Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Back in 1995 I read a book on the 2oth century history of the labour movement in the United States. Apart from learning about the AFL, CIO, and other unions I found out about the wobblies. Ever since then I have learned more about the American labour movement I like the wobblies more and more. The respectable unions such as the AFL had a recruitment policy similar to private schools, they only would take the best workers, of course this policy affected the labour movement in the same way it has the American educational system. After many years of consumers of education validating policies that led to two tiers of education instead of one folks have started to see that it hurts everyone. Similarly the respectable unions who tired to sabotage groups like the wobblies, socialists, anarchists, nonwhite workers ended up destroying the labour movement in the US.

Now that the labour movement is almost dead in America people are able some people are trying very hard to revive it. In all revivals people use the heroic past to breathe new life into the movement, this is what Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman tries to do in his book about the Industrial Workers of the World. He starts by looking at their foundation and goes through some of their early battles. I think that the graphic novel is the best way to present the history of the IWW since so much of its' own marketing was made up of pictures, simple songs and posters. The stories also made for compelling reading, maybe because we all naturally gravitate towards tales of underground underdogs. For some reason stories of forlorn hopes have the power to move us while an epic celebrating a behemoth crushing its' antagonists never interest anyone. Another thing going for the book is that distance makes the unconventional unthreatning. Now that they are not a power most of can look back on the wobs with fondness since they are not around to demand collective action from us. They have become like Alhaji Malik Shabazz or Martin Luther King, or Abe Lincoln, something or someone that we can coopt them in our cocoon of expectations they can emerge as clockwork butterflies that have straightend up and flown right. This conquest of the historical narrative can be seen whenever folks dwell on the past of social movements without looking to the future and supporting the present. In Schulman & Buhle's book this happens also, much as I enjoyed reading about the wars that went on between miners and mines, or the bread and roses strike this all happened a hundred years ago. For most American workers the issues are quite different now and what worked at Ludlow, Patterson, or Matewan will not work now. Its' very easy for us to sing dirges to the past movements but there are labour struggles going on right now that we can all support.

The writers and illustrators of Wobblies are aware of this do show us more recent work actions that have happened in the past ten years. Looking at the modern wobbly is actually what makes this book a great start for anyone who wants to become more familiar on how the union movement has changed over the past one hundred years. I guess the pictures included with this post show what I am talking about.

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