Paul Buhle: Interviewed About the Wobblies

Historians in the News

Paul Buhle, interviewed by Derek Seidman, in Left Hook (4-23-05):

2005 marks the centennial of the founding of the most bold, radical, and egalitarian mass union in US history: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies). Big Bill Haywood, “The Rebel Girl” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Joe Hill, Free Speech fights, the Patterson and Lawrence strikes, “Solidarity Forever”, and so much more: the legacy of the Wobblies is one of the most enduring things in the American radical tradition. Paul Buhle, a professor of American Civilization at Brown University and a leading scholar of American radical history, is co-author of the new Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. In a recent interview with Left Hook co-editor Derek Seidman, Buhle answered some questions about the IWW, his new book, and the Traveling Wobbly show.

Seidman: It’s been one hundred years since the founding of the IWW in 1905. Why discuss the Wobblies now, a century after their birth and nearly eight decades after the height of their influence?

Buhle: The best reason is that the labor movement, once a driving force for democratic transformation, has nearly collapsed, and despite the potential of such groups as Labor Against the War (in unions representing nearly a third of AFL-CIO members), neither exerts wide influence or represents the breadth of today’s working classes.

The Wobblies had more than a strategic plan. They had a vision of a different kind of civilization, global and transracial in character, with all key decisions made democratically. Corporate leaders and politicians would be out of a job, along with generals, admirals and other criminal types.

Seidman: So what do you believe today’s union movement could learn from the Wobblies?

Buhle:Almost everything. Lawrence Wechsler, who wrote a fine book on Polish Solidarity, commented that the Polish strike leaders had absolutely nothing to learn from the AFL-CIO. They weren’t corrupt like the Lane Kirkland office, they hadn’t made any deals with capital (or state-capital) to guarantee themselves big salaries, and they weren’t bureaucrats. (Later on they made careers for themselves by selling out the workers they had led--- but that’s another story.)

The Wobblies were first of all transracial and transborder by their nature and their aims. They faced a working class substantially made up of immigrants—much like today’s American working class. Women were among its most vivid agitators and local leaders. They were not perfect but they were deeply democratic. They understood the labor movement to be a social movement.

They were also, at a personal level, hugely courageous, and they had a great sense of humor. These two qualities alone, missing in all but a few of labor’s top leaders, would make a world of difference. We need a movement of working people able to attack but also to ridicule politicians and corporate leaders for the nitwits and thugs that they are, ruining our beautiful world for their own greed and power.

Seidman:Can you tell us about your new book, Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World?

Buhle: The idea for the book first came out of my conversations with a Labor Party activist living in Vermont, George Kucewiez, who offered to provide payment for artists, and then evolved in conversations with artist-activist Nicole Schulman. The book is not intended to replace written histories or documentary films (Franklin Rosemont’s Joe Hill: The IWW & The Making of A Revolutionary Workingclass Countercultureis the best recent book, and The Wobblies, made in 1979, remains the best film.) Rather, it is intended to introduce the story of the IWW to a new generation more visual in its grasp of history, and to restate the case for what we could call “solidarity unionism” against both employers and the political system. ...

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