When I came to this country, I worked the copper mines in Butte
I was a gandy dancer in Spokane in a gandy dancer suit
I heard the Rebel Girl speak one night in a railway yard
I joined the union right away and got my first red card
Became a hobo organizer for the One Big Union grand
Preaching the Wobbly gospel across this starving land
The Industrial Workers of the World is a movement with perhaps unparalleled significance in US history, and in terms of what it represented politically in the early twentieth century in particular. Still significant as a contemporary organization, but most especially as a historical phenomenon and as an idea, the notions of solidarity, the goals, and organizing methods of the IWW are of vital importance for our world’s future.
The IWW was a groundbreaking phenomenon from its inception because of its radical inclusivity as a union for the entirety of the working class, regardless of profession, country, race, gender, or any of the other things that divide the international working class. It continues to be guided by the same orientation. Though there are inevitably other types of thinking to be found within the ranks as well, due to its history of radical inclusion, it’s a harder environment for divide-and-conquer types to find a solid footing.
Beyond the IWW’s radical inclusivity, many other things stand out. From the beginning, at all levels of the organization — and beyond, among the many supporters and fellow-travelers who may or may not have ever carried a red card — there was a massive emphasis on using art, music, and theater as some of the most important tools for organizing and educating people, inspiring them to action, for fostering and sustaining community solidarity, and as part of the process of creating a new society within the shell of the old.
The history of the absolutely tremendous, nationally-coordinated repression against the IWW throughout the US in the years during and following World War 1 saw the effective evisceration of the union. With their union halls largely burned down, so many members deported or framed on false charges, and the entire leadership in prison or in exile, surviving members of the IWW often went on to join other organizations that had at least some shared goals with the IWW.
To provide just a hint of an idea about just how big the IWW once was, and how comparatively small it became after the FBI’s campaign against the union, well into the 21st century, the IWW, still based in Chicago, was using membership cards they had left over from the 1920’s, which were almost a century old.
To my own thinking, the IWW’s organizing methodology, and its goals for a society run by workers, trying to implement the once-popular syndicalist notion of a world of unions and cooperatives, is the closest thing to a basic blueprint for the way forward that I’ve ever seen.
I’m far from the only one to think so. The IWW and the syndicalist movement more broadly around the world which has often shared a lot in common with the IWW (often not by accident) continue to inspire, and indeed, societies today that are dominated by unions and cooperatives, broadly speaking, are some of the happiest and most prosperous ones you’ll find.
My friend Utah Phillips was probably the single individual most responsible for keeping alive the memory of the IWW during the latter half of the twentieth century. He traveled all over the US during much of that time, singing his own brilliant songs as well as those of Joe Hill, T-Bone Slim, Mac McClintock, and the many other songwriters who applied their skills as Wobbly musicians in the early twentieth century. He made many recordings, such as “Utah Phillips Sings the Songs and Tells the Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World.”
I have also endeavored to write songs and share stories about the IWW — its history, its ideas, and their relevance today. Below we have two playlists. The first consists of songs about the union and its history. The second consists of podcasts I’ve recorded that are related to the ideas or history of the IWW. Most of these podcasts can also be found in written form under the same title on Substack.