The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States by Patrick Renshaw

In the early 20th century, Chicago gave rise to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or as they are commonly known, the Wobblies. Though active nationally they were founded in Chicago and are still to this day headquartered in Irving Park. The Wobblies were a radical union hoping to unite all workers across the world in an effort to abolish the wage system and eliminate exploitation.

While the majority of their efforts were peaceful, the Wobblies became known for their steely conviction and willingness to take any measure necessary. One of the most known and tragic IWW conflicts that turned violent is the Centralia Massacre, which took place on the first anniversary of Armistice Day. The local American Legion and the Centralia chapter of the IWW had become bitter rivals over a querulous eviction of the Wobblies from their local headquarters. Rumors had spread that the Legion would again try to remove the Wobblies from their home, using the parade as a guise to approach in formation. As the Legion halted in front of the Wobblies headquarters, shots poured out of the hall. Four American Legion members were killed and five wounded. The deputy sheriff was also killed in the skirmish. The only IWW death occurred when outraged citizens stormed the town jail, where all known Wobblies had been incarcerated, and indiscriminately grabbed Wesley Harding, who they then beat and hung.

The union also has a history of fierce government repression, perhaps none more infamously than another massacre, this one in Everett, Washington. In 1916, the industry of Everett, Washington, had been effectively ground to a halt by striking employees. As the local businesses and police forces made attempts at discouraging the strike, the Wobblies showed up to lend support to their striking brethren. As the battle grew more violent, the Seattle Chapter of the IWW boarded two steamers to Everett to join the fight. Upon arrival at the port in Everett, they encountered a crowd of law enforcement and local vigilantes who denied them access. A shootout ensued, leaving at least 7 dead and 43 wounded, the majority of the casualties being IWW members aboard one of the steamers, most being unarmed. Charges would be filed against the Wobblies, but all were acquitted or dropped.

As one of the original unions in America, they also experienced a great number of victories and are often regarded as forerunners for many of the rights of workers today, including minimum wage, shorter days, overtime, and humane treatment of employees. They were also strikingly egalitarian for the times, allowing membership to women, Native Americans, and African Americans; holding no discriminations toward any ethnic group.

Patrick Renshaw’s account of the movement, The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States, begins with the precursors of the IWW foundation and tells the story in an “eminently readable” fashion. He retraces the development of the IWW in depth, highlighting the driving politics of the organization and the fateful split that led to its obscurity.

To learn more about Chicago’s activist roots and the origins for the local distaste for Walmart and other big box stores, pick up a copy today.


Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen

Published on the 50th Anniversary of His Death

Jennifer Jensen Wallach opens her new biography of Richard Wright by commenting on the lifelong racial struggles endured by her subject: “He would never be seen merely as a writer or an intellectual, but as a black writer, a black intellectual. With that label came certain responsibilities, which he met to the best of his ability. Yet he often longed for the anonymity that came with white privilege, the carefree ability to speak only for oneself.”

Living with anonymity can be a luxury that is often taken for granted, especially when one becomes a writer and public figure of Wright’s magnitude. Wright’s combat with racial discrimination spilled into his fictional characters, the most famous of which is the tragic Bigger Thomas, the young African American whose doom is sealed by being the product of a violently segregated environment. Philosopher Franz Fanon’s 1952 essay “The Fact of Blackness” analyzes Wright’s desperate search for racial anonymity and cites Bigger Thomas, the murderous protagonist of Wright’s novel Native Son (1940), as a rare case of a black subject who finally acts: “To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.” As Wallach’s biography chronicles, Richard Wright, much like Bigger Thomas, was exactly the figure that the world had anticipated.

From his early rejection of institutionalized religion to his heavy involvement with the Communist Party throughout the 1930s, Wright often wrote about controversial ideas that had been informed by, though not necessary associated with, his race. Beginning with his earliest writings in the late 1920s for the periodical The New Masses, Wright established himself as an author unafraid to stretch boundaries and assert his viewpoints. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship for his first collection of short stories titled Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938, Wright began writing what would become his most enduring work, Native Son. The canonical African-American novel has become a standard in high school and college literature courses for its sharp social commentary and morally ambiguous protagonist. Wright shocked audiences with an African-American character who was simultaneously endearing and, as many of his contemporary black literary critics pointed out, an embodiment of a dangerous stereotype. Regardless, Wright never apologized for Bigger’s actions and further demonstrated his allegiance to the character by formally embodying Bigger in 1951 when he took the starring role in the first film adaptation of Native Son.

Shortly after the city’s liberation in 1944, Wright moved to Paris to continue his career, making friends with influential philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Wallach’s biography describes the various intellectual influences that enriched Wright’s writing during this time, as his style moved toward a more philosophical direction with books like The Outsider (1953) and Savage Holiday (1954). As the years continued, Wright led an increasingly isolated and radical existence until his mysterious death in 1960, perhaps in an attempt to inhabit the racial anonymity for which he had so desperately sought.

Inspiring subsequent African-American authors such as James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks, Wright’s quest for freedom, equality, and literary excellence are all documented and realized in Wallach’s biography. Wallach weaves his radical political and philosophical beliefs together with the tumultuous events of his personal life to demonstrate how Wright’s life and works of fiction are best understood only when experienced alongside one another.


Poetry People

March 5, 2010

I always thought there were, at heart, two groups of readers: those who read prose and those who read poetry, which just goes to show you how much I know. For most of my life, I’d considered myself firmly in the prose camp. But recently, I had a revelation: two separate poems I had tripped over during random surfing on the internet and absolutely loved were by the same author. Moreover, those two poems were in the same collection.  I went out and bought the book, and spent the next few weeks paging through, reading the poems slowly, paying careful attention to each word. When I finished, I felt more accomplished making my way through that 100-odd page book than I had after slogging through any 800-page prose behemoth.

I had a similar experience while sorting the reviews that Ivan R. Dee tracks for all of its books. In Contemporary Poetry Review, John Foy reviews Taking the Occasion by Daniel Brown (IRD 2008). Foy writes,

His poems have three things going for them. They don’t parade in front of you trying to impress you as Poems, they are self-deprecating, and they come across as relaxed and spontaneous. The best don’t even sound like poems. But they are. And they aren’t really relaxed at all. On closer look, they’re wound as tight as a Marine with an unsheathed Bowie knife.

As someone who is slightly apprehensive of Poetry, I read Foy’s endorsement with interest, and then hunted down a copy and settled in to read. Brown is a classically trained composer and brings a musician’s understanding of meter, rhythm, and timing to his poetry. He uses various rhyming schemes, and as Foy points out, a lot of humor to coat his most barbed observations.

Of course, it is not so much of a surprise that I would eventually find some poetry that appeals to me, just as there are certainly styles of prose that do and do not appeal to me. But I have to ask, how can anyone not at the very least get a chuckle out of “The Way It Is”:

I’m not the most observant guy

To say the least. If I tell you I

Could pass a boulder in the hall

Secure in my habitual

Oblivion, you needn’t doubt it.

Although to be fair to myself about it,

A nipple-hint in a blouse or a dress

Is a little thing I’ve yet to miss.


Author Antero Pietila recently sat down with Dan Rodrick of Midday to discuss his new book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City. With reviews sprouting up everywhere from the Washington Post to the Baltimore Brew, Pietila expands on the pressing issues of race, class, history, and politics that he addresses in Not in My Neighborhood.

Click here for the full-hour podcast.

In this in-depth interview, Pietila uncovers the dirty secrets of Baltimore’s past while speculating the uncertain direction of the city’s future. Haunted by a history of segregation and discrimination, particularly toward Jews and African Americans, Baltimore’s racial strains seeped deeply into the 20th century. Pietila acknowledges this tension as he looks toward a hopeful future that, he admits, may rely on the post-racial thinking of a new generation. Pick up Not in My Neighborhood for an astute analysis of the sociological and economic effects that bigotry has had on Baltimore and on the greater United States.