Rebecca Friedrichs Speaks at UC Davis: Sacramento Wobblies and YDSA at UC Davis Respond

Written by X389468
Pictures by a Fellow Worker

The Davis College Republicans was the organization which invited Rebecca Friedrichs, shown in the image above. Rebecca Friedrichs is the fourth individual from the right.

Typically May Day is a day where leftists and union folks of all stripes get together and remember both martyrs for the labor movement and the gains that have been made since the Haymarket Affair well over a hundred years ago; however, there are certainly folks who neither understand nor appreciate the significance of May Day or of the labor movement in general. The Davis College Republicans chose to mark May Day by arguing against unions in their May 1st general meeting and then by inviting Rebecca Friedrichs to speak at UC Davis on May 7th. Rebecca Friedrichs was a teacher in Orange County, California who became a right-wing activist after her suit against her own teachers’ union for their use of fair share fees went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2015 and provided precedent for the Janus decision, which ended fair share fees for all public sector unions. Admittedly the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) doesn’t employ fair share fees and is thus virtually unaffected by the Janus decision, but any attack on unions is our concern. Members of the Sacramento local of the IWW and the UC Davis chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) decided to attend the speech out of solidarity with the locals on the UC Davis campus and to learn more about the anti-union movement. Various other unions on the UC Davis campus expressed support for our action, but ultimately did not decide to attend.

What followed can probably be best described as a rambling, vitriolic presentation where Friedrichs aired all of her grievances against her fellow unionized workers and against a society that found her expression of her particular political and religious beliefs mildly distasteful. She depicted unions, and her teachers’ union in particular, as an all-powerful institution that not only possessed the power to hire and fire, but also the power to determine wages and working conditions at will without input from the administration overseeing the schools. In her estimation, the union’s inability to improve working conditions for the teachers according to the desires of the rank-and-file was purely because the union had something against its dues-paying members and not because the union is forced to negotiate with the administration and doesn’t immediately get whatever it wants on a silver platter. Friedrichs claims to have been a leader in the union at one point; perhaps she ought to have been on the bargaining team and seen firsthand the difficulties even the most conservative unions face in negotiating with the boss.

However, her complaints concerning her union’s inability to deliver for its rank-and-file members were not the sole focus of her speech. She also attacked her union for supporting the Democratic Party financially and for holding liberal politics in general. She complained that she wasn’t allowed to put flyers for her conservative events in her fellow teachers’ mailboxes and accused union leadership of being “haters” and “bullies” for objecting to her using her socially conservative views to undermine the union. Friedrichs also expressed outrage over changes to the schooling system, especially in the sciences. She accused the teachers’ union of rewriting science to suit their political agenda, and her choice example was Amendment 19 to the section B-55 of the standards regarding science education, which essentially said the exact same thing as the original text but in different language.

Image depicting the offending amendment to the science education standards. Note the similarities between the deleted yellow text and the added green text.

And if that complaint wasn’t pedantic enough, Friedrichs also took objection to the teachers’ union forming a partnership with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in tracking incidents of discrimination and such hatred in schools. Friedrichs’ argument was that the SPLC is a liberal institution that targets conservatives out of spite and to score political points. She then proceeded to post a list of groups she claimed were defined by the SPLC as hate groups.

Some of the groups Rebecca Friedrichs claims were on the hate group list generated by the SPLC. Some of these would be amazing, if true.

And if that wasn’t enough, Friedrichs accused the teachers’ union of corrupting children and forcing them to become “social justice warriors” through specialized classes instead of learning math and science. She condemned the student walkouts over gun violence and the student response to Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, saying that teachers were the reason that students were out protesting and implying that children are unable to form political opinions of their own (unless those opinions are conservative ones, of course). The hypocrisy is also evident when she condemns teachers for being activists, mostly by supporting their own union, and yet admits that she herself is an activist and encourages others to become the same. Friedrichs also objected to parents bringing their children to picket lines when their unions are on strike, suggesting that such folks are being bad parents by showing their children what a strike looks like.

At some point, Friedrichs stopped complaining about the teachers’ union, her fellow workers, Democrats, social justice warriors, and the “hecklers” in the back (our existence in the same general area constituted heckling, apparently) long enough to articulate an example of what she wanted to see in the world. What she was interested in primarily was charter schools; specifically, what she wanted was more “choice” in where students would go to school. Choice sounds good on the surface, but Friedrichs’ mask slipped slightly when she mentioned that part of the reason she supported charter schools was because the teachers were not unionized. Of course, once this fact was mentioned, she quickly went back to complaining about how the teachers’ union opposed charter schools, clearly not understanding why teachers with union jobs would not want to have non-union teacher jobs moving into their state and also failing to realize why private education might be a bad idea, especially for working-class families.

Those of us who attended the speech had been extremely polite throughout this trying presentation, including through some interruptions where Friedrichs objected to us showing support for certain concepts by snapping our fingers and called us “haters” and “bullies” for daring to hold an opinion different from hers and breathe in the same room. There was the opportunity for questions, and we were allowed one formal question. Considering much of her objection to her union was due to its authoritarian structure and close relationship with political parties, we decided to ask that if she discovered that there was a union with no political ties, rank-and-file decentralized leadership, and low dues if she would join that union. She answered with an empathetic “Yes!”, and that was when those of us who were Wobblies chose to reveal ourselves as members of the IWW and suggested that she join us. She had not been expecting that and promptly launched into a tirade where she chastised us for being “bullies” and declared that she would never join an organization with “bullies” in it. That makes it pretty clear that her objection to unions isn’t merely the structure of the union or the nature of its political ties, but the existence of people who don’t bend to her every ideological whim within that union. It’s probably just as well, she most likely would not like the IWW very much.

Rebecca Friedrichs standing in front of her presentation. At this point, she is discussing what she sees as intrusions of liberal propaganda into the school system and the teachers’ union.

All things considered, it was an informative event, though one that was also deeply frustrating. People like Rebecca Friedrichs do not understand the value of unions, but rather see them as a tool to promote their own political agenda. Friedrichs’ vision of an ideal form of unionism is somewhat reminiscent of the craft unions of old, with multitudes of tiny locals for each individual trade that don’t communicate with each other and are full of like-minded individuals. Of course, there’s a reason why we don’t have craft unionism anymore (hint: it’s much easier to destroy a bunch of tiny unions that don’t stand in solidarity with each other than One Big Union). I believe, however, that the lesson would be lost on Friedrichs. On the other hand, some of the attendees were less set in their ways and had a slightly different view of the world. Perhaps one day they will come to realize that not all unions are like business unions, and that even business unions are better than nothing at all, which is what people like Rebecca Friedrichs would ultimately reduce us down to if they get their way. ⯁

The Importance of Song in The Industrial Workers of the World

By X389468

On the left is the second verse of the song "Workers of the World, Awaken!"  To the right is a stylized picture of Joe Hill.
The above excerpt is taken from the song “Workers of the World, Awaken!” written and composed by Joe Hill. Joe Hill was murdered by the state of Utah for a crime he did not commit on November 19th, 1915.

Over the years, IWW members have written hundreds of songs. These range from the ever-popular “Solidarity Forever” to more forgettable numbers such as “There’s A Bright Way To Freedom” or “When You Wear That Button”. Some are still sung today, though many languish unsung between the pages of an old edition of the Little Red Songbook – and no doubt a good number have passed from collective memory altogether. More songs are being written today, and only time will tell which category they will fall into as the years pass. Song is given a spotlight in the IWW that it isn’t given in other unions, or even other leftist organizations. But what makes song so important to the IWW?

The answer, perhaps, can be seen in the content of the songs themselves. It is well-known among activists that chants and music can serve to raise morale and maintain unity in tense situations. However, song in the IWW was used not only to keep up morale on the picket line, but was also used to recruit new members, point out flaws in broader society, and maintain collective memory. There are also songs that outlined tactics workers could use in their workplaces – sabotage being a particularly popular theme – and songs that poke fun at individuals and organizations. Song, in other words, was one of the IWW’s strongest rhetorical tools and one of the primary means by which the Wobblies expressed the IWW way of doing things.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the range of IWW songs is to give some examples. The songwriter Ralph Chaplin is best known for “Solidarity Forever”, which has since spread outside IWW circles, but he was also one of the IWW’s more prolific songwriters and wrote many other pieces. Among these was the song entitled “That Sabo-Tabby Kitten”, which as the title suggests is about sabotage. Unlike earlier songs that touched upon the subject, “That Sabo-Tabby Kitten” gives a name to the tactic and gives a full-throated endorsement of it. The second verse and chorus of the song are as follows:

The boss has cream for his lordly dinner,
Feed him milk and make him thinner!
Hurry now! Wonder how? MEOW – SABOTAGE!
If you are down and the boss is gloating,
Trust in me instead of voting.
Hurry now! Wonder how? MEOW – SABOTAGE!

Chorus:
O, the rats all hate and fear me; meow! MEOW!
The softest paw can be a CLAW!
They seldom venture near me.
Hurrah! They saw your Sabo-tabby kitten!

Curiously enough, this song wasn’t used as evidence against the IWW in the Chicago trial of 1918 and instead the more anecdotal “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay” was used as evidence of the IWW’s promotion of sabotage. As a result, “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay” was removed from the Little Red Songbook. “That Sabo-Tabby Kitten” can be found in the current edition of the Little Red Songbook.

Joe Hill is perhaps the most famous songwriter in the IWW, primarily because he was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 for a double murder he didn’t commit but also because he was a very prolific and talented songwriter. He is most well known for his song “The Preacher and the Slave”, which introduced the phrase “pie in the sky” to the American vocabulary (but it had a very different meaning in the song than it does in modern speech). He also wrote “Casey Jones The Union Scab”, “Where the Frasier River Flows”, and “Mr. Block” among other songs. The song “What We Want” is one of the few IWW songs that mentions workers by their specific craft and is a good example of an IWW recruiting song. The second verse and chorus are as follows:

We want the sailor and the tailor and the lumberjacks,
And all the cooks and laundry girls,
We want the guy that dives for pearls,
The pretty maid that’s making curls,
And the baker and the staker and the chimneysweep,
We want the man that’s slinging hash,
The child that works for little cash,
In one union grand.

Chorus:
Come all ye toilers that work for wages,
Come from every land,
Join the fighting band,
In one union grand,
Then for the workers we’ll make upon this earth a paradise
When the slaves get wise and organize.

This song is a classic IWW recruiting song – not only because it encourages all workers from every trade and every skill level to join the union, but because it makes specific mention of foreigners “from every land”, women, and children. The IWW was remarkable at its founding for being the first fully integrated union, both along racial and gender lines, but even now some of the principles set forward in this song are revolutionary. In particular, the idea of organizing children into a union is radical and almost unheard of in the modern day labor movement.

Not all songs were written by Wobblies who wished to have their names known. A great many were written anonymously, such as “Fifty Thousand Lumberjacks” and “The Workers’ Marseillaise”, and more songwriters used pseudonyms or only their last name. One of these songs was “Overalls and Snuff”, a song that has been quite forgotten today but is an example of a Wobbly attempt to maintain collective memory. The song was written following the Wheatland Hop Riots of 1913 and the subsequent imprisonment of “Blackie” Ford and Henry Suhr on bogus charges. The last three verses of the song are as follows:

They have sentenced Ford and Suhr, and they’ve got them in the pen,
If they catch a wobbly in their burg, they vag him there and then.
There is one thing I can tell you, and it makes the bosses sore,
As fast as they can pinch us, we can always get some more.
We can always get some more, we can always get some more,
As fast as they can pinch us, we can always get some more.

Oh, Horst and Durst are mad as hell, they don’t know what to do,
And the rest of those hop barons are all feeling mighty blue.
Oh, we’ve tied up all their hop fields, and the scabs refuse to come,
And we’re going to keep on striking till we put them on the bum.
Till we put them on on the bum, till we put them on the bum,
And we’re going to keep on striking till we put them on the bum.

Now we’ve got to stick together, boys, and strive with all our might,
We must free Ford and Suhr, boys, we’ve got to win this fight.
From these scissorbill hop barons we are taking no more bluff,
We’ll pick no more damned hops for them, for overalls and snuff,
For our overalls and snuff, for our overalls and snuff,
We’ll pick no more damned hops for them, for overalls and snuff.

Aside from using a great deal of Wobbly jargon and some mild swearing in the last verse, the song served to both galvanize IWW members to make an effort to free Ford and Suhr from jail and to remind folks about what the bosses did to their fellow workers. The song no doubt fell out of use entirely once Ford and Suhr were released from jail in the mid-1920s, but it still retains historical interest today and it’s a pretty good song in the author’s opinion. Should any IWW members or others wish to revive this song, it would serve fairly well as a morale booster especially at an event that involves civil disobedience.

This is far from a thorough accounting of the types of songs that were written by Wobblies, or even of the songwriters who could be found in the pages of the Little Red Songbook. However, this hopefully does provide some inkling of the level of importance song had in the IWW and the sheer number of songs that were produced by IWW members over the years.

A History of the IWW: Encounters With The Law

A giant bell labeled IWW The One Big Union is stubbornly ringing despite the efforts of the army, police, capitalists, and priests to stop it by holding on to its clapper.
A cartoon from the One Big Union Monthly suggesting that the entire might of the government and the capitalist class weren’t enough to stop the IWW. In some ways, they were right.

If you have ever looked at the history of the IWW, chances are you’ve noticed that IWW members get arrested and end up in jail a lot. The most famous stretch of time where large concentrations of Wobblies ended up in America’s jails is during and just after the First World War, but even before then Wobblies had a habit of finding themselves in a jail cell for some very interesting reasons. The following summaries are taken from the Sacramento Bee:

May 31, 1907 – “Smith Jokes on Way to Prison”
Joseph Smith, one of two Wobblies convicted of the murder of Nevada sheriff Silva, jokes about starting an IWW local in the prison to IWW organizer Vincent St. John on his way to the train. I’m sure he’d be pleasantly surprised to find that since then the IWW has indeed started several locals in prisons through IWOC. Then again, perhaps he wouldn’t be surprised and instead would be wondering what has taken the IWW so long to start organizing prisons.

November 5, 1909 – “More Orators Taken to Jail”
In the midst of the Spokane free speech fight, a number of IWW orators are taken to jail and fire hoses are turned on the crowd that had gathered to listen to “the IWWs” speak. The IWW responds to these events with a parody of the preamble to the IWW constitution, which reads: “The IWWs and the police have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as the police use clubs and hose and the IWW uses pen and tongue. Between these two a struggle must go on until the IWW civilizes the police.” At that point, you might as well go all the way and write “[b]etween these two a struggle must go on until the IWW abolishes the police and the capitalist class and lives in harmony with the rest of humanity.”

October 8, 1910 – “Eight More of Orators Jailed”
During the Fresno free speech fight, Fresno police decide to provoke a crowd and a “free-for-all fight with the Fresno police” ensues. In the end, eight IWW speakers get arrested and added to the city’s collection of “Industrialists” in the local Fresno jail. I mean, if you’re going to arrest people for street speaking and antagonize the crowd while you’re at it, you deserve to be punched in the face.

December 27, 1912 – “IWW Workers Jailed”
Members of the Denver IWW local, Frank Jacob and Arthur Rice, are arrested for allegedly “directing offensive language at the police”. This actually says a lot more about the police than it does about either FW Frank Jacob or FW Arthur Rice.

August 4, 1913 – “IWW Sent To Jail For Contempt”
Alfonzo Shortell, a member of the Sacramento IWW, was arrested for allegedly attacking a cigar man for not agreeing with him on “IWW propaganda”. Upon appearing in court, Shortell informed the judge that he wasn’t going to get any justice in the court, which the judge took issue with and promptly sentenced him to 24 hours in the jail for contempt of court. I’m pretty certain this proves Shortell right, but I guess the judge has to preserve his dignity somehow.

November 21, 1913 – “IWW Gives Police of Marysville Hard Fight”
William Thompson, an IWW member in Marysville, picked a fight in a saloon and “ran amuck”. It took three police half an hour to arrest Thompson because he was a large man, over six feet tall, and kept fighting them. There’s a weird amount of admiration for Thompson’s exploits in this article – Thompson would probably have been called a hero if he wasn’t an IWW member and he wasn’t fighting the police.

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From the Archives: On Being Happy

By Robert Whitaker
An image of two men shaking hand in front of a picture of the world with the IWW label in front and the words "workers of the world unite!" underneath the label.  The three stars "education", "emancipation", and "organization" surround the men.  The picture is captioned "an injury to one an injury to all".
An image that appeared in the One Big Union Monthly in 1920.

This poem appeared in the October 1925 edition of the Industrial Pioneer. Note that this was written before the Great Depression.

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How can a man be happy when the world is so awry?
When strong men beg for work to do and unfed millions die?
When little children lift their heads and plead in vain for bread?
How can a man be happy if he isn’t worse than dead?

What if the fates have favored us and we have bread to spare;
A decent roof to shelter us, and what we need to wear;
And friends to love, and work to do, and joys we cannot tell;
How can a man be happy when his brothers live in hell?

Alas for those who are content with preachments, prayers, and psalms;
With nicely ordered charities, or with spasdomic alms;
Alas for creeds, and cults, and schools, describe them as you will,
That make us self-complacent if we only have our fill.

It isn’t outright wickedness that wreaks the human race;
It’s the shallow, selfish goodness that we glorify apace;
Our mean self-help philosophies, our honor and success;
Our skill at being happy when the world is in distress.

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From the Archives: Wobbles

Cover of the February 1921 edition of the Industrial Pioneer.

The name ‘Wobbly’ lends to quite a few pun opportunities. One of the more ingenious of these can be found within the pages of the Industrial Pioneer, a monthly IWW publication that ran from 1921-1926. The Industrial Pioneer introduced a humor section, and labeled it ‘Wobbles’ – I’m sure the masterminds behind that were very pleased with themselves. In any case, the ‘Wobbles’ appeared in almost every edition of the Industrial Pioneer, displaying a wry sense of humor unique to the IWW. The following are some pieces taken from some of the earlier sets of ‘Wobbles’:

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Old Ezry Eggins, who is trucking down at the warehouse, still complains about the high cost of living, but he has some hopes for the near future; he says labor has gone down to where it’s purty reasonable.

Landlady: Is it not a fright – the price of laundry these days?
Roomer: I’ll say so.
Landlady: I used to give new roomers clean sheets – but now I just take clean roomers!

The reason budding artists paint in the nude is because they haven’t money enough to buy clothes with.

It is said that exponents of Einstein’s theory are able to explain what happens what would happen if an irresistible force were to meet an immovable body. Will they please tell us what effect the approaching revolution will have on the man who still thinks this country is governed according to the wishes of the people?

In 1904, the average power used by each industrial worker was two and one half horsepower. In 1920 he used three and one half horsepower. By the end of 1922, it is predicted that he will be using some headpower.

Perhaps after all the fifteen [American Legion] members that kidnapped Kate Richards O’Hare from Twin Falls, Idaho, were only playing a little game of Hare and Hounds.

We must heed the [American Legion’s] claim of having accomplished a 500,000 organization drive. Numbers lend needed courage when it comes to kidnapping a woman.

The Case For Propaganda

by X389468

Advert with a title that reads "Loaded for Bear" and suggests that an IWW member with the right kind of literature can stand against anyone - even a bear.
An advert that appeared in the One Big Union Monthly recommending that Wobblies carry some IWW leaflets with them at all times for organizing purposes.

It’s no secret that the IWW has seen better days. At one time, our membership was in the hundreds of thousands and we appeared to be on the verge of becoming the voice of “unskilled” labor. Vicious government repression over several years put an end to that, and instead we were forced to fight for our very survival. Obviously we are still here, but we have not yet regained the same recognition and influence that we had a hundred years ago. Now the question is how to regain that which we lost during the First Red Scare a hundred years ago.

There has been a lot of speculation around what caused the decline of the IWW after 1917. The factor that immediately comes to mind is government repression, which was certainly a large part of it. But the people who ended up getting arrested and left in prison to rot were also a factor in and of themselves. Though the IWW prides itself on being an organization that doesn’t truly have leaders, there are certainly individuals who have more influence than others. Those individuals in particular were targeted by the government to effectively remove them from the equation and stop them from providing their skills and experience to the union. By the end of the Red Scare, the union was bereft of much of its leadership and became vulnerable to infighting. This resulted in the split of 1924, which reduced the union to a shadow of its former self.

So, what now? The vast majority of the American public has forgotten that the IWW ever existed, and those who do remember tend to think the IWW died out sometime in the 1920’s, never to be resurrected. Imagine their surprise to find out we do in fact exist and are ready to help organize them! This is what makes propaganda important. The early IWW was fond of using soapboxes and aggressive leafleting campaigns that ensured everyone in the United States and Canada who didn’t live under a rock knew of the IWW. It is, after all, much easier to organize people who know that the union exists in the first place. And when newspapers all over the country started picking up on this new threat to capitalism, the soapboxing and leaflets provided a different narrative from the one the capitalists were pushing. It’s harder to lie about an organization who consistently and thoroughly educates the public about its purpose and goals (of course, the capitalists managed to do that anyway through censorship of IWW materials, but that’s a different story). Perhaps, then, we can build our union to new strength by taking a leaf out of their book and making propaganda a central part of our activities alongside workplace organizing.

Recent studies have shown that the millennials as a generation are very interested in unions and union organizing, but the rise of the modern gig economy and the decline of union jobs are making it difficult for millennials to join a business union. This is where the IWW has the potential to gain a multitude of dedicated organizers, provided that we are willing to put forth the effort to make ourselves known to them. Being a solidarity union with a plan to end the exploitation of the working class does no good if nobody knows we exist or think that we vanished following World War One. So, let us make sure they know about us. Let’s grab piles of flyers and paste them all over the local university. Let’s host events with speakers and free food and talk about solidarity unionism and how to fight back against cruel bosses. Let’s use the power of the internet to tell people exactly who we are and how we can fight for the honest working people of all countries. This way, even an IWW member who isn’t currently organizing their workplace can help advance the cause and bring more people to the union. And as an answer to the ills of capitalism and business unions, it would be a dereliction of duty on our part to not try to spread our message as far and wide as we can. So let’s start making posters and distributing leaflets like the General Strike is going to happen tomorrow. We’ve got nothing to lose and a world to gain.

From the Archives: Escaped!

Large IWW poster depicting a man behind bars who is pointing at the viewer.  The poster is labeled with the words "Fellow Workers: Remember!  We are in here for you, you are out there for us."
An IWW poster dating from the first Red Scare, also known as the White Terror. This poster was designed to inspire Wobblies who were still on the outside to continue to organize and fight back against those who wanted to stamp out the movement.

This poem was written by Ralph Chaplain and published in the Industrial Pioneer in 1923. As a side note, the term used at the time for an escaping prisoner is “wildcat”.

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A man has fled…! We clutch the bars and wait;
The corridors are empty, tense, and still;
A silver mist has dimmed the distant hill;
The guards have gathered at the prison gate
Then suddenly the “wildcat” blares its hate
Like some mad Moloch screaming for the kill;
Shattering the air with terror loud and shrill,
The dim, gray walls become articulate.

But Freedom! Freedom is not there nor here!
In those far cities men can only find
A vaster prison and a redder hell,
O’ershadowed by new wings of greater fear.
Brave fool, for such a world to leave behind
The iron sanctuary of a cell!

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From the Archives: The Origin of the Term “Wobbly”

Poster with the IWW globe reading from top to bottom:  IWW / One Big Union Of All The Workers / The Greatest Thing On Earth
An old IWW poster.

The following is an excerpt from a letter written by Mortimer Downing in the year 1923 and was published in the Industrial Pioneer, an IWW monthly paper.

“How ‘Wobbly’ Originated”

“Up in Vancouver, in 1911, we had a number of Chinese members, and one restaurant keeper would trust any member for meals. He could not pronounce the letter ‘w’, but called it ‘wobble,’ and would ask: “You. I. Wobble Wobble?” and when the card was shown credit was unlimited. Thereafter the laughing term among us was “I. Wobbly Wobbly,” and when Herman Suhr, during the Wheatland strike, wired for all foot-loose “Wobblies” to hurry there, of course the prosecution made a mountain of mystery out of it, and the term has stuck to us ever since. Considering its origin, I rather like the nickname. It hints of a fine, practical internationalism, a human brotherhood based on a community of interests and understanding.”

Commentary on “How ‘Wobbly’ Originated”

It has been said to me before that we’ll likely never know the true origin of the word ‘Wobbly’, but this particular story tends to be the one that is told in the history books whenever the enigmatic nickname is discussed. It’s a fun story, especially with the addition of the authorities getting ahold of telegrams using the term ‘Wobbly’ and getting confused. I can just imagine the prosecutor in the court room demanding that the IWW members on trial explain what this word ‘Wobbly’ means with the same confusion that I am greeted with by most people (including some leftists) when I refer to myself as a Wobbly. Entire essays could be written on the meaning of the term, but the question I want to try to answer is ‘why?’

As we are all aware, “Industrial Workers of the World” is a bit of a mouthful, and even “IWW member” is a bit long – nine syllables long to be exact. An earlier nickname for IWW members was the term ‘Industrialist’, but that no doubt fell into disfavor because you could confuse an honest, decent worker with a greedy boss who exploits those who work in factories. In short, the IWW needed an endearing nickname that isn’t long enough to exhaust someone before they finish saying it. ‘Wobbly’ – whatever its origins – fit the bill.

Of course, ‘Wobbly’ also lends itself very well to puns. It would not surprise me if the Wobblies of long ago chose to use the term because they could make bad jokes to the amusement of their fellow workers. When Fellow Worker Suhr wrote the telegram that eventually fell into the hands of the prosecution for his case, ‘Wobbly’ was likely an inside joke understood only by a particular part of the union. But once the authorities started picking it apart and newspapers picked up on it, the term spread like wildfire. The first mention of the word ‘Wobbly’ that I could find outside of IWW publications was a Sacramento Bee article covering the Wheatland Hop Riot trials and Suhr’s telegram. After that article, the word pops up several times, alongside such names and nicknames as “I Won’t Workers” and “Sab Cats”. All things considered, the origin of the word ‘Wobbly’ is quite interesting and I’m quite proud to call myself one (even if folks don’t understand what I’m talking about at first!)

History of the Sacramento IWW: “Building a Battleship”

Old IWW poster showing a man behind bars looking at the viewer and saying "Fellow Workers: Remember!  We are in here for you; you are out there for us."
An old IWW poster made in response to the large numbers of Wobblies who were being arrested and thrown in jail as part of a federal crackdown on the IWW.

As of November 28, 1918, the Sacramento local of the IWW is for the most part languishing in jail. However, in typical IWW fashion their spirits remain unbroken and they continue to be problems for the law and for everyone within earshot. The Sacramento IWW in particular decided to employ a technique called “building a battleship”, which is as far as this author is aware unique to the Sacramento local.

As one journalist in the Sacramento Bee describes the situation in the Sacramento City Jail where the Wobblies are being held, “curses, yells, pounding on the cells with anything that they can lay their hands on, and the singing of their IWW hymns” are done day and night, much to the annoyance of the prison guards, the other inmates, and anyone within earshot of the Sacramento City Jail. This had, in fact, been done ever since their arrests in the December of the previous year and had only been getting louder and rowdier as the trial grew closer.

The term “building a battleship” comes from the call that is given by a Wobbly when they want their fellow workers to start banging on the iron bars of their cells, thus making the most noise possible. The same journalist notes that the cry “build a battleship” can be heard in the Sacramento City Jail usually around five times a day. The noise is so loud that the protests of the other inmates are drowned out and the sheriffs are forced to stop their work until the battleship ends.

The purpose of “building a battleship” wasn’t just to be annoying and to stick it to the law, but to also encourage their jailers to rough up the IWW members before their trial. The logic was that if the IWW members showed up with black eyes, bruising, and such that the jury and judge would be more sympathetic. Of course, there was little the Sacramento local could have done to avoid getting the book thrown at them, but that’s another story.

This article is based on information taken from the November 28, 1918 edition of the Sacramento Bee.

History of the Sacramento IWW: Alleged Shenanigans

Shows a wooden shoe labeled "sabotage" crushing a snake labeled "exploitation".  The caption below reads "Don't wear sabots, it hurts the snake."
A sarcastic IWW cartoon from the 1910s.

The following are all summaries of articles that appeared in the Sacramento Bee:

October 24, 1913 – A verbal fight breaks out between a socialist speaker and some “IWW elements” that apparently needed the presence of two police officers. It’s probably for the best that the panicked citizens of Sacramento lived before Twitter existed.

July 20, 1914 – Hop growers are afraid that the IWW is plotting to destroy and kill and are begging for the protection of the state. It’s far more likely that they actually fear their hop fields being organized right out from under them, but murder and violence sound better.

July 21, 1914 – Don D. Scott, a member of the Sacramento IWW local, is forced to explain that the IWW isn’t planning on carrying “on a campaign of violence, murder, and well poisoning during the coming hop season” after another local IWW is overheard making a joke about stocking up on rifles to protect against the bosses’ hired guns. The Sacramento local probably should have invested in a giant sign with those exact words since this won’t be the last time they have to say this.

November 8, 1915 – The IWW is accused of creating an elaborate plot to set parts of California on fire as revenge for Ford and Suhr being thrown in jail for “starting” the Wheatland Hop Riots. This is, of course, a state that tends to be on fire at this time of the year for non-IWW reasons.

August 7, 1916 – C.I. Lambert, the then-secretary of the Sacramento IWW, is accused of receiving a letter from the alleged dynamiter Mooney asking for “direct action reds” to make their way down to San Francisco. A ‘concerned citizen’ takes offense at the idea that “bomb-throwing anarchists” would exist in Sacramento and suggests they should all be suppressed immediately. Again, it is likely for the best that the ‘concerned citizen’ lived before the advent of social media; the first guillotine joke they come across would probably give them an aneurysm.

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