IWW -then and now
by Humphrey McQueen
The ashes of Joe Hill
Let’s start from three interlocked expressions of the IWW’s approach to educating, organising and agitating: its humour, its slogans and its songs.
In comparison, today’s grouplets, including the IWW, seem po-faced.
The first aspect is the power of IWW satire, sarcasm and irony. We remember jokes and repeat them in ways we don’t with the best argued ideas. On slogans, ‘Fast Workers Die Young’ is still going the rounds when not many Marxist scholars can define universal labour-time.
Tom Barker was gaoled in 1915 for a headline in Direct Action to counter wartime recruiting: ‘Your Country Needs You: Workers, Follow Your Masters.’
Similarly, we remember snatches of IWW songs because they are witty and because we sing them together.
The whole of a May Day march should be a massed choir. ‘Bump me into parliament’ to ‘Pie in the Sky’ circulated long after speeches and manifestos were forgotten.
The second weapon in the Wobblies’ armoury was ‘Propaganda by deed’.
My father and his workmates at a Brisbane tannery joined a union in 1917 after a Canadian seaman Wobbly king-hit the foreman. The workers had never seen anyone stand up to the boss. Of course, the effectiveness of that blow was increased because it took place during a revolutionary upsurge around the world.
Propaganda by deed is not just the one-off punch but involves building up strength in the workplace by initiating a campaign for a winnable demand that has broad support, for a shithouse or potable water on site.
That is the way to recruit and to keep those who join active once they pay their union dues.
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