Legends of Myself 38

Posted on January 14, 2012


Continued from Legends of Myself 37

38.  Old Pop, Part 3:  Wobblies on the Job

Scene from La Belle Époque France:  The chagrin of my grandfather, Catholic school boy, mocked by his Freethinking father for all the “superstitious” rigmarole that the school forced him into.

Scene from 1903, Philadelphia:  Children employed 60 hours a week at a textile mill parade the streets carrying signs:



Scene from La Belle Époque France:  The teacher leaves the room and a particular boy, a notorious class clown, walks across the desks on his hands from the back to the front, putting the class in an uproar.

Scene from Kensington, Pennsylvania, 1903, where some 75,000 textile workers are out on strike, 10,000 of them children.  Mother Jones, later to be one of the founders of the IWW, writes:

Every day little children came into Union Headquarters, some with their hands off, some with the thumb missing, some with their fingers off at the knuckle.  They were stooped little things, round shouldered and skinny…[1]

Some claim the Wobblies were too radical a union.  They should perhaps take that claim up with Mother Jones.

Among the most notorious of Wobbly tactics in the workplace was that referred to as ‘a little direct action.’  Old Pop used the example of throwing a wrench into the machinery so the boys could catch a coffee break.  Such tactics might sound extreme to us, so far away from the worksites where they applied, but Wobblies could claim a defense of necessity.  In 1914 alone, for instance, 35,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents in the USA, and 700,000 injured.

The boys (and the women and children who often worked side by side with them seven days a week for twelve and fourteen hour days) needed a coffee break.

However, the tactic of “a little direct action,” although technically always part of the Wobbly repertoire, really only got traction in British Columbia following the union-busting activities of Premier McBride in 1912.  The Wobblies were involved in organizing the workers building the Canadian Northern Railway, and in March of that year, in protest of conditions in the work camps, they led the workers out on strike that shut down construction all the way from Hope to Kamloops.  It was a remarkable job of organization, holding together 16 different nationalities, violence-free.  The Wobblies knew that any violence would be used as a propaganda tool against them by the authorities, although the authorities seldom showed any scruples about using violence themselves.

The Wobblies built their own strike camps, and blanket-stiffs from all over came to help out.  The blanket-stiffs, who went from worksite to worksite, labouring beside the workers they were organizing, were the heart of the IWW organization.  Old Pop was one of these.  Famous names like Joe Hill showed up at the union headquarters in Yale as well.  Joe wrote “Where the Fraser River Flows” to the tune of “Where the River Shannon Flows,” a sentimental song of the era.

The railway builders, a shady larcenous crew called Foley, Welch and Stewart (dubbed by the workers “Frig ‘em, Work ‘em and Starve ‘em” in an earlier labour dispute) whose theft of public funds had caused the conditions which brought about the strike in the first place, had good friends in government, and they soon had the help of the police tearing the labour camps down, moving the strikers along and arresting and deporting the organizers.  By June, 250 Wobblies were in jail.

It was in the face of such overwhelming repression by government hand in hand with money interests that the Wobblies were forced into their direct action tactics.  As Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote, “Where there is no justice, the oppressed must make their own remedies.”

Whether in events as I have outlined, or in others, my grandfather was deported several times.  The forces that opposed the Wobblies often used the law in assistance, whether immigration laws, vagrancy laws or whatever proved useful.  In Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1917, with help of the Ku Klux Klan, Bill Haywood, long head of the IWW, was framed and convicted of the crime of not owning war bonds.  Facing up to 20 years in prison, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union.  In Salt Lake City, Utah, Joe Hill was framed for a murder charge and in 1915, placed before a firing squad and shot.  (He apparently hollered “Fire!” himself.)  In 1917, as the most vocal spokesman of the IWW’s policy of opposition to US participation in the First World War, Frank Little, the object of frenzied rhetoric by the government, was lynched by a mob in Butte, Montana.

His exile to the trenches of France represented the final time my grandfather was deported.  He returned illicitly from the trenches, became Collins, and early in the 1920s adopted as his own the three children of George Hammond, still toddlers and infants all.  After adding one more child from his own lineage, he appended the story of Pop silently and secretly to the story of Tauber.  And then, somewhere, somehow, after the death of his wife at the hands of the careless doctors in Essondale, during the years I was south in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, he became Candy George.

[1] Quoted in A People’s History of the United States (revised) by Howard Zinn, HarperPerennial, NY, 1980, 1995, p. 338.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 39

Posted in: autobiography