Staughton Lynd reviews Rebel Voices

Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology

by Staughton Lynd
Industrial Worker
December 2011

The first words the reader of this book will see are by IWW member and Starbucks organizer Daniel Gross. At the beginning of his Preface to this new edition of Joyce Kornbluh’s classic collection, first published in 1964, FW Daniel writes: “You hold in your hands the most important book ever written about the Industrial Workers of the World.”

It’s true. Whatever you thought you knew about the founding convention of the IWW in 1905, or the massacre of Wobblies on the Verona at Everett, Washington, or Joe Hill’s thoughts while awaiting execution, you will know more after encountering Rebel Voices. This is the most important book on the subject because in it countless rank-and-file Wobblies speak for themselves through the pamphlets, excerpts from IWW newspapers, cartoons, song sheets, and other written sources brought together at the Labadie collection in Ann Arbor. This is history from below, created by the working men and women who made that history.


Apart from the sheer delight of immersing oneself in the irreverent Wobbly sub-culture, Kornbluh’s compilation requires revision of several misconceptions as to what the IWW was all about.

First and most important, it is commonly said that members of the IWW were opposed to written collective bargaining agreements. This perception mistakes means for ends.

The Wobblies were opposed to contractual agreements that limited direct action and solidarity. At the time the organization came into being, most unions were “craft” or “trade” unions. That is, they did not include all workers at a given workplace, but only those workers who practiced a specific skill. Each craft bargained for a separate contract with the employer, covering only its own members. Thus in a steel mill, for example, there was not a single contract for “steelworkers” employed there, rather there were separate contracts for each of the skills involved in making steel.

Obviously, quite apart from the language of any particular contract, the very existence of such contracts tended to turn a workplace into a mosaic of different kinds of workers, each kind bound by a specific written agreement. The termination dates of the contracts were likely to differ. Even in the absence of express language limiting the right to strike, a work stoppage initiated by one group of workers was unlikely to be honored by members of different crafts.

Overcoming the division between members of different craft unions belonging to what the Wobblies called “The American Separation of Labor” was the main reason the IWW was created. This is made crystal clear by the letter of invitation to the founding convention, dated January 2-4, 1905, signed by (among others) Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, and Eugene Debs. The worker, so the letter declared, “sees his power of resistance broken by craft divisions.” These “outgrown” and “long-gone” divisions had been made obsolete by modern machinery, the authors continue. “Separation of craft from craft renders industrial and financial security impossible. Union men scab upon union men.”

Debs, whom we don’t ordinarily think of as a spokesperson for the IWW, gave a speech in Chicago in November 1905 in which he offered precisely the same rationale for the creation of the organization and illustrated that truth from his own experience. “We insist that all the workers in the whole of any given plant shall belong to one and the same union,” Debs declared. “I belonged to a craft union from the time I was nineteen years of age,” he went on. He remembered the evening that he had joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, and the zeal with which he had labored “to build it up.” But he had come to see that a single craft union, even a federation of craft unions, was not enough, and so had undertaken to organize the American Railway Union. The employers, in response, showered favors on the several craft brotherhoods in the knowledge that these craft unions protected them from the power that “we Industrial Unionists” could exert. Referring to a specific lost strike in 1888 Debs concluded: “A manager of a railroad who can keep control of 15 percent of the old men can allow 85 per to go out on strike and defeat them every time.” (This speech appears, not in Rebel Voices, but in American Labor Struggles and Law Histories, ed. Kenneth M. Casebeer,  91-99.)

As it happened, of course, the creation of CIO industrial unions in the 1930s did not offer workers the freedom to undertake direct action whenever they wished. The very first collective bargaining agreements between the United Automobile Workers and General Motors, and between the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and U.S. Steel, in the early months of 1937, gave away the right to strike for the duration of the contract. No law required this. The officers of the new unions as well as the giant corporations with which they negotiated feared the unrestricted direct action of the rank and file.

Readers who are “dual carders’ —that is, Wobblies who belong both to the IWW and to a conventional trade union—should find this clarification helpful. Fellow workers may find it difficult to understand why one should oppose written contracts as a matter of principle. They will find it easier to grasp the idea that workers should never give up the opportunity to engage in direct action when, where, and how they perceive it to be appropriate.

A second misconception has to do with the idea of “sabotage” and the black Sabby cat that became its logo.

What the word “sabotage“ meant to Wobblies, Kornbluh makes clear, was “striking on the job” or “striking and staying in the shop.” Striking on the job could take a variety of forms. When workers mysteriously produce only half of what they ordinarily produce during a given shift, such a slowdown is a form of what the Wobblies meant by ”sabotage.”  When workers meticulously obey all the safety rules—rules ordinarily disregarded in the interest of getting product out the door—that, too, is sabotage as originally understood. When protesting bus drivers provided the usual service but declined to collect fares it was still another instance of the black cat at work. When lumber workers walked off the job together after the number of hours of work they considered appropriate, it was “sabotage” without the use of imagined wooden shoes. The same was true in 1935-1937 when Akron rubber workers or automobile workers in Flint occupied the places where they worked rather than walking out of the plant. Such “sabotage” had nothing to do with violence or destruction of tools.

Indeed, a major surprise in the pages of Rebel Voices is to find some of the most radical IWW organizers using the term “passive resistance.” Joseph Ettor, addressing textile strikers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, said: “As long as the workers keep their hands in their pockets, the capitalists cannot put theirs there.  With passive resistance, with the workers absolutely refusing to move, lying absolutely silent, they are more powerful than all the weapons and instruments that the other side has for attack.”

Wobbly organizer William Trautmann advised strking workers to go back to work and use “passive resistance.”          

Finally, it seems clear from these pages that the original Wobbly understanding of the “general strike” meant more than folding arms. It meant taking over the means of production and beginning production for use. In a speech in New York later summarized in an IWW pamphlet, Bill Haywood called the Paris Commune of 1871 “the greatest general strike known in modern history.”


Because the IWW itself was in a state of chaos and decline from the 1920s until recent times, the book’s account of the years 1924-1964 is fragmentary. This makes it all the more impressive that during those years the memory and mystique of the IWW continued powerfully to affect some of the most imaginative labor organizers in the country.

As I wrote in the Introduction to a book called We Are All Leaders, in the early 1930s the formation of local industrial unions was often spearheaded by individual Wobblies or former Wobblies. Len DeCaux wrote of his fellow CIO militants that when they let down their hair, “it seemed that only the youngest had no background of Wobbly associations.”

Stan Weir, a lifelong rank-and-file radical whose writings have been collected in a book called Singlejack Solidarity, learned his unionism from Wobblies. Blackie and Chips were the “1934 men” who taught him the lessons of the San Francisco general strike in classes on shipboard. Likewise John W. Anderson jumped up on a car fender to become the chairperson of the 1933 Briggs strike in Detroit, worked as a volunteer IWW organizer for three years, and later became a dissident local union president in the UAW.   

Another gifted leader from below was steelworker Ed Mann, whom my wife and I came to know intimately after we moved to Youngstown. After years of nurturing a rank-and-file caucus called the Rank and File Team (RAFT), Ed became president of Local 1462 at the Brier Hill mill of Youngstown Sheet & Tube. He retired when the mill was shut down and became a leading spirit of the Workers Solidarity Club of Youngstown. When we identified ourselves at the beginning of each meeting, Ed would say:  “Ed Mann, member of the IWW.”  Shortly before his death he explained: “I like the Wobblies’ history: the Bill Haywood stuff, the Ludlow mine, the Sacco-Vanzetti thing. I like their music. I like the things they were active in.”

These folks believed that workers should exercise power, instead of handing it over to bureaucrats they elect, and letting the bureaucrats make the decisions. The people have to live with the decisions.

Thus Ed Mann kept the faith with the Wobbly idea that what is  needed is, in Kornbluh’s words, “not piecemeal reform but revolutionary change.”  To be a Wobbly, this book affirms on every page, is to entertain a profound vision and strategy of emancipation. Like participants in Occupy Wall Street, these out-of-pocket rebels refused to be content with demanding this or that specific change. They demanded a new world.


Finally, Kornbluh tells us that only a year after the magnificent founding convention of 1905, “quarrels erupted in a chaotic 1906 convention” leading to the withdrawal from the IWW of its strongest constituent union, the Western Federation of Miners. Following the repression of radicals during World War I there was, she also reports, “a serious schism in the IWW organization in 1924.”

Sadly, problems associated with national conventions and similar gatherings of delegates seem to persist. IWW members are at home in local, improvised direct actions with longtime fellow workers. They are not in their element at representative assemblies encased in a myriad of procedural rules. 

National organizations are difficult to live in without drifting toward scheming and manipulation destructive of comradeship. I experience my own version of political Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in reaction to the disintegration of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the end of the 1960s. Pre-convention caucusing, challenging of credentials, hidden agendas, pressing for repeated votes or votes at unexpected times, interminable proposing of resolutions, nit-picking of each and every suggested wording of anything, verbally abusing comrades who espouse a position different from one’s own, all express an absence of faith that we can make the road as we walk it together. 

These practices must stop. The students and workers who look to our activity as possible paradigms of a longed-for better way of doing things are often horrified by what they see us actually do. We must exemplify what we say we believe.  A set of words beloved by my wife and myself, initially formulated by a committee supportive of Polish Solidarity, read:

Start doing the things you think should be done.
Start being what you think society should become.
Do you believe in freedom of speech? Then speak freely.
Do you love the truth? Then tell it.
Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open.
Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.

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