Legends of Myself 37

Posted on January 12, 2012


Continued from Legends of Myself 36

37.  Old Pop, Part 2:  Wobblies on the Street

When radicalism appears among people whose bellies are full, whose children are protected and whose daily needs are comfortably met, they can sometimes find time for conventions, resolutions and well-turned phrases.  It is still radicalism, mind, still sometimes requires border-hopping to escape the authorities, still places folk on lists of dangerous characters.  –Sometimes for going to the barricade.  But usually for exercising their freedom of speech in jurisdictions where there is no such freedom.

You can’t say that here.  Or there, either.

The Freethinkers of my great-grandfather’s generation were bourgeois radicals.  The Wobblies, founded in Chicago in 1905 at the Continental Congress of the Working Class, were radicals operating a little closer to the ground.  The two movements addressed broadly the same issues, but there were large class differences between them as well.  Somehow, by a process that again I can only guess at, my grandfather—then young Georges Tauber—crossed those barriers.

The story could be as simple as truth encountering a receptive mind.

He left on a literal voyage from France.  That surely had something to do with it.  Journeys have a way of bringing you down to the ground.  Journeys radicalized George Orwell and Che Guevara.

And somewhere along the way, my grandfather encountered the Wobblies.

The Wobblies were masterful street-corner organizers, so effective that the authorities tried all manner of tactics to suppress them.  One tactic was to send in the Salvation Army with their drums and brass marching bands to drown out the speakers.  The Wobblies struck back by writing new lyrics to Salvation Army tunes. “The Sweet Bye and Bye” became “The Preacher and the Slave,” which, with lyrics by Joe Hill, gave the English language the phrase “pie in the sky.”

The street corner Wobblies sang,

Long haired preachers come out every night

Try to teach you what’s wrong and what’s right

But when you ask about something to eat

They will answer in voices so sweet:

You will eat (you will eat)

Bye and bye (bye and bye)

In that glorious land above the sky (way up high)

Work and pray (work and pray)

Live on hay (live on hay)

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (That’s a lie!)

In 1908, the Wobblies went to Spokane, Washington, to fight a corrupt scheme targeting logging and agricultural workers, a fight they waged so successfully that the local city fathers (a little weak perhaps on constitutional law) tried to shut them down by making street meetings illegal.  The Wobblies complied with the ordinance until it was amended to allow an exemption for Salvation Army preaching.

The Salvation Army, when not actually shouting down Wobbly street activism with bass drums and flugelhorns, preached passivity in the face of oppression as a way into heaven, (real, actual “pie in the sky,” we promise) and the Spokane city fathers liked that.  The Wobblies liked neither the organization nor their philosophy and took Sally Ann’s exemption to the law as a declaration of war.

In 1909, during what came to be called the Spokane Free Speech Campaign, teenage Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—Wobbly organizer, feminist, kicked out of high school for her radical politics, later to help found the American Civil Liberties Union—chained herself to a lamppost before she began speaking.  Frank Little, another organizer, read out the Declaration of Independence and was sentenced to 30 days of hard labour.  They joined 1200 other Wobbly speakers who, over four months, one by one got themselves arrested in the name of free speech and freedom of assembly until the authorities, seeing the mounting bills for housing 1200 prisoners, relented.

The Wobblies discovered themselves disliked by the authorities everywhere.

Other Free Speech campaigns were waged in Aberdeen, Missoula, Denver, Duluth, Portland, New Castle, New Bedford and Fresno.  Vigilantes joined the police against them and got particularly brutal in San Diego.  In Canada, the battle reached the streets of Calgary and Edmonton, Nelson and Victoria, and finally, in 1912, Vancouver.

Vancouver was, of course, much smaller then, but its relatively mild winters still made it as attractive a winter destination for jobless seasonal workers as it is now.  There were a lot of seasonal workers in western Canada early in the 20th Century, because that was the kind of economy it was.

And it was the labour underclass, the migrant, the seasonal, the non-British immigrants and people of colour—people who often couldn’t get into other unions even where they existed—that the Wobblies specialized in organizing.  The central Wobbly message of worker power through control of the workplace was of direct appeal to people who were otherwise without political power at all.  That was one reason why Wobblies were such successful street organizers, and why they got into trouble so often with people who preferred that the powerless remain powerless.

A construction slowdown late in 1911 meant more unemployed than usual on Vancouver’s streets that winter, and they were more hungry than usual.  The Wobblies organized marches and street meetings in protest of the way that the hungry and homeless unemployed were being neglected.  In January, 1912, the authorities responded by banning all such meetings.

The Wobblies sent out their usual call for Wobblies from all over the continent to come to Vancouver to defy the order.  One hundred and fifty Wobblies were turned back at the US/Canadian border at British Columbia entry points, but others avoided border authorities by crossing over mountain trails.  As in Spokane and elsewhere, the Wobblies crowded the jails.  They addressed crowds through megaphones from boats moored off StanleyPark, every speaker introduced—in likely allusion to the great pre-civil war Abolitionist—as “John Brown.”[1]  Another time they addressed the unemployed through a megaphone ten feet long and eight feet round.

The major was cast-iron in opposition, in his determination not to negotiate with the Wobblies.  He vowed to rid the city of alien undesirables who were, he said, preaching sedition on the streets, attempting, he claimed, the city’s ruin.  He, in conjunction with other levels of government, had the courts busy deporting all they could and jailing the rest.

And, just as the authorities and the forces of oppression lost in every other Free Speech Fight they ever fought with the Wobblies, they lost in Vancouver.  By the early spring, with the city administration worn down and apathetic, the Wobblies were holding meetings on the streets of Vancouver with impunity.


Read more about the Wobblies here:

A. Ross McCormack, Reformers, Rebels and Revolutionaries:  The Western Canadian Radical Movement, 1899-1919, University of Toronto Press, 1977.

[1] The Wobbly anthem “Solidarity Forever”, for instance, is set to the music of the US Civil War tune “John Brown’s Body.”

Continued @ Legends of Myself 38

Posted in: autobiography