a Chicago conference, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) immediately set out to break up the existing American labour landscape.

In his opening address to the conference William D. ‘Big Bill’ Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners stated that ‘We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have as its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism’. The Preamble to the IWW made it clear that ‘The working class and the employing class have nothing in common’. As well as taking aim at American capitalism the conference also attacked what delegates saw as the inadequacy of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the principal American labour organization of the period. As a craft-based organisation, the AFL, by design or default, excluded the majority of American workers from its ranks – women, those who were unskilled, migrant workers, and, of course, recent immigrants. The IWW saw its mission as to go out and recruit those workers into the struggle against capitalism and to avoid all forms of conciliation with their employers. In essence this meant organising in areas that had never been organised and often working with ethnic groups in whom the AFL appeared to have no interest and whose presence in America some of its membership actively opposed.[1]

After a stuttering start the IWW grew into an impressive and, it might be argued, rather prescient organisation. It soon showed itself capable of remarkable creativity in its use of tactics. Banned from speaking at street corners in a city it would create a battle over free speech. Every time an IWW member was arrested for speaking, another would take their place with the aim of flooding jails and jamming the legal system. It employed the use of song and cartoons to rouse members and mock opposition. It practiced sabotage in all its aspects while encouraging and supporting strike action whether organised

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Introducing Working Class Literature

Working Class History

Following on from the success of the Working Class History podcast and social media pages, we recently decided to start a new sister project: Working Class Literature.

Like our history, working class literature is often neglected (or completely forgotten) within literary institutions – like publishing or the academy – that actively discourage or exclude working class people from participation. Beyond this exclusion, there also exist the various obstacles of poverty, work, time (or lack thereof) and formal education (likewise) which might stop working class writers from ever writing in the first place.

Yet, nonetheless, the working class has a rich literary history and it is the aim of Working Class Literature to help promote it.

The project will consist of a Twitter account and occasional podcast to discuss working class writers or various texts and authors in their relationship to working class politics. The first podcast episode will be about the life and work of T-Bone Slim, a poet, songwriter and columnist for the Industrial Workers of the World union who was at various points a hobo, dock worker and lumberjack. For this episode, we’ve interviewed Owen Clayton from the University of Lincoln as well as Slim’s Great Grandnephew, John Westmoreland.

More generally, we hope to expand what is generally considered ‘working class literature’ to include not only the likes of Robert Tressell, John Steinbeck and Alan Sillitoe (great as they all are) but also writers like BS Johnson, Toni Morrison, George Lamming and Djuna Barnes who, for various reasons, are usually not included under the label of ‘working class literature’.

So if you’re on Twitter, do please follow @workingclasslit, share our content and invite your friends to do the same. And feel free to give us suggestions for authors who we should be reading to help us promote the rich literary and cultural life of our class!

If you value our work please take a second to support Working Class History on Patreon!

The Electoral Road to Power?

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Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation

As the left revisits questions of strategy and the role of elections in the path towards socialist transformation, author and veteran activist Tom Wetzel outlines both a critique of the electoral centered path and a strategy for working class power from below.

By Tom Wetzel

Could a shift from capitalism to socialism be brought about through electoral politics? Ever since the origins of the modern socialist left in the late 1800s, many socialists have viewed the politics of parties and elections as a way they can insert themselves into history — forming a core component of their strategy.

In the World War I era the American Socialist Party (SPA) had gained a hundred thousand members and elected more than a thousand government officials — mayors, members of city councils and state legislators. By the mid-20th century “democratic socialism” had been coined as a kind of political brand to refer to the tradition of the socialists oriented to electoral politics as a strategy for social change.

The “democratic socialist” label was partly meant to show their defense of the systems of “representative democracy” and liberal values in western Europe, North America and elsewhere. This was combined with critiques of the repressive and undemocratic nature of the “communist camp” countries of the mid-20th century — the Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba, Communist China. This defense of “representative democracy” is tied in with their basic strategy of working to gain political power through elections.

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Emancipation of the Working Class: The Legacy of the IWW.

Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation

Winter 2019 cover of the IWW’s Industrial Worker magazine.

Founded over 110 years ago on June 27, 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, created an iconic legacy and rich history of militant unionism in the U.S.  The union was founded by radical unionists and currents within the labor movement with the purpose of building an alternative to the conservative trade unionism of the American Labor Federation (AFL) which promoted harmony between workers and capital and practiced exclusion in their organizing along the lines of race, gender and skill. Today the IWW continues to organize as an alternative to mainstream unions and we celebrate its vision of a labor movement committed to the emancipation of the working class. 

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Red State Revolt: An Essential But Flawed Story of the Teacher Rebellion

Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation

Review of Red State Revolt, The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics by Eric Blanc on Verso Books, 2019. By Michael Mochaidean

Last year’s wave of public teacher strikes and walkouts was the highest number of workers walking off the job in three decades. Whether it will be the start of a larger trend across other sectors is yet to be seen. But understanding how these strikes came to fruition is an important lesson of modern labor history.

So how did a group of young, radical, education unionists manage to stage statewide walkouts across the nation in 2018?

This is the question that Eric Blanc seeks to answer in the much anticipated release of his first book, Red State Revolt. Blanc is a doctoral student at NYU and for the past year has acted as correspondent on the Left for the larger education struggles. Given that Blanc has spent the better part of a year covering these struggles, interviewing by his estimates over 100 participants, and being a former educator himself, Blanc is uniquely qualified to write about these matters in ways few others can.

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