by FW Noah
For this issue, “In November We Remember,” we often focus on the labor struggles of the past, the lessons we’ve learned, those who have died — not just for the Industrial Workers of the World but for the labor movement as a whole — and what these lessons mean to us as fellow workers in the present day. However, there is something often unspoken in our publication: the joy we as fellow workers have found in long-standing solidarity with each other against the common enemies of the working class. That by maintaining “The Long Memory,” as fellow worker Utah Phillips once put it, we hold out for the hope of a better tomorrow for the workers of the world.
The suffering that we feel under the current socio-economic arrangement of the world as the working class is very real and very much a part of our daily lives. Racial inequity on a systemic level, oppression on the basis of sex, discrimination against those who do not fit in a cisgender or heterosexual mold, and so many other lines of class division continue to inflict great harm not only to the individuals targeted but to the well-being of us all.
The continued lack of education regarding labor history and its importance continues in many of our educational institutions, even at the college level, depriving us of the tools and lessons necessary to understand the life that they are about to face.The labor movement as it currently exists here in the United States and in many other nations continues to pale in comparison to what it used to be. It’s easy to face all of these struggles, or even just some, and to think to ourselves that we face an uphill battle so daunting that we feel as if we are completely powerless against the current order.
It’s a very subtle and even intimate form of disempowerment, and it’s one that our bosses exploit all too well even on the shop floor. To believe that the boss is an unquestionable, inalienable authority over the waking half of our lives that we labor for others is very much an emotional and mental aspect of the labor organizing that we do that is not often acknowledged.
As you read these articles, and the issues that came before this one, you help in carrying on the long memory of the working class struggle in this country and many others. Which is why it’s all the more important to remember fondly not just the struggles of the past, but that there is a revolutionary joy to the work that we do here in the present. Our organized power, even in the smallest of expressions, helps change the dynamic of our working lives, and while we recognize that the cause for organized labor is a struggle, it is a struggle which ultimately yields a better life for all who labor under the current system.
There has always been violence, strife and grief when the working class stands up with a straight back and faces its oppressors. Some of the IWW’s biggest strike actions, such as the Lawrence strike, the Patterson Silk strike, and many of our general strikes in the lumber, mining, transportation and agricultural industries that took place in the first two decades of the 20th century all faced significant legal crackdowns, vigilante violence, and capitalist oppression against the union.
However, the Wobblies took these struggles to heart and found ways to fight against pessimism in their ranks. The IWW formed not just an optimistic vision for labor organizing but also a culture of music, speeches, and motivational tactics to galvanize otherwise disheartened workers to stay strong and stay optimistic. Wobblies wrote songs, often starting from old hymns used by religious groups such as the Salvation Army, and changed the lyrics to improve morale, spread the message of working class solidarity and to poke fun at the pro-capitalist religious hypocrisy of the day.
Local labor halls hosted dances, benefits and fundraisers to build community support and mutual aid in times of need. “Free speech fights” against local laws banning public speaking in favor of the IWW or “radicalism” often drew police violence, but even when those brave speakers were hauled off by the police and thrown into jail for “disorderly conduct” or “attempting to provoke a riot,” they continued their speech fights in jail by resisting the demoralizing tactics of their wardens and educating their fellow prisoners of the labor struggle outside those iron bars. The workers knew full well that such violence was to be expected, but with a red card in their hands and with the hope for a future worth living in their hearts, they continued onward. By looking back on the great work that we have done in the past, as workers collectively looking out for one another and demanding better wages, hours and conditions, we can see some of the greatest lessons that history has ever told, lessons which often go untaught in our public education institutions or even in our own homes.
Even in the current era of COVID, armed conflict and class struggle, many of these same lessons are continuing to be repeated. Many of the major organizing campaigns and strikes that we see today are not just a reflection of the ones previous but a new chapter of the labor movement, one where the values of the IWW continue to be expanded, even in the trade unions. Our struggles are the same, though the battlefield is set in a different year and in a different place. So too, is the suffering at the hands of the police, of private security agencies and intelligence services, and of the boss who clings onto what power they have over workers in their shops. The despair of the past is the despair of the present, yet the same revolutionary passion for an organization of labor to the benefit of the workers and not the owner has been the one torchlight that has kept us warm.
What do I mean when I say that we must embrace revolutionary joy? It is simple: that the struggle to create a new world in the ashes of the old is worth suffering for, even though that suffering is very real and not deserved, and the new world that we are attempting to create is one where working class joy is placed at the center.
Joy, in this sense, is the organized power and play of workers to shape the world around them in such a way that they reap the full fruits of their labor, the joy that is found at the abolition of capitalism and the bosses as oppressive forces that hold back our organized productive power, of seeking a future where separation on the basis of race, sex and class are impossible both in the shop and the neighborhood. Joy is found in the revitalization of a working class culture that is conscious, motivated and fights against the apathy that the bosses and capitalists depend on to stay safe and unchallenged.
After all, is there not joy to be found in the intimate, “forbidden” one-on-one conversations that we have with our fellow workers about how little we are paid, how poor the conditions, how long the hours and how cruel the boss? Is there not joy in every direct action, whether by slowing down, working to the exact rules of the workplace or by the strike? Is there not joy in union victory, whether by solidarity or by vote? Is there not joy in spreading the revolutionary message that the world as it is and has been should not always be? That a better arrangement of our labor and our daily lives — indeed the whole world — is achievable and at the tip of our fingertips, should we collectively act in its favor? That answer can be found by your hands, fellow workers, just as it has in the hands of workers past. Demoralization and disillusionment are a dry rot in any organization, but by offering support to our fellow workers in need, providing aid for the unemployed and houseless, and getting involved in organizing, we craft a potent tonic against it. When we sing our songs, walk off the job and take up the picket and agitate others to join us, we find a common happiness in our solidarity. While we bear the weight of the world on our shoulders as the workers who made it, we know from our past that every step we take is a step in the path to a better world.