Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia: achievements and limitations

The IWW's newspaper Direct Action campaigned opposed capitalist war in 1914.

[This talk was presented at the Laborism and the radical alternative: Lessons for today conference, held in Melbourne, Australia, on May 30, 2009. It was organised by Socialist Alliance and sponsored by Green Left Weekly, Australia’s leading socialist newspaper.

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By Verity Burgmann

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was established in Australia first in Sydney in October 1907, two years after the founding of the IWW in the United States in June 1905 in Chicago. Known as the ``Wobblies’’, the IWW was a revolutionary industrial unionist organisation. It preferred this terminology to ``syndicalist’’: while it acknowledged much in common with European revolutionary syndicalism, it proposed a less decentralised industrial organisation. It maintained that: workers should be organised on the basis of the industries in which they worked rather than on the basis of their particular craft or trade skills; ultimately all workers should come together in One Big Union, which would take over control of production, distribution and exchange from the employers; and this process, while revolutionary could be non-violent, because if all workers were already in One Big Union, its power would be so great that the change to a new socialist society could be achieved peaceably.

The IWW had developed due to dissatisfaction with craft unionism, which was seen to pit workers against each other and make it easier for employers to control and exploit all workers. Its emergence was an intelligent response from within the labour movement to the increasing centralisation of capital and industry; it aspired to present a concentration of labour power to meet a concentration of ownership of capital.

However, strictly speaking, only waged workers could join, so there was a serious limitation from the outset: it was a very ``blokey’’ organisation. Female paid workers were very welcome, but working-class homemakers could not officially join. Female industrial militants were applauded—but patronised—in the IWW song ``Rebel Girl’’. ``To the working class she’s a precious pearl. She brings courage, pride and joy, to the fighting Rebel Boy.’’ Far more impressive was the IWW’s principled hostility to racism as an ideology and practice that divided workers at the point of production that must be combated at all cost. Within a labour movement seriously implicated in endorsement of the White Australia Policy, the Australian Wobblies stood out for their persistent opposition to racism.

In 1908 the IWW movement in the USA split: those most contemptuous of political parties packed the convention. Debate centred on the Preamble, which stated:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace as long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political as well as on the industrial field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor through an economic organization of the working class without affiliation with any political party.

The rapid gathering of wealth and the centering of the management of industry into fewer and fewer hands makes trades unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class because the trades unions foster a state of things which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping to defeat one another in wage wars. The trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

These sad conditions can be changed and the interests of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries, if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.

The ``non-politicals’’ successfully moved a resolution that deleted from the Preamble the sentence commencing ``until all the toilers come together on the political as well as on the industrial field’’ and substituted in its place ``until the workers of the world organise as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system’’. The minority group still supporting political action, associated with the Socialist Labor Party under Daniel De Leon, withdrew and established separate headquarters in Detroit. The larger ``non­-political’’ section remained based in Chicago and became the more successful movement.

This split was replicated in Australia. In May 1911, the Chicago IWW was established, first in Adelaide, but the Sydney branch, or Local as it was called, became the largest and most significant. As in the United States, it was the Chicago non-political IWW that was the more famous in Australia. It became what is generally known as ``the IWW’’, though the political IWW minority remained organised in the IWW Clubs, closely aligned with the Socialist Labor Party of Australia.

There were many links between the American and Australian Wobblies, helped particularly by the movements of workers between these continents, especially maritime workers. Not just seafarers, but many radicals roamed around the world quite freely at this stage. Unlike today, there were few restrictions on movement. There were no passports. It was quite common for agitators and activists to spend several years working and agitating for better pay and conditions for workers in one country then to move on to another country. Sometimes these agitators moved on because their efforts to improve conditions for workers brought them into trouble with local authorities. Often the radical labour movement in the country in which they arrived would know about them before they appeared, because of the newspapers produced by each movement, which reported on the movements in other countries.

One example of someone who moved around the Pacific area was John Benjamin King. King, born in Canada in the 1870s, worked as a miner, a teamster, and a stoker. There were many baseless rumours about King, for example, that during his time in Chicago he had blown up a newspaper office. During1910-1911, he worked as an IWW organiser for Vancouver. After the August 1911 Vancouver strike was broken, he worked his way to New Zealand as a stoker. In Auckland, his economics class had an enrolment of 30 miners and achieved notoriety. It was rumoured they studied the techniques of industrial sabotage. ``The less you work’’, he told one meeting, ``the longer you will live’’. But no member would testify when interviewed by police. However, with questions being asked about him in parliament, King fled to Australia in 1912, where he became a leading figure in the Australian IWW. Because of this, in October 1916, he was given ten years jail for printing and distributing 25,000 pounds worth of forged five pound notes—along with my grandfather’s first cousin, the process engraver who made the plates. The idea was to debase the currency to help bring down capitalism and finance Wobbly propaganda in the meantime. King’s sentence was reduced to two years, because he was less involved than my relative.

King was representative of the many personal links between the radical labour movements in countries on the Pacific rim, which helped the process of transplantation of the IWW from its country of origin. These transplants adapted to local circumstances. The Australian IWW was therefore different in significant ways from the American IWW. It did not slavishly follow all the American trends, debates, and schisms, as American IWW historiography has tended to assume of the IWW Locals that appeared in other countries. In fact, intriguing contrasts emerged between the IWWs on the two sides of the Pacific Ocean, which merit separate attention.

1. Opposition to political action

In the USA and Canada, political action was not so much a practice to be rejected as a matter of principle but an irrelevancy, because those to whom the IWW appealed were largely estranged from the electoral process. The American IWW, while rejecting control by political parties, never expressly condemned political action and many American Wobblies were active members of parties such as the Socialist Party.

It was very different situation here, where there was universal manhood suffrage (including indigenous Australians) from 1856 and payment for politicians from 1871, and then universal adult suffrage by the end of the 1890s in most States and federally from 1902 (excluding indigenous Australians until 1962). All adults, except Aboriginal Australians, could vote in elections in every part of Australia from the beginning of the twentieth century. Australia a white democracy, with Labor parties viable because of this democratic status, many years before the USA with a significantly better-developed economy. Moreover, electoral registration was compulsory in Australia. Not only was it relatively easy for itinerant workers to secure electoral registration; they were fined if they did not.

These democratic features caused the early existence of Labor parties in Australia, and Labor parties that were politically precocious. During the most successful years of the Australian IWW, the Labor Party was in government federally in 1908-09, 1910-1913 and 1914-1917. It was also in government for much of this period in most of the six States. In Australia, therefore, the IWW not just abstractly anti-political as in the United States and Canada but empirically so. It argued from experience that Labor parties did not help workers much.

The behaviour of Labor governments seemed to confirm IWW warnings against political action. Direct Action, the Australian IWW newspaper, had a running commentary on the futility of political action, sell-outs and betrayals by Labor MPs, their huge salaries and perks, and so on. For example, on May 1, 1914, Direct Action announced: ``Workers of Australia, you have raised up unto yourselves gods, in the shape of Labor politicians, and behold events have proved that their feet are but of clay.’’ On June 15, 1915, Direct Action claimed that the actions of the NSW McGowen Labor government, such as strike-breaking, should ``serve as a warning to the working-class, not alone of this country but of the whole world’’.

To read the full talk, visit LINKS - International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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