One of America’s most storied and influential unions has opened a new hall in Providence: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies. Ring a bell? Ever sing “Solidarity Forever?” That was written for them. Ever hear of the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts? They organized it. Ever say “An injury to one is an injury to all?” Or “Don’t mourn, organize?” You’re quoting a Wobbly.
In their heyday, in the 1910’s and early ‘20’s, the IWW rallied members under the banner of “one big union,” organizing working people as a class. It was a truly radical union, that was eventually worn down by rivalry with other unions, government crackdowns, and infighting.
The spirit of the IWW has never been completely squashed, however, Providence and has intermittently had a more recent IWW presence on and off since the 1970’s. The secretary of the current Providence IWW General Membership Branch described the launch of the current incarnation, “In early 2014, I and a few others decided we wanted to jump start things again. It has taken off quite a bit since then. We went from three people to over 30 now who have membership cards, and probably another 20 people on our periphery.”
They set a goal of establishing an office and hall, and with membership dues have rented a storefront at 375 Smith Street, which opened to the public on April 2, 2016. The hall contains meeting space, access to computers and a library. There is a scruffy, anarchist bookshop vibe, but it is a pleasant enough space. Stopping by the grand opening, the differences between the IWW and a mainstream union are immediately apparent. I quickly met two young men active in the group who would be happy to be interviewed, but did not want their names used because they were covertly organizing in their workplace. I then met a strikingly made up young woman who is organizing sex workers, and another fellow active in organizing incarcerated workers. Overall, there was not really one person in charge, as you would expect in an organization committed to grassroots democracy and decision making through consensus.
The current secretary explained what he sees as the appeal of the IWW, compared to traditional labor unions, to young people today:
"In my experience, a lot of hostility toward labor seems to come from the fear that it will infringe on people's autonomy, or that labor will become like another boss for them to deal with, and there are real criticisms to be made about the structure of a lot of labor movements. One thing that the IWW has going for it is its message of being a radically inclusive space, a space that respects debate and democracy,"
Rhode Island Jobs with Justice Executive Director Mike Araujo worked as an IWW delegate in Texas, and when he returned to Rhode Island in 1997, he built up a IWW branch in Providence to around 70 members, working on issues like rent control, organizing cab drivers, and rights for disabled people. He praises IWW’s century old vision of anti-racist, anti-sexist, cross border organizing, and points out that contemporary organizations like ROC United share a similar vision of building movement power without focusing on bargaining. Araujo describes the IWW as “one of the best places to see what’s possible,” and “engage the imagination,” citing the Wobblies historic “commitment to the cultural life of labor.”
Perhaps the simplest way to understand the role of the IWW today is that it is the union that any worker can join, whether or not his or her workplace is organized, or if he or she has a job at all. Wobblies don’t hope they find a job in a union shop, or wait for someone else to come along and organize their workplace so they can be in a union, they join the union, and then start organizing. If you’re a Wobbly, you organize working people as a class: its what you do.