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Ahmed White, UNDER THE IRON HEEL
Transcript of Interview with Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon
In 1917, the Industrial Workers of the World was rapidly gaining strength and members in its campaign to build One Big Union uniting all workers. Within a decade, this radical union was effectively destroyed, the victim of the most remarkable campaign of legal repression and vigilantism against a labor movement in American history.
Historian Ahmed White has been fascinated with the story of the IWW for more than 20 years. Not only because of the repression the union suffered, but also because of the incredible courage of its members who stood up against it. Now he’s come out with an award-winning book, Under The Iron Heel, that tells that story of rank and file courage and the repression it defied.
Francesca: Ahmed White, welcome to Writers Voice.
AW: Thank you for having me.
Previous works about the Wobblies have focused on its leaders, but your book focuses on the rank-and-file. Talk about why you made that decision.
A lot of the existing scholarship is focused on the leaders, especially when it deals with repression. I made a conscious decision to look at the rank-and-file, in part because I think that's crucial to understanding how repression did its work on the organization. It didn't just, as many people have noted over the years, decapitate the organization.
It also made membership very uninviting for the rank-and-file.
It punished them. It gave anyone who might have had an interest in joining this organization or remaining in its ranks a reason to reconsider that notion.
“I just thought that these were forgotten people, people otherwise forgotten whose stories, whose struggles deserve to be told, deserve to be memorialized. So I set out to do that in writing this book.”
I guess the other reason I wrote about the rank-and-file, the everyday Wobblies who were subjected to this, is I suppose a more transparently romantic reason, a sentimental reason, humane reason, whatever you want to call it. I just thought that these were forgotten people, people otherwise forgotten whose stories, whose struggles deserve to be told, deserve to be memorialized. So I set out to do that in writing this book.
We should note that the subtitle is “Under the Iron Heel,” but the subtitle is “The Wobblies and the Capitalist War on Radical Workers.”
You know, I was really struck in reading your book about the implacable extremes of repression. I was a member of the New Left in the 1970s, and a lot of the people who were in the Weatherman faction [which I wasn’t], when they went to jail, they went away for like 40, 50 years. Many of them are still in prison, you know, almost 50 years later. And that always struck me as so extreme, the most extreme kinds of sentences being meted out while we see that even the most extreme people on the right in this country are getting, you know, at the most maybe 10 or 12 years.
So I wonder if you could talk about why you think there is such a disproportionate treatment of people who are on the left who are political prisoners versus those on the right?
I think that reflects above all the class character of our society and the politics that animate it. And I think that operates in several different interconnected ways, ways that were evident in what happened to the Wobblies.
And what I mean by that is some of that disparity, or even just outright cruelty that manifests in these episodes of repression, is very conscious. It's along the lines of we're going to get you people, and we're going to get you in a way that we wouldn't have anyone treat us or people who we sympathize with. And we don't care what contradictions there may follow from that, how that might contradict our supposed belief in the rule of law or equal protection or something along those lines. I think that was part of what happened with the Wobblies and what happens in general.
But I also think that entwined with that is something you might say is more ideological in nature and in that sense, maybe less conscious.
And it's a kind of understanding or approach to these episodes that views what people like the Wobblies did as just utterly unacceptable in a way that happens to align with the class politics of the people behind this, but doesn't have to be consciously reconciled with anything.
It just goes without saying that these people are beyond the pale and they need to be treated accordingly.
And I think that was the underpinning of the repression that the Wobblies experienced that I write about, and particularly the way it was presented as a valid response to a real threat of sedition on the part of the Wobblies. That gave it, the repression that these people experienced that was imposed upon them, a rationale, a justification that almost needed no further justification.
“The Wobblies conceived that…they would abolish the wage-labor system and create a workers' commonwealth.”
Give us a little bit of the setting now, because you talked about the Wobblies being beyond the pale. What were they fighting against and what were they fighting for?
Yes, so this is an organization that was formed in the summer of 1905 by a diverse collection of unionists, many of them leftist, radicals of one stripe or another, anarchists, political socialists, people like that.
The organization that they created was conceived to accomplish two interconnected purposes. One was to organize the industrial working class, a group of people who, with a few exceptions, had been ignored by, excluded from the mainstream of the American labor movement and who had almost no voice in the political system. That was one purpose and it was a purpose geared towards, as the Wobblies put it, improving the conditions of those workers, so operating like a conventional union.
The other purpose connected to that was an explicitly revolutionary one. The union was formed around the idea of organizing these people with the ultimate aim of calling a vast general strike that would bring society to a standstill and force the capitalists to surrender control of the means of production.
The Wobblies conceived that out of this they would abolish the wage-labor system and create a workers' commonwealth.
For about the first ten years of its existence, the union, of course, never came close to that second revolutionary goal, but it struggled even to maintain itself as a functioning organization.
It led some celebrated strikes. It often led them well. Some listeners will know of the union's role in the 1912 so-called Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. That's a good example of a strike the union led quite well.
But out of these strikes it failed to build a lasting membership and it really struggled to survive into the early 19-teens. But by the latter part of that decade, just as the United States entered the First World War, the union found its footing and it organized tens of thousands of workers, mostly west of the Mississippi River and mostly migratory workers in industries like agriculture, lumber, mining, construction on the waterfront, those sorts of things. It had about maybe 150,000 workers in its ranks at any given time in 1917 or so and several times that number who had passed through its ranks and mostly remained loyal to the union.
So it wasn't overwhelming in size, but it was large enough to be threatening to the immediate interest of powerful capitalists and politicians in the western part of the country, all over the country in fact, and it was large enough to alert them to, as they perceived it, the great danger of revolution presented by this organization.
And so talk about the condition of workers in the US, particularly the industrial workers that prevailed when the IWW was founded.
It's fair to say that working conditions were extremely difficult for most industrial workers. The jobs were often quite arduous and dangerous sometimes, the hours were extremely lengthy and the pay was quite poor.
In addition to that, workers, especially if, like the vast majority, they had nothing in the way of effective union representation, they had very little control over how work was done, over questions of supervision, hours, discipline on the job, those sorts of things.
And so when this union emerged, it confronted that and it offered itself to a working class especially on the lower end of the skill ladder that was ripe for representation and in many ways, in many cases, hungry for some fundamental changes, including the possibility of revolution.
I don't mean to suggest that the vast majority of the American working class was disposed to revolutionary change, but I think we would be wrong not to acknowledge that a significant fraction of the working class was open to the idea of revolutionary change.
And the Wobblies were also inspired by a particular writer.
I mean, there were a number of, as you point out in the book, they were inspired by Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin and others, but Jack London had a special place in their heart. In fact, you take your title from one of his books, The Iron Heel. So tell us more about why were they so attracted to Jack London?
Jack London looms large in the story of the Wobblies. And I think one reason is that, of course, London was maybe the world's most famous socialist and certainly one of the world's most famous writers in the early 20th century when this union emerged.
So there's that, but there's something else that London was; before he became a famous and wealthy writer, he emerged out of the same world that many of these workers did. He was a child of the industrial working class and people on the lower margins of the social order.
And he had, as he put it, tramped across the country, hoboed across the country, in the way that many of these Wobblies had done, something he documented somewhat famously, certainly in his day famously, in a book called The Road.
And he had done the kind of work that these people had done.
So he, at least in his youth, had been very much like them.
And on top of all of that, he wasn't just a socialist. Although he never joined the IWW, he was the kind of leftist who in many ways came very close to embracing the particular politics of the IWW.
Its insistence upon uncompromising militancy, its unsparing view of the world.
So he shared with many Wobblies a kind of left-wing social Darwinism that readers of his most popular books like The Call of the Wild or White Fang would find quite familiar. But he shared with them and they shared with him this kind of left-wing social Darwinism with its bitter and unsparing view of the nature of life. And all of this made him, I think, quite appealing to them.
And again, he was never a member of the IWW, but he several times went out of his way to express his solidarity with the Union.
And maybe most importantly, he built some of his most impressive works out of his familiarity with and his admiration for the IWW, including the novel The Iron Heel, as well as some of his short stories, like for instance, The Dream of Debs, which is a kind of anticipation of the strike, the great general strike that the IWW planned to launch.
I associate social Darwinism with the idea of the survival of the fittest, the kind of uber-capitalist mythology. What is a left-wing social Darwinism?
Well, these were people like London and like many Wobblies who kind of inverted that, subverted that notion. And they said, yes, the social order is the survival of the fittest. It shouldn't be. And our ambition is to change it so that it is never more defined by the survival of the fittest.
But what distinguished them, I think, in their own minds and embracing this perspective was their sense that you had to understand that about capitalism, about the realities of capitalism, if you were going to have any success in overthrowing it. That you had to stare with clear eyes at what this system was all about.
And that ended up being quite important to the Wobblies because you can see that in one of the most distinguishing features of the Wobblies' philosophy, which was their uncompromising hostility to the state and to any notion of participating in what they call parliamentary socialism. For them, the state and its legal system were captive to the logic of social Darwinism to a degree that made the prospect of meaningful reform within the system not only a fool's errand but something very dangerous.
And that's something actually that Jack London expresses in The Iron Heel as that story is in part about what he imagines to be the inevitable treachery of reformers when it came to dealing with, as that story presents it, a massive uprising of the working class.
What you're really saying is that they exploded the myth of capitalism as something benign and exposed its predatory essence.
Exactly. I think that's extremely well put.
“And I think the fact that the IWW famously sought to improve the lot of the working class of its own members, to encourage its members to improve themselves, to enlighten themselves, …only aggravated the antipathy of many progressives towards the organization.”
Now, this was the progressive era actually when they began in 1905.
You know, it was a reform-minded era. Teddy Roosevelt, in spite of his record as an imperialist war criminal, on the one hand, he was a progressive reformer around issues of corruption and, you know, there were real reforms in the labor movement during that time. You show a much darker side of progressivism in this book, Under the Iron Heel, that was shown in the way they treated the Wobblies. Talk about that and why were they so hostile to the Wobblies?
Yes, this is a story about the capacity of progressives for a vicious kind of anti-radicalism. It wasn't universal. There were certainly some progressives who were more tolerant of the Wobblies and some, in fact, went out of their way to defend these people as they fell under the Iron Heel.
But many of them were behind this campaign of repression. They were the Iron Heel. And that included, although he didn't wield any power at the time, but as the Union began to find its footing, people like Roosevelt and certainly Woodrow Wilson and many, many others at every level of government and in every quarter of society, progressives, showed their hostility to the IWW.
And I think the reasons for that are several. One is to do with something you mentioned. These people were reformers and many of them were frustrated and angered by the prospect that their reform might be in some ways denigrated and even undermined by these radicals. Many of them in a more fundamental way were invested in the capitalist system. They believed it needed to be reformed, but they certainly didn't believe it needed to be overthrown and resented and feared the IWW because that is what it had set out to do.
And I think there was something else going on, too, to do with the kind of fundamentally middle class character of the progressive movement.
I think progressives of that class found a lot to be put off by who the IWW, who these Wobblies were. They were, even their leadership, overwhelmingly people from the bottom rungs of the working class, people whose life courses, whose family histories, whose sensibilities, whose aesthetics all clashed with their image of what was proper and what was decent and what was good.
And I think the fact that the IWW famously sought to improve the lot of the working class of its own members, to encourage its members to improve themselves, to enlighten themselves, I think that only aggravated the antipathy of many progressives towards the organization. There was, I think, a kind of attitude like, “who are you to displace us from the role of not only reforming society, but telling you how to reform yourselves?”
And I think in all those ways, many progressives found reasons to dislike the IWW and they expressed that in sometimes very serious and cruel ways in leading the campaign to undermine the union.
“you could be arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced within five or ten minutes. That was typical.”
The arrogance of the upper middle classes. So let's talk about the nature of this repression. We've been kind of dancing around it.
It was draconian. Talk about the use of the vagrancy laws and of the criminal syndicalism laws.
Yeah, so these were two of the three main, I think, legal avenues by which the union was repressed. The vagrancy laws in this country were pervasive at the time. Just about every county, every city had vagrancy laws in the book. There were a few state-level vagrancy laws.
They had a long, long, long pedigree, hundreds of years old from Elizabethan times, where their main function, aside from giving police some sort of generic means of asserting their authority whenever they needed, they had a particular function over the years as a means of controlling where workers went and what they did.
And that suited them quite well for the more particular purpose of being used to control the presence and actions of wobblies in local communities. These laws are very easy to enforce against just about anybody. They were extremely broadly worded. You can easily find examples of them.
And again, that made them very well suited to rounding up Wobblies or their leaders and convicting them, because again, their wording made them suitable for that purpose.
And because they were mostly misdemeanors, the kinds of procedural protections people got if they were charged were minimal. So you could be arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced within five or ten minutes. That was typical.
And the usual result was 10, 20 days in jail or run out of town or having all your money seized or your union material seized. Tens of thousands of Wobblies, maybe more, were arrested on these charges.
Much more serious were criminal syndicalism laws. These were enacted beginning in 1917, mostly at the state level, mostly felonies, for the express purpose of making it a crime to be in the IWW.
And these laws did this, I think, in a pretty clever way. It would have been illegal to just enact a law that said if you're in the IWW, you're a criminal. Unconstitutional to do that.
So what these people came up with, beginning with a group in Idaho, prodded on by a powerful lumber interest and mining interests, was to write a law, to conceive of a law that made it a crime to advocate what was called industrial or political change by means of violence, sabotage, or other criminal acts, and also made it a crime to be a member of an organization that advocated that kind of revolutionary and militant social change.
What this did was create a situation where anyone who was proved to be a wobbly–and that was easy because most defendants wouldn't deny it–could be convicted so long as the prosecutor convinced the jury that the IWW itself was this kind of dangerous, militant organization. And that was, again, easily done, and hundreds of wobblies were thrown in prison on this charge, mostly west of the Mississippi. But it was quite devastating.
“This is a story about courage and dignity, some of it phenomenal.”
And under incredible conditions, I mean just horrific conditions, talk about the kind of violence that was practiced on them, both state and individual violence, and the incredible courage and dignity that they showed in response.
Yes, this is a story about courage and dignity, some of it phenomenal.
I mentioned the reluctance, the refusal of probably most Wobblie defendants, even when facing extraordinarily lengthy prison sentences for nothing more than being a member of this union, their reluctance to deny their membership in the union.
Not only that, many of them volunteered themselves to be prosecuted alongside, say, their fellow Wobblies. In some cases, those who were for one reason or another acquitted, insisted alongside, say, their fellow union members who were convicted, demanded that the judge convict them and send them to prison. Or they asked that they be allowed to serve sentences instead of their fellow Wobblies who maybe had families at home or maybe were ailing or something like that.
And then, equally remarkably, once they found themselves in prison, many of them refused to leave prison unless they left alongside their fellow Wobblie defendants or unless it was under circumstances where the state not only commuted their sentences but pardoned them because they viewed a pardon as an admission that they had been wrongly convicted in the first place. And some of these defendants stayed in prison for several years beyond what they would have been asserting these kinds of principles.
Again, it was quite extraordinary what they did and the kind of defiance and courage and as I think you quite aptly put it, the dignity that they showed. Really it has some equals in American history but it has never been exceeded, I think, in the history of political activism and political repression in this country.
“There is a story here about courage and conviction that I think is, for want of a better word, inspirational.”
And finally, there is a wave of labor activism today, a resurgence of labor activism. The IWW is still around today but we can't really say that they're a major force in the labor movement. What lessons can be derived from the IWW and its history?
A few things. I think one, of course, is something we talked about and that's the importance of courage. And I say that with an understanding that the price that these people paid 100 years ago for their stridence, their militancy was extreme. And I'm not suggesting that that's an easy thing to do or that people go out and get themselves charged with serious felonies.
But there is a story here about courage and conviction that I think is, for want of a better word, inspirational. And I hope it can be taken that way.
But there's also a story here about the importance of being cautious in dealings with the state and in dealings with reformers. This is a story about class politics and about the limits of many liberals and progressives' tolerance for genuine radicalism and the militancy that often accompanies it.
I don't think you have to be a Wobblie or go as far as the Wobblies did in your rejection of either the support of progressives or of reformism and compromise with the capitalist state to take from their experience a certain hesitancy to embrace that kind of strategy, those routes to achieving improvements for workers. And I think that's part of the story here. And it's not an easy one for many people to confront. But I think it's worth thinking about and thinking about what happened to these people a century ago.
So you're saying you think people should be more cautious to take the kinds of courageous steps that they did or take inspiration from them but understand the potential consequences?
I think people should take inspiration but do so with a sense of caution. But I think they should be especially cautious in forming alliances with liberals and progressives.
That's not to say they shouldn't do that or that they should imagine that every liberal, every progressive is a closet enemy of organized labor. I don't think that's true at all.
But I do think the wobblies' experience shows that in the world of labor, class interest and class politics rule supreme. That was true a century ago and it's true today. And it can often make unreliable allies out of people who on the surface might seem to be friends.
Well, that's a great way to put it. And this has been so interesting, Ahmed White, as is your book, Under the Iron Heel. Thank you so much for talking with us here about it.
Oh, thank you. It's been my great pleasure.
Ahmed White teaches labor and criminal law at the University of Colorado Boulder and is author of several books on American labor history.