By Working Class History
May 17th, 2021
Podcast episode about the history of the revolutionary union the Industrial Workers of the World in Canada. We speak with historian and author Mark Leier about the union’s organising work amongst loggers, miners, road and railroad construction workers, First Nations dock workers and more.
Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory
You can listen to our podcast on the below links, or on any major podcast app. Links to a few below.
- E52: The IWW in Canada
- E52.1: Canadian IWW bonus episode – with more information about the history of the union, IWW poetry and songs, and information about Robert Gosden, an interesting and unsavoury character in the union (available exclusively for our patreon supporters).
- E6: The Industrial Workers of the World in the US, 1905-1918
- E9: The Industrial Workers of the World in the US, 1918-1950s
- E16: Women in the early IWW
- E19: The IWW in Australia
- WCL E01: T-Bone Slim – the laureate of the logging camps
- Books and merch about the IWW in our online store.
- Jeff Shantz, “Bows and Arrows: Indigenous Workers, IWW Local 526, and Syndicalism on the Vancouver Docks,” libcom.org, February 17, 2021, accessed May 16, 2021, https://libcom.org/history/bows-arrows-indigenous-workers-iww-local-526-syndicalism-vancouver-docks.
- G. Jewell, “The IWW in Canada,” IWW, 1975, accessed May 16, 2021, https://libcom.org/library/iww-canada-g-jewell.
- Rod Mickleburgh, “A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement,” Montecristo Magazine, April 27, 2018, accessed May 16, 2021, https://montecristomagazine.com/community/history-british-columbia-labour-movement.
- Mark Leier, Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolutionary, Mystic, Labour Spy (New Star Books, 1999)
- Sam Lowry, “The Ludlow massacre, 1914,” libcom.org, September 11, 2006, accessed April 16, 2021, https://libcom.org/history/1914-the-ludlow-massacre.
- Episode edited by Louise Barry.
- Music used is “Where the Fraser River Flows” by Joe Hill, performed by Mark Leier (Twitter), and “A Dream” by Joe Brazier, performed by Charlie Caine (Twitter and YouTube).
- Episode graphic is a photo of mostly First Nations dock workers Vancouver, 1889, some of whom later founded the Bows and Arrows IWW local, including William Nahanee, centre, with laundry bag. Charles S. Bailey photo, City of Vancouver Archives, Mi P2.
In the territory now known as Canada in the early 20th century, thousands of workers in logging camps, mines, docks, fields and railroads joined the Industrial Workers of the World union. They organised themselves, fighting for better pay and conditions, and trying to build a new, free and fair society, in the shell of the old. This is Working Class History.
Hi and welcome back to the Working Class History podcast. Before we get started, just a reminder that our podcast is only made possible by support from you, our listeners on patreon. Depending on the level of support patrons get early access to episodes, exclusive bonus episodes, as well as free and discounted books, calendars and more. Learn more and sign up at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory.
Today we are continuing our intermittent podcast series on the history of the revolutionary union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies). You can listen to this episode as a stand-alone, but if you want to be better acquainted with basic aspects of the union, we’d recommend going back and listening to our episode 6, in which we introduce the union and tell its early history in the United States.
After the US, Canada was one of the countries where the IWW and its radical ideas had the most impact. We are very happy to be joined by Mark Leier, a historian, author and member of the union.
Mark: I am currently a Professor of History at Simon Fraser University and I’ve done some work and research on the IWW. I became interested in the IWW when I was working at different kinds of jobs. I did some of the jobs that IWW members had done historically. I worked as a labourer in construction, for example, and reading about the IWW, especially when I ran into conflicts with trade unions who were clearly building unions on that business/union model that the IWW hated. I was trying to organise a print shop that I worked in and went to the printers’ union and they said, ‘There just aren’t enough people here to make this cost-effective for us to mount an organising drive.’ That got me interested in the IWW and when I finally decided to go to university, I thought, ‘I want to study the Wobblies.’ Of course, their music and poetry also captivated me. They had made such a huge cultural contribution to the working class. Partly because I went to university originally to become a teacher, I thought I could combine the folk music, the songs and the politics but ended up becoming a graduate student and finally, I became a professor doing this work. I’ve been a member of the IWW off and on. If any delegates are listening, I think I owe you some dues right now. I first signed up in 1976 here in Vancouver, British Columbia.
As we discuss in episodes 6, the IWW was formed in Chicago in 1905, and Canadian workers took part in its genesis.
Canadians were at the founding convention of the IWW and it’s a bit ironic talking about Canadian Wobblies because, at that convention, the Canadian delegates made it very clear that they were uninterested in national boundaries and borders. In fact, it was John Riordan and a couple of others from Canada who insisted that they be called the Industrial Workers of the World. Some of the delegates said, ‘We’ve called ourselves the Industrial Workers of the World but let’s be honest, there are 250 of us here in a hall in Chicago. Maybe we want to just not be quite so grandiose. Call ourselves the Industrial Workers of America.’ That’s when the Canadian Wobblies got up and said, ‘No, we insist that it’s Industrial Workers of the World because national boundaries are part of the problem, so we refuse to limit ourselves in those kinds of ways.’ So they helped to bring that internationalism that the IWW is so rightfully famous for right to that founding convention. Textile workers from Montreal and miners from British Columbia travelled all the way to Chicago in 1905 for that founding convention, so they were there right at the very beginning. So the Canadian delegates from the West were deeply involved in mining and they had been members of the American Labour Union which was a precursor to the IWW.
The Canadian Wobblies had been involved in a union called the Western Federation of Miners, which joined the IWW en masse at its founding convention. When they returned to British Columbia, they continued to organise miners in the province.
They also were quick to organise workers in industries such as longshoring and here in Vancouver, they helped to organise a group of First Nations longshoremen which was a group that became colloquially known as the Bows and Arrows. They were First Nations workers who travelled across the Burrard Inlet to work on the Vancouver Docks. They had had their own organisations before but the IWW’s commitment to radical, democratic and militant unionism really appealed to them.
A In 1906, 50-60 Indigenous longshore workers, who were mostly Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, formed Local 526 of the IWW, the first union on the Vancouver waterfront. This local later became known as the Bows and Arrows.
Canada at that time was still a British colonial dominion. Vancouver itself is in unceded Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territory, and the city was rapidly expanding further into Indigenous lands, and as capitalist industry grew, colonial authorities ramped up restrictions on Native fishing and hunting, as well as Indigenous peoples’ access to land and water.
Waterfront employers try to ensure that dockworkers were divided on racial grounds, with non-Indigenous workers given preferential jobs. Like other IWW locals, the Bows and Arrows tried to organise across racial lines and organise all workers together to fight against the employers. Individual members also fought for the rights of First Nations peoples.
One of the members of the Bows and Arrows used the better wages that they had managed to collect for working on the waterfront to help fund a trip to London to put the case for First Nations to the British parliament and to make that presence known.
The delegation to England which met with King Edward VII to discuss settling land claims in British Columbia was led by Sa7plek, also known as chief Joe Capilano, who was a Squamish leader and had been a stevedore.
That connection between the IWW and the First Nations is a really profound one; not so much in terms of the actual ideology of the IWW but the fact that the Wobblies made it possible for people to win dignity and win better wages on their jobs and use those to further their political agendas in other spheres as well.
That said, the union didn’t specifically have a critique of colonialism and advocate for Indigenous peoples as such. Rather, as with many revolutionary organisations at the time they had kind of a “colourblind” approach, which advocated all workers organising together against the employers, without specifically recognising that different sections of the working class had very different conditions and problems.
In addition to miners and dockers, the IWW also organised among construction workers.
They organised civic workers because lots of construction being done in the province was paid for by municipalities. They were building railway lines, streetcar lines and putting in sewage and building infrastructure. So the navvies, the so-called unskilled pick and shovel workers, that they hired were also organised by the IWW. They engaged in the big strike up in Prince Rupert and engaged in organising in other cities such as Vancouver and Victoria on Vancouver Island.
Municipal workers building roads in Prince Rupert, in the north of British Columbia, had formed the Prince Rupert Industrial Association, a union which joined the IWW. Roadbuilding paid better than railway construction, but workers had to pay for room and board near the work site, which was expensive in frontier towns. They organised a short strike in 1911 which won better pay for municipal workers. After this, they demanded equal pay for private contractors on municipal contracts. The contractors refused, and this triggered a bitter strike. The Royal Canadian Navy sent a cruiser to the town, police and the replacement (or scab) workers clashed violently with the strikers, and eventually numerous strikers, including key organisers, were arrested and charged with serious crimes like riot, assault and attempted murder, many spending months in temporary prison bullpens which had been hastily constructed by AFL and workers. While the second strike was unsuccessful, it showed that quote “unskilled” workers, many of non-English speaking immigrant backgrounds, could organise themselves and take action. It also helped bolster IWW arguments that conventional unions were part of the problem.
Now in terms of these workers being actually “unskilled”, as in most cases when this term is used, it is highly inaccurate and divisive.
It takes a great deal of skill and they worked under very tough conditions. If you’ve ever been in Vancouver or Prince Rupert in the winter or, frankly, the fall and even spring isn’t so great either [laughter], you’re working in mud and you’re working in pouring rain. It’s a rainforest in much of the province here. They’re working 10 and 12 hours a day and often paid much less than the so-called skilled workers. Again, I say so-called skilled workers because I don’t believe there is such a big distinction as we sometimes like to make. That distinction helps the boss because he can pay the so-called unskilled workers much less and that was something that the IWW fought directly and consistently in the province. They organised navvies working on railways. They organised civic workers working on infrastructure. They organised miners and loggers. Often, they could not win job control in these sectors but they were a huge influence. They gave people a militant spirit and they gave them institutions such as newspapers and halls where they could go and engage in political action and activities, as well as leisure activities. They were a profound influence across the province and in other provinces, especially Ontario.
By “job control” here, Mark is referring to a high level of control of the workplace by the union. For example in some places the IWW was successful in establishing control over hiring, so if employers needed to take on more people, they would have to bring in IWW members through union hiring halls.
As in the United States, the IWW in Canada didn’t just pay lip service to its name, it really did its best to organise workers from all over the world.
One of the things that the IWW did, and did very well, in this province was to organise workers who did not have English as their first language. In fact, in an early organising drive on the waterfront in Vancouver, the organiser boasted, ‘We’ve signed up workers who speak 18 different languages in this local.’ Everything from First Nations to Slavic languages and everything in between. Many of the skilled unions were also pretty racist and pretty sexist. They were not interested in organising workers, as one Wobbly put it ‘that had too many vowels in their last name.’ They really broke down those barriers and made it clear that you could organise so-called unskilled and so-called immigrant workers. The IWW was also treated badly by the mainstream or bourgeois press and we should not be one bit surprised by that. They used all kinds of racist tropes to describe the IWW membership. One editorial in a Vancouver newspaper referred to the IWW workers as WAPs. I’ve never seen the word used anywhere else. They said, ‘By the WAP, we mean the worker speaking mother-forgotten tongues and engaging in noxious practices in camps and in the cities. They come from places far away; the Slav, the Rus and the others. The only reason we hire them is that they’re not Chinese.’
As a small aside, we found that the term, “wap” was used in a couple of other places, like a 1912 book about Italian organised crime in New York, so it seems likely that it was an earlier form of the derogatory word “wop”, used for Italians, and often wrongly thought to originate from an acronym: “WithOut Papers”.
Anyway the press was unsurprisingly unsympathetic to these migrant, “unskilled” workers.
They could not understand why they might complain at working 12 hours a day for half the wages that they might work if they were, say, carpenters. Of course, this is what the mainstream corporate press always does. They never want to say, ‘Capitalism is a really lousy system unless you’re at the top of it.’ They always want to turn it back on the so-called outside agitators. They want to complain that these workers should be grateful for the lousy jobs that they have and that’s a very old tactic that they use and, of course, still use today. The sad part is the IWW was often painted the same way by the labour and socialist press as well because lots of the trade union leaders wanted, more than anything, to be respectable. They wanted to be seen as good, middle-class citizens of the province, of the country or of the city. They wanted to run for the parks’ board. They wanted to run for municipal office. Socialists, too, saw that the IWW’s direct action was a threat to their electoral politics and so the IWW press was always being attacked precisely for being what they were; that is itinerant workers or hobos rather than good, responsible, respectable citizens.
We talk about this much more detail in our episode 6, but for anyone who wasn’t aware, the IWW opposed political parties and elections, and instead advocated self organisation and direct action by the working class ourselves. This made them an enemy of some of those on the left, particularly those seeking to represent the working class and act supposedly on our behalf within capitalist power structures.
They did not advocate voting and, partly, it was a very practical matter. Because they were itinerant workers and because they were transient workers, they rarely met the residency requirements and rarely had the vote. Also, they had a critique of the state and said, ‘Empowering politicians to do what you can’t do yourself is not the way to freedom. If we are going to ever own the means of production to create that commonwealth of toil, we need to practice. That means we need to do this work ourselves and if we cannot put economic pressure on the boss, how do you expect the government, which is mostly elected and made up of the business community, to do that work for us?’ So they advocated direct action up to and including sabotage, by which they meant everything from actually damaging equipment to what they called ‘the conscious withdrawal of efficiency.’ This is very similar to tactics that were done in the United States and I think that it happens here reminds us that the IWW and its ideas were not bound by geography. This was about class and class divisions and not borders and not geography.
The Industrial Workers of the World, as hinted by their name, also wanted to organise all workers across each industry, like transport for example. This was unlike most conventional unions at the time which sought to represent smaller groups of skilled craft workers within each industry. So instead of transport workers as a whole, they would seek to organise railway engineers, conductors, firemen etc all separately, as well as separate craft unions for different kinds of workers on buses, trams, shipping and so on.
I think the most important tactic that the Wobblies used was they simply organised and that may not sound like much but this was really contrary to many American Federation of Labour craft unions who really functioned by keeping people out of the union. That is they wanted to create a kind of artificial scarcity of labour so they could charge more for it. Simply organising in constituencies that were abandoned by the traditional trade union movement was a pretty radical step for them to take. The IWW organised regardless of race, colour and gender. They printed publications in several languages and they actually went into the logging camps, the railway construction camps and the mining camps as workers. They worked there and they talked to the workers beside them. They passed out leaflets and papers and they plastered up silent agitators; that is stickers with union messages. Many years ago, in the 1970s, I had a chance to talk with a man named Alex Ferguson, better known as One-Armed Fergie. He had been an IWW member in the 1920s and he talked about the kind of organising that he did. As I said earlier, he would work in the camps and would come down to the cities when the work had dried up. He made a point when he was going back to camps in the spring to first stop by some of the religious crusaders in town, like the Salvation Army and others. He would grab lots of their leaflets and put them in his pack but what he would do would be to slip the IWW materials inside the religious pamphlets. When he got to camp, they would search his pack, go through it and they would find all of these religious pamphlets. They would say, ‘He’s harmless. He’s a religious nut but that’s okay.’ As One-Armed Fergie put it, ‘I threw out that stuff, pulled out the good Wobbly stuff and got to work.’ [Laughter]. They were keen to develop new tactics and new ideas.
In general, there are lot of similarities between the early history of the IWW in Canada and in the United States. Particularly in terms of its organisation of itinerant workers, and in its struggles for free speech and the right to organise.
Many of the Wobblies that they organised were itinerant workers and hobos, tramps or they might be called the bums. The distinction has often been that a hobo is a worker who travels and works, a tramp is someone who travels and dreams and a bum is someone who travels and drinks [laughter]. The IWW were absolutely in that hobo camp and organised transient workers. They would organise in the camps and, as I say, they would organise in the cities where these workers would come when there was no work. They would come down and they would apply for jobs through the agencies or the ‘job sharks’, as they were called, and they would organise there. That led to one of the biggest struggles the Wobblies organised in British Columbia and, indeed, in Canada which was a free speech fight in 1912. As elsewhere, Wobblies did much of the organising on street corners. You might find the Salvation Army banging away on their drum on one corner and the IWW and other socialists organising with speeches and their own music on the other corner, each trying to drown each other out, I presume. In Vancouver, Oppenheimer Park was one of the big places for this kind of street organising. Oppenheimer Park is still today often the site of homeless camps. In 1912, as the IWW was organising in the late winter and early spring, the city of Vancouver decided to ban speaking on the streets. It was a very limited ban and by that, I mean the IWW and the Socialist Party were shut down but the Salvation Army was allowed to continue which put the lie to the city authorities’ argument that they were worried that all of the noise would frighten the horses in the streets and cause real problems. As the IWW pointed out rightly, ‘Our speech is going to drive the horses crazy but that idiot on the tuba with the Salvation Army, that’s not a problem?’ [Laughter]. It was very clearly an attempt to shut down unions, to shut down organising and to shut down the syndicalism and socialism of these movements. The IWW responded the way they did in many cities across North America. They didn’t file a petition and they didn’t phone up their Member of Parliament. They sent out a call for all footloose Wobblies to come to Vancouver with the express purpose of standing up in the park, making a speech and getting arrested to fill the jails. The strategy was that, at a certain point, the city would realise that they were having to house, bed and feed these people at a huge cost and it would be cheaper and more effective for them to simply restore speaking in the street. After several weeks, that’s exactly what happened and the IWW won the battle for free speech in Vancouver. This, again, was not a defence of some notion of natural rights. It was a defence of unionisation and the ability to seize the streets and use them for political organising.
One area where there is a real lack of historical documentary evidence is about women workers in the Canadian IWW. So unfortunately only fragments have been uncovered so far.
One was a woman named Edith Frenette who was organising along with her husband in logging camps in British Columbia, in Port Alberni and other places. They were organising in pretty tough and rough conditions in small company towns and out in bush camps. Edith Frenette must have been a pretty amazing character. She had been a good friend of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who the US listeners will know of, who was a spokesperson and she was the ‘Rebel Girl’ that Joe Hill wrote a song about. Edith comes to Canada and is organising along with her husband and at one organising meeting, the right-wing in the town was about to storm the podium where Edith’s husband was speaking. She pushed her husband off, jumped on the soapbox herself and said, ‘All you big strong men. Let’s see how you can wrestle with a woman.’ She was using that gender and that notion of respectability to shame the right-wing and to continue organising. Frenette and her husband had a baby, Stella, who became the youngest member ever of the IWW. I think she was about three months old when they signed her up. A woman named Heather Mayer, in the States, has done a bit of work to try to find more about Edith Frenette but not much exists in terms of records.
We actually speak with Heather about Edith Frenette in our episode 19, about women in the early IWW in the US.
It’s a problem of the historical record that every labour historian bumps into and it’s particularly the case with women organisers in Canada. The IWW in Canada sent lots of its records, dues and membership to the United States as part of an international organisation headquartered there which meant that when those records were destroyed, the Canadian records also went with them.
Huge amounts of IWW documentation was seized by the US government in raids which took place around the country during World War I, which was then systematically destroyed.
We don’t know much of IWW organising in places such as fish canneries. We haven’t seen any evidence of it. In part, these were very difficult places for anyone to organise because they were pretty much owned by companies. They were very small places up and down the coastline of British Columbia. Much of the work, you would think, would be the perfect place for the IWW to organise; that is it was work done by First Nations, Japanese and Chinese workers and especially by women workers but we just do not have much evidence of them working there. They did do a lot of support work, however. There were strikes of cannery workers in 1913 in the province and the IWW was there giving support. That’s part of what they did as well and part of that influence they had and even if they could not organise the workplace themselves, they were quick to build support. For example, they sent money to the US strikes, like the Lawrence strike, which was a strike of mostly female textile workers. Locals in British Columbia raised and sent money to them. There was certainly less of an industrial women’s workforce in British Columbia. In places like Toronto and Montreal, we do find textile industries and we do find agriculture and tobacco work and many women worked there as well. As I’ve said, women did work in fish canneries here in British Columbia and Wobblies supported fishers and cannery workers in their strikes. They were also keen to organise women in Ontario but they especially organised them in what we would later call (in the 1930s and ’40s) into so-called ‘women’s auxiliaries’. In communities where women may not be engaged so much in wage work but were married or were with men who did work, they organised women’s auxiliaries to support workers, especially the Finnish communities that were supporting the loggers and logging strikes here. While we think that the term ‘women’s auxiliary’ is kind of derogatory and implies women did not have agency, everyone at the time was very clear that without that fundamental work that women were doing in those communities, the strikes and the organising could not have been successful.
In its early days, as well as organising and fighting for free speech, the IWW also organised strikes. One of the most significant of these was the strike of railway navvies in 1912, and in this dispute the IWW again made the most of its international nature.
When they went on strike on the railway lines in British Columbia in 1912, they created what they called the ‘thousand mile picket line’; not along the length of the railway but to go to other centres where scabs were being recruited. So they sent workers down to Vancouver, down to Seattle and down to San Francisco to say, ‘Don’t come to British Columbia. The bosses are promising you everything. They’re lying. There’s a strike going on.’ That was one of the ways that they organised and very different forms from the AFL. They held open-air meetings, as I’ve said, and they had sessions at their halls and they would invite speakers.
In addition to just going on strike, as Wobblies liked to do, they also employed novel forms of direct action.
One of the most interesting and tantalising (because there’s just not a lot of evidence about) examples of their direct action was during the 1912 railway strikes on the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern lines. They organised, and the organised workers spoke many, many different languages that pulled them out. They were protesting, in part, poor wages and terrible conditions but particularly the conditions in the construction camps themselves. The camps were rotten. There’s no better word for it, I suppose. Even a government health inspector said: ‘The conditions here are terrible. In one of the camps, the camp cook has draw water immediately downstream from the outhouse that’s perched over the creek.’
That gives you some idea of how little employers cared about this. If you go on strike to protest your living conditions, you’ve got a problem because it means you’re going to be spending a lot more time in those terrible camps that you’re protesting. So the IWW pulled its people off the jobs, some 8,000 of them up and down several hundred miles of track, and they built their own camps. They knew how to do it. They were skilled workers and they could use axes and saws to build proper camps. The first thing that the contractors for the railway did was to call for government health inspectors to shut them down. The health inspectors came and said, ‘These meet all of our safety and health requirements and they’re much better than the camps that they left,’ and so that didn’t work. They also then had the job of keeping people on strike and in camps without having the whole thing fall apart and so they organised what one reporter called ‘miniature socialist republics’. That is they set up small communities at each of these camps. They would elect tribunals in order to pass and then enforce regulations, like no fighting, for example. The judges on the tribunals would change regularly. If you were accused of fighting, there would be a trial and then you might be sentenced to getting five big armloads of wood to help with the camp cook and that kind of thing. They organised songs and they organised educational meetings, so they really did build, for several weeks, these miniature socialist republics as a way to keep the strike going and to keep people alive. They also won a great deal of support in some of these areas from merchants because the merchants would love IWW members to come into their stores and their restaurants and purchase from them. In fact, what we see then is an interesting kind of alliance between small proprietors against big capital and with workers and I think they’re important strategies and tactics that we need to think about these days as well. When the health authorities replied that the camps were, in fact, much better than the camps the bosses had put together, the employers then used the power of the state. They had the police to come in to shut down the camps and the police themselves used goons – they called them ‘special constables’ – to harass workers and to arrest them. They arrested over 250 IWW strikers and organisers and put them into small prisons, cells and bullpens built especially to house them. They were given sentences of two, three and six months in jail. One IWW member went blind from the terrible conditions in the prison in Kamloops. That’s how the strike was eventually broken. The camps were smashed and broken up and workers were arrested. The workers, however, did win some concessions. There wasn’t a complete loss and as one IWW remembered many years later, ‘It’s difficult to say when you’ve lost a strike because, as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, workers are going to lose every battle until the last one. What matters are the lessons that we learn from the actions that we take.’ In that sense, I think the strike was a huge success, even if they didn’t win everything that they had wanted. By that, I mean they had proved conclusively that so-called unskilled workers and immigrant workers could be organised and could take radical action. In that way, this was a big rebuke to the conservative trade unions who said, ‘You can’t do it. You can’t organise these people and you can’t organise women either. It’s impossible.’ So it was a big ‘Fuck you!’ (if you’ll pardon my language) to that conservative trade unionism and they proved that radical, militant and democratic unionism could work.
Rosa Luxemburg, mentioned just there, was a socialist who took part in the German Revolution of 1918, who was eventually murdered by the right-wing paramilitary Freikorps acting on behalf of the social democratic government.
As well as organised strikes themselves, the IWW also helped support workers taking action elsewhere.
The Fraser River strike of the railway construction workers, or navvies, was the biggest and probably the most profound IWW effort in the province but was by no means the only one. They worked as activists in other unions and in unorganised workplaces, so they were very active on Vancouver Island helping coalmine strikes there. The largest strike lastest two years from 1912 to 1914 and the IWW influence is all over that strike; from the rousing speeches and organising mass protests to having arrested miners sprung from jail.
As well as organising on-the-job and taking direct action, the IWW tried to really foster and grow a working class counterculture, and sense of workers’ solidarity in all aspects of life.
One of the most important things the IWW did, although perhaps organisers at the time would not have thought so much of it, was to organise and develop countercultural activities. Joe Hill, for example, is going to be well-known to the listeners. He came up to Canada, to British Columbia, in 1912 during a strike of railway navvies and he wrote a song called ‘Where the Fraser River Flows’. It’s not quite as popular perhaps as some of the better-known songs. There’s no ‘Solidarity Forever’, for example, written in British Columbia but ‘Where the Fraser River Flows’ is still sung on picket lines here. Richard Brazier, another well-known Wobbly songwriter, said that he first heard miners in IWW songs in Cobalt, Ontario in 1906, when he was working up there. He came back to the United States and he then developed his own style and his own songs here. The IWW has continued, in Canada, to play a role in terms of culture. I’m not sure how popular or how well-known this expression is in the United States but one of the synonyms for a wildcat strike in British Columbia is a ‘wobble’. Workers will say, ‘We’re going to wobble the job tomorrow.’ This is a direct derivation from the IWW and their nickname, the Wobblies. At least according to folk etymology, the very nickname Wobbly came from an IWW strike in British Columbia. Folk singers, such as Utah Phillips, continued to come up here in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. I was signed up in the IWW in 1976 by a Wobbly named Al Grierson who was a musician. He died about 20 years ago, I guess, in Texas. Tom Wayman is a BC poet and long-time Wobbly who continues to write about work and the need for us to explore that since so many of us spend most of our days and most of our lives at work. So that IWW cultural connection still exists today.
One event which had a huge impact on the IWW was the beginning of World War I. Because of Canada’s relationship with Britain, it entered the war much earlier than the United States.
Canada entered the war in 1914. The United States didn’t enter World War One until 1917 which meant that, in Canada, the wartime conditions made it much harder for anybody to organise. The patriotism of a lot of those Anglo trade union workers also meant that they responded with a great deal of patriotic fervour to Britain and Canada going to war. The first years of World War One, in Canada, see the labour movement turn on itself and saying, ‘We are patriotic British and we are patriotic Canadians. We support the war effort.’ That also made it very difficult for the IWW to organise. Many of the workers that would be the traditional constituents of the IWW, like Finns and Ukrainians, were declared illegal aliens in Canada because they had come from places that Canada was now at war with or they were rounded up precisely because they had been radicals and militants before the war. That repression starts much earlier in Canada than it does in the United States but, as I’ve said, that did not end the IWW. They were still able to pull off significant strikes in the 1920s in Canada and the United States. One of the reasons the IWW was not successful in organising against the war or, in fact, even during the war was first due to government repression, as I’ve said, both of radical unions and of the immigrant ethnic workers that were a huge part of the IWW constituency. However, shortly before the war, the resource sector of Canada hit a depression and this was, in fact, part of a worldwide depression but countries that are largely working in resource industries, such as mining and logging, tend to be hit hard and hit early in those things. That meant that many of the jobs simply disappeared and with them, so did the IWW’s workers. We see the Victoria branch, for example, shutting down just because the membership just isn’t there. They’re looking for work in other parts of the continent. That, too, made it difficult for them to have a coherent strategy for either organising or for resisting the war. What is really fascinating though is that the working-class movement in Canada, as it did in the United States, got better as the war progressed; that is after that initial wave of patriotism that blinded many of the Anglo leaders of the more conservative trade union movement, the conditions of the war, the horrible slaughter and the terrible economic conditions at home made workers turn to new ideas, new strategies and new tactics. When they started to look around for those, of course, the ideas of the IWW were already there waiting for them. In particular, workers in Canada turned to the general strike in 1918 and 1919 by war’s end. I see it as workers saying, ‘Old Crazy Joe there, he’s talking about the general strike. He’s been nattering on about it since 1905, blah, blah, blah,’ but now in 1918, Crazy Joe makes sense. Workers now see the necessity for new kinds of solidarity and for new kinds of tactics. We have a strike wave that literally rolls across Canada from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Every province has a general strike lasting sometimes just a few days and sometimes six, eight or ten weeks in protest of the war, in protest of the economic conditions after the war which was marked by very high inflation and utter disgust with what they see as the senseless slaughter of the war. Workers are now saying things like, ‘We need to produce not for profit but for need.’ They’re making those connections between capitalism and war and taking to the streets to make that new sense of radicalism and militancy alive and vivid. [Next bit saved for a bit later]
Much like the IWW in Australia, which we talk about in our episode 19, the Canadian IWW was banned on 24 September 1918, with membership punishable by a sentence of up to 5 years imprisonment in one of 24 internment camps.
As part of the wartime repression, the federal government outlawed the IWW and it also outlawed various so-called ethnic institutions that were connected to radical politics, in many cases. Again, the Ukrainians, for example, were put into internment camps during the war, even though they had literally no connection to events in the Ukraine. Many had been in Canada for 15 and 20 years. The Socialist Party of Canada was not banned, interestingly enough, which I think tells us something about the respectability of many members of the Socialist Party of Canada. Although, it would be a mistake to think that there was a really sharp dividing line between the IWW and the Socialist Party. Some members moved back and forth. John Riordon, a founding member of the IWW, ran as a Socialist Party candidate here in Canada. However, the Socialist Party was not the same kind of threat that the militancy, radicalism and rank and fileism of the IWW presented. The violent repression of the IWW in the United States does not have the same kinds of parallels in Canada. Canada sometimes refers to itself as the ‘peaceable dominion’ and that’s just not true. It is the case that the Canadian state does not have the same kinds of resources or did not have the same kinds of resources available to the Americans. The obvious comparison is to the treatment of First Nations or Indigenous peoples in Canada. The Canadian government did not engage in a war of genocide, as happened in the United States, against the Indigenous population. Instead, they used residential schools and starvation to commit a different kind of genocide. One reason they did that, and they were quite upfront about this, was to say, ‘Look, the United States spends $20 million a year fighting Indians. Our entire federal budget is only $19 million and so if we’re going to repress people, we need to do it on the cheap which means we can’t go to war.’ That means that the violence looked very different on this side of the border but not for any laudable or good reasons. It’s true of labour policies as well. Although, we often forget that over a ten year period between about 1900 and 1911, on average, the militia was called out twice a year to put down strikes across Canada. They were not done at the level of, say, the Ludlow Massacre in Canada but, again, it’s not because Canadian politicians are of any kind of better character or more refined disposition.
In Ludlow, miners, and many of their children and wives were massacred by national guardsmen during a strike at mines owned by the Rockefeller family, demanding to be paid in money, rather than company scrip which was only redeemable at company stores.
In addition to the repression, other factors contributed to the decline of the IWW as an organising force.
The other thing that helps dilute the IWW influence, or at least move it, was the success of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia and what would become the Soviet Union.
In March 1917, following a demonstration by women workers in St Petersburg, workers in Russia launched a social revolution and overthrew the brutal tsarist government. In November revolutionaries including the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the provisional government and set about reorganising society based on workers’ councils, or soviets. They are known as the February and October revolutions due to the different calendar in use in Russia at the time.
By that, I mean it seemed, for a time, that somehow the Russians had done it right and so the Communist Parties in Canada and the United States have a great deal of favourable feeling and sentiment. The IWW in the States, officially, did not join the Communist Party but many organisers did. They saw the Communist Party as the movement that now had the same kind of momentum that the IWW had had previously. To be fair, the communists or the communist/former IWW members were organising in much the same way in the same industries that the IWW had been involved in. In Canada, organisers such as Arthur ‘Slim’ Evans and Sam Scarlott had been in the IWW. ‘Slim’ Evans had been at Ludlow, Colorado and been shot there.
For them, it makes sense, at least for a time, to move to the Communist Party in the early 1920s through the 1930s. That meant that the revolutionary momentum, if you like, was now being taken up by the Communist Party in the ways that the IWW had and some good organisers moved over there. Others didn’t but they did not recover in quite the same way.
With the IWW outlawed, some of its activists, and people who had been influenced by it founded a new union based on similar ideas.
One of the other events of 1919 in Canada is a new organisation which starts up called the One Big Union (OBU). This was clearly a riff on the IWW slogan of ‘One Big Union’. It was put together by socialists; that is people who were more or less dedicated to some kind of electoral politics. We can debate endlessly whether these were revolutionary or reformist electoral politics but they also recognised the need for a trade union or an industrial union arm and for that kind of activity. They do organise in 1919 before the largest of the general strikes in Canada, the Winnipeg general strike. The IWW and the One Big Union had a very mixed relationship. Some members of the IWW joined the One Big Union and thought this was the continuation of the IWW by other means. Others fought it and thought, ‘They are clearly just trying to capitalise on all of the work that we have done over the years.’ They were deeply concerned that the One Big Union organisers were really trying to create nice positions for themselves in the trade union movement and in the political structures after the war. There were mixed feelings and mixed reactions to it. The OBU, no coincidence, was strongest in areas that had already been organised, or at least they had attempted to organise, by the IWW and so they were strong in mining and in the logging camps. The seeds really had been sown (not to mix a metaphor) by the IWW and so they did pick up on much of the earlier work that they had done before the war and turned it into an organisation after. The OBU itself didn’t do much and didn’t have much of a history in Canada. I think it’s more famous for what it tried to do and not what it actually did and where it was most successful, it looked more like the IWW than an independent organisation of its own.
Despite its difficulties, the IWW did continue to organise in a number of places, and IWW members still kept organising strikes.
The other interesting strike, in terms of its historical importance, was a couple of logging strikes that took place in 1924 in the Kootenay region, the eastern part of the province near the Rocky Mountains. I say it’s an important strike because a lot of writers on the IWW, including myself in an early work, talk about the IWW as essentially being done by World War One and that they just kind of faded away after that. The 1924 strike here proves that they didn’t. I’m very happy to say that other historians in the United States have made the same kinds of arguments; that, in fact, the largest membership of the IWW was in 1924 as they’re organising farmworkers in the United States. They also moved into other unions and kept that IWW influence which I describe briefly, I guess, as that commitment to a radical, militant and democratic union movement that has the ideals of a workers’ commonwealth front and centre. That logging strike in 1924 was an explicitly IWW strike and was important essentially for the fact that it existed and proved that they could organise.
I did ask Mark how big the Canadian IWW was at its peak, but for various reasons that is not really a question which is possible to answer specifically.
One of the neat things about the IWW is that it grows and it shrinks according to circumstance and it is there for people to turn to when conditions seem ripe. So its influence always was greater than its membership and it always punched way above its weight. We could say that there were perhaps 8,000 workers during those railway strikes in British Columbia but the IWW would often bloom in places where no one would organise, like in the logging camps in the 1920s and the Bows and Arrows on the waterfront in 1906 in Vancouver. They would work as well and as long as they could and when conditions changed, as I’ve said, like when the pre-war depression hits, the members move and the organisation folds up until it becomes more useful for people to adopt those ideas and it’s more likely that they will succeed with them. That often sounds like we’re hedging. Part of the fact is we just don’t know how many members there were and there’s even a discussion about what it means to be a member. As I’ve said at the very beginning, I’ve been delinquent in my dues for some time now and although I still hold the IWW principles in my heart, when I was more active in the IWW, our joke was, ‘What makes a good Wobbly? One who pays their dues on time.’ However, if we look to the ideas, we see a much more significant influence of the IWW than the mere membership might expect. We also just don’t know much about IWW membership because many of the records of the organisation were seized and destroyed by the United States government during World War One and the 1919 Red Scare in Canada and the United States. We are left with, sometimes, police reports which just give us glimpses. From the 1920s, you can see reports of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties, saying, ‘We’ve arrested Wobbly organisers at the border,’ or ‘We know there’s an infiltration of IWW members here in Saskatchewan.’ How many? They don’t say. It’s difficult to be very precise but we get tantalising clues. We can see IWW orders for newspapers; that is they’re saying, ‘We want to take the Industrial Worker and the other newspaper, Solidarity, into our camps. I need 1,000 copies of it.’ Does that mean they’re giving them to 1,000 Wobblies who have paid up and got their dues’ stamps? Probably not. It does mean that there is that influence and people interested in it. I think it’s useful to think of the IWW not as a political party with paid-up members, so much as a movement. It does have that more institutional part that gives it a kind of consistency, longevity and a focal point at different times but its influence is much broader and wider. What does it mean when people today sing ‘Solidarity Forever’, a song written by a Wobbly?
With the eclipse of the IWW as a significant force in the Canadian workers’ movement, it still had a legacy which spread much further than its specific gains on-the-job. Now in a minute Mark is going to use the terms “pork choppers” and “pie cards” – this refers to paid bureaucrats in mainstream trade unions.
I think, in some ways, that the most important impact of the IWW that we still see today was summed up by Joe Hill who, just before he was executed in the state of Utah, said to the IWW, ‘Don’t mourn. Organise.’ That message, I think, resonates so powerfully and is so important. I sometimes think, in my own case, I need to say, ‘Don’t whine. Organise.’ It’s easy to give up and just whine. We need to remind ourselves that we need to solve our problems collectively through organisation; that’s the organisation of the unorganised, the misorganised and especially amongst the neediest and most oppressed. The IWW is still a resounding rebuke to capitalism, to business unionism, to ‘Pork Choppers’, to pie cards and to reformists. I think that message hasn’t changed since 1905 and the opening words of the preamble of its constitution that ‘the working class and the employing class have nothing in common’. In the early 1960s, Canadian workers are explicitly looking to bust out of the conservatism of the official trade union movement. One of the unions they form is called the Canadian Association of Industrial, Mechanical and Allied Workers here. CAIMAW, as it’s called, became a really dynamic and dramatic union that used wildcat strikes and talked about left programmes for Canadian workers. Again, many of its people absolutely created unions in the IWW mould as much as possible, given the increased bureaucratisation of industrial relations in the post-war period. Other unions, too, adopted their tactics because even conservative unions now had an awful lot of young, militant workers in their ranks in the 1960s. Again, we tend to think of the ’60s protests as something done by university students, and that is true to some extent, but equally important, and in some ways, perhaps more important, was that rank and file reaction to the conditions of the 1960s with the alienation of terrible work, automation and unemployment. Again, they often borrowed quite explicitly on the IWW and saw it as the roots of their own sensibilities and organisation in the ’60s and ’70s. Virtually every tactic we see in protests today, from mass rallies, to boycotts, to civil disobedience, to sit-ins and sabotage, was pioneered, debated and refined by the IWW and today’s militants and activists are absolutely part of that tradition. However, it is the addition of the class consciousness of the IWW that is so crucial and I think we see people getting that message more and more. There’s that commitment to democracy and by that, I do not mean elections every four years to vote for Tweedle Dumb or Tweedle Dumber to pick the evil of two lessers, as someone put it but democracy meaning real fundamental decision making in communities and workplaces. That’s the way to understand and defeat right-wing populism among working people and the right-wing mission of capitalism and the state. The IWW is a long and really important part of that tradition of resistance and that spirit, as well as any direct lessons we might want to pull out from it, speaks to something so deep and so profound. That is its ability to have articulated that more than 100 years ago and that is perhaps its most important living legacy.
As with most of the history of the resistance and action of ordinary people, the history of the IWW in Canada still has a lot to be uncovered. In a moment Mark mentions the name, Bakunin. This is referring to Mikhail Bakunin, a pioneering Russian anarchist.
I’m really interested in trying to put together the story of John Riordon as an activist, which ranges across the country. Much of his story just seems to have vanished from the historical record but I’m trying to reconstruct as much as I can with that. I’m really excited to have some really smart and dedicated graduate students who are digging in all over the place and looking at the IWW. I work really hard at staying out of their way [laughter] and trying to help them continue this work. The other project that I’m working on is looking at the labour movement in the 1920s here when that right-wing labour movement, which is shut down so effectively by that strike wave of 1919, starts to resurface. I want to look at the active role that the labour movement and conservative factions in it played in helping to end that legacy, at least temporarily. That’s part of what I’m doing. I did take some time off to write a biography of Bakunin who, I think, has much in common with the IWW. I think he would have agreed with later anarchists, such as Emma Goldman who saw the IWW as being ‘anarchists in overalls’. There are lots of projects like that. My original book on the IWW in British Columbia, Where The Fraser River Flows, is available at better bookstores nowhere these days. It was published – gosh! – in 1990, I want to say. That’s a long time ago but I’m delighted that people still write to me and tell me that it’s had an impact on them. It’s not me. It’s the IWW, of course. It’s about telling that story and bringing the new tools that we have, both in terms of new questions and new technology, to the history of the IWW which means that its story is just going to become better known and we’re going to know more and more about it over time.
We spoke with Mark about John Riordan, who wrote IWW poetry, that’s available in the bonus episode to this one. We also talk about Robert Gosden, an ultra-militant Wobbly-turned police spy, as well as learn more about uses of Wobbly tactics in later struggles. That’s available exclusively for our patreon supporters. You can support us and listen now at https://patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
If you can’t support us right now, absolutely no worries, but if you could share our episodes with your friends, and give us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app that would be very much appreciated.
If you enjoyed this podcast, check out the rest of our IWW series. In episode 6 we speak about the early history of the union in the US, in episode 9 we talk about its later history in the US, in episode 16 we talk about women in the IWW, in episode 19 we talk about the Australian IWW, and in the first episode of the Working Class Literature podcast we talk about Wobbly poet, T-Bone Slim.
We’ve also got a bunch of great books available about the IWW in our online store, so check them out, link in the show notes.
As always, we’ve got more information, sources, links and a transcript on the webpage for this episode, linked in the show notes.
Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible, with special thanks
Music used in this episode was was “Where the River Fraser Flows” by Joe Hill, performed by Mark Leier, at Mark_Leier on Twitter, and “A Dream” by Richard Brazier, performed by Charlie Caine, at CharlieXCaine on Twitter, link to his socials in the show notes. You can hear full versions of both of these songs in the bonus episode for our patrons.