Greenman's Occasional Organ

Ecosocialist. Syndicalist. Critical Techno-Progressive.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Bosses' Crisis And How To Fight Back - Lessons From The 1930s

I was recently reading the book The Industrial Workers Of The World - Its First 100 Years by Fred W Thompson and J Bekken and the following passages on how the famous union faced the threats and attacks of the 1930s after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 is particularly relevant to the unfolding global economic crisis. The way in which the IWW faced the implications of the Depression shows how working people can not only resist the inevitable attacks from the ruling elites and bosses eager to make workers pay the cost of the rulers' own greed and gambling, but how ordinary folks and their organisations can take advantage of the situation to build new solidarity and strength.

From Chapter 12 - (p149, Red Sun Press, Boston, Mass. 2006 edition)The Stimulus Of Depression (1930-1940) (My links added for clarification)

The Stock Market crashed in October 1929, as accurately predicted by the Industrial Worker. Constriction of business activity, layoffs, wage cuts and the Big Depression followed, just as the IWW had right along been saying was the certain consequence of the increasing exploitation of labor. The IWW had no doubt what labor should do: resist all wage cuts to make them expensive; organize the jobless so that they would no longer menace those who still had jobs, while these fought to cut the workday and raise real hourly rates; back all demands with the determination that if employers did not employ, the working class could dispense with their disservices and establish planned abundance.

The IWW made a tremendous propaganda effort. Its effects cannot be measured, but the outstanding fact of the thirties remains this: for the first time a labor movement, instead of shrinking in a depression, grew as never before. This turn from abjectness preceded Roosevelt and the Blue Eagle. AFL propaganda of the early thirties was craft union echoing of the assurance that business was sound. The various radical propagandas focused on political issues. The healthy change in labor attitudes can thus largely be attributed to the millions of peices of IWW literature, straight to the point, issued at factories or where the unemployed gathered, and to the IWW soapboxers who held meetings daily at factory gates and at street corners in the evening, establishing regular schedules in even out-of-the-way places that they had to reach by boxcars or hitchhiking.

The propaganda effort was constructive, educational, and put out by flat-broke members of a flat-broke union. The IWW had never recovered from the 1924 split. It lost its building and printing plant into which it had sunk all its resources. To economize, in 1929 it replaced its various industrial union offices with a Clearing House run by its general secretary. Even so, the general secretary taking office in November 1932 found $29.00 cash all told with which to pay back wages, run the office, and pay accumulated printing bills and the industrial union funds that had been loaned to General Office. Within a year it was all in the black again, but with less than a thousand dollars to run on.......

(p150-151)
In February 1931 the IWW stirred up its own members and sympathizers to greater activity with a leaflet "Bread Lines or Picket Lines" very widely distributed. This urged that the unemployed organize either in the IWW or out of it, so that they could assure those still working that they would not scab; and then, by demonstrations outside plants that cut pay or worked longer than normal days, promote action to abate the depression. In execution the programme became much modified: the unemployed helped picket lines in strikes called independently of this programme; it was approximated among job-seekers at out-of-town construction jobs, for example Cle Ellum, and the Portland Unemployed Union did assure success to a small loggers' strike. These Unemployed Unions were formed to provide housing and food for footloose jobless members while they carried on IWW agitation. The UU at 2005 W. Harrison, Chicago, held meetings outdoors nightly throughout the city, sold over a thousand IWW papers a week and many pamphlets, solicited their own food in the large markets, and defrayed rent etc. from proceeds of social affairs. A similar venture in New York made publicity even out of its move from E. 10th Street to larger quarters at 133 W. 14th, and accommodated personnel for an organization drive in eastern industrial centers that did much educational work though it secured few members. In Seattle the less spectacular 6 Hour Committee did its most effective work through influence in other unions to demand shorter workdays. The Portland UU beside housing soapboxers and leaflet peddlers, managed to provide the food for the unorganized lumber workers at Biex Logging when they struck and won them a 25 percent pay boost. The chief result of this agitation everywhere was that the morale of the unemployed became such that workers dared to strike.


All this now has particular relevance in Britain where Government Ministers like Purnell, undeterred by the worsening economic situation, are itching to lay into the growing numbers of unemployed with a round of vicious "welfare reforms" that do not go far enough for the likely successors to the Brown government. Meanwhile even in the relatively extensively organized public sector in Britain the largely Labourite-led and sectional unions have for the most part demonstrated their inability to work in a coordinated fashion to fight pay cuts also known as below-inflation "rises" - divided they fall. Truly, time for the strategy and tactics of One Big Union.

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