(Libertarian #2, September 1958 - Ian Bedford)
"The Bosses Own the Earth. You Only Own Your Labour Power.
Organize to Control It and the Earth is Yours. Wage Slaves,
Wear Your Wooden Shoes."
The Industrial Workers of the World are remembered for their showing in America; their deeds were part of the potent American legend written by Dos Passes and others into the early years of this century. I.W.W. clubs appeared after 1907 in Australian industrial towns; from then until their eclipse at the close of the First World War, the wobblies were both the spearhead and bane of trade union movement. The events of that decade have been conveniently played down since by most historians, of the right and left.
The effective Labour movement in Australia declined: with the growth of a political party to represent the claims of Labour in legislative peace and quiet. If you accept this viewpoint, the work of the I.W.W. is seen then as a last attempt by certain of the unions to organize themselves industrially and dynamically to destroy capitalism, before too many of the champions of Labour were diverted into parliamentary debate. The I.W.W. had no time for politicians, particularly Labour politicians:
"You fat-headed toilers did not imagine when you sent your reps, to Parliament, that they slept on the floor of the House, while your problems were being discussed.
"Yesterday's Herald says so, anyhow, and also tells you unblushingly, that £12 a week is not enough to your politicians a 'doss:'
"They haven't the price to buy a decent 'flop' outside, and so it seems your legislators, on Wednesday night, in YOUR Federal Parliament, indulged in a free-for-all fight as to which of YOUR representatives possessed this pillow or that blanket.
"Why don't you buy them all blankets and pillows, Mr. Political Actionist? Let'em sleep like you are doing."
I.W.W. precepts were formulated in America, and adopted without innovation by the Australian locals. The I.W.W. preamble, drawn up in Chicago, stated simply the existence of the class struggle, and what the workers should do about it. "These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization framed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all." After parliamentarism, the next feature of the established Labour movement which the I.W.W. attacked was the trade unions themselves. Even those unions which attempted to organize more widely than on a craft or single shop basis, such as the Australian Labour Federation, represented "little more than organized scabbery." Different trade unions, responsible in effect to no one but themselves, would pursue their varying policies, and as often as not, clash with each other. The I.W.W. ideal—ideal it always remained— was the One Big Union of all the working class, with delegates at the top level from the six broad departments of industry—Agricultural, Mining, Transport and Communication, Manufacturing, and General Production, Construction, and Public Service—and reaching down in each department through a departmental committee, national industrial unions, and local industrial shop branches perhaps. District councils would cross-cut this system to unite the workers of all departments in the same district. So a single streamlined union would have as its bargaining weapon, for large-scale or local manoeuvres, the whole of the world's labour power.
In Australia, industry and trade unionism grew up at an uneven pace together. In the first part of the 19th century, the main job was in construction and public works, and it was various unions connected with the building trade that had the first successful strikes and secured the 8-Hour Day for themselves in 1856, before anywhere else in the world. There was no machinery for distributing this gain among other workers; the miners continued to battle for it throughout the century. Up till 1890 was a time of increasing prosperity, industry came on at a great rate, and so did the wool clip; so did the trade unions. In the two main fields of Labour, the shearing-shed and the mine, where demands were not granted as readily as to skilled men like the builders, there appeared two formidable unions, the Amalgamated Miners' Association (1872) and the Amalgamated Shearers' Union (1886), whose membership came to include workers connected in a variety of ways with coal and silver-lead mining and the pastoral industry as a whole. These unions were precursors of the I.W.W. They were able to stand up to employers; a miner had to have an A.M.A. badge to get work in Broken Hill, and the 8-hour day became widespread. In self-defence, the employers formed their own unions, but these weren't of much avail in the '80s.
About 1890 the boom came to an end, and the employers could no longer accommodate the demands of the Labour movement. Union militancy was high, and for the next four years, under worsening economic conditions, Labour and Capital engaged in a struggle, in the course of which the A.M.A. was dispersed on the Broken Hill field, and the resistance of the Queensland shearers finally broken down. The Labour Party was formed during this period, and in 1901 the Arbitration Clause (Sec. 51 xxxv) was drafted into the new Commonwealth Constitution. This clause was favoured less by the Labour Party than by those employers who realised the usefulness of a federal authority to wield against the big interstate unions. The pattern of employer-worker combats for the next half-century was thus laid down.
This did not mean that the unions laid off striking and accepted the Arbitration Judge as intermediary, or that union and Labour Party policies have not clashed on many occasions since 1891. But alongside these two institutions, the party and the court, we now have a third which was not evident in early Australian labour history, the tame-cat union. Most unions have ceased to be militant in a country where working conditions are arranged, not in the workshop or the shed, but by legislation, or automatic wage adjustments fixed by the Court, or by a decision of the Court. The biggest single union of the Arbitration Era has been the Australian Workers' Union, successor to the A.S.U., which up to 1912 was confined to the pastoral industry and held its award under the Arbitration Act on this understanding; nevertheless, it began to swallow up other unions, and after a 1912 conference in Sydney became a loose amalgamation of craft unions, containing at the outset nine unions with a total membership of about 100,000. The A.W.U. purported to be an industrial union, but this claim was held in contempt by the I.W.W., who pointed out that it was wedded firmly to the Arbitration Court and paid a great deal of its funds to the Labour Party. One of its leaders in South Australia said that the A.W.L. "was not out to interfere with the employer in his control of industry, but only to bring the 'bad' employer to the level of the 'good' employer." Some unions, such as the Meat Industry Union of Queensland, retained their autonomy within the A.W.U.
After 1901 trade began to pick up again and the manufacturing industries, in particular made great strides. At this stage, with the employers consolidating their newly-won vantage positions, I.W.W. ideas began to be mooted about the unions. The Sydney Labour Council refused to hear a lecture on Industrial Unionism in 1907, and the Executive of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council, while praising the I.W.W. in America, stated that conditions in Australia did not call for a similar organisation. In 1908 the trammies struck in Sydney and the I.W.W. precepts were well enough known at this time for the N.S.W. Labour Premier to lay blame at their door; but there were no wobbly locals founded yet. The Broken Hill miners struck and their leaders were jailed. Next year, the Newcastle miners held the biggest and best organised strike since the 'nineties. The waterside workers, led by Billy Hughes, were in on it. The miners petitioned to deal with their employers direct, but this was refused and Peter Bowling, who lead the miners, decided on a general strike. At this the watersiders withdrew their support. Premier Wade rushed a Bill through the N.S.W Parliament to amend the Industrial Disputes Act, to make strikes in connection with "necessary commodities" illegal and authorise the police to break into any house where a strike meeting was suspected. This was neither the first nor the last of such 'Coercion Acts' in Australia since 1894. The strike leaders were arrested and tried in the Industrial Court, which had no jury and from the rulings of which no appeals were allowed. Bowling and his fellow-leaders got 18 months a piece, and the Coal Strike collapsed. Two years after, the first I.W.W. local received its charter in Adelaide.
Attempts have been made to discover what are termed the national characteristics of Australians. Most these theories make mention of the pioneering days of our history the inland plains being opened up by the bushworkers wandering from squatter to squatter in search of a few days' work. From these are supposed to come the Australian virtues of tolerance, mateship and an easy-going distrust of bosses and (by extension) politicians and theorisers. If all this is true, then the nomadic shearers and backblocks men who were affiliated to the A.S.U. in the nineteenth century and joined the wobblies from 1911 on, should be recognised as the national prototype. The main conscripts to the I.W.W. came from these, and that other source of militant 19th century unionism, the miners. They were the true industrial proletariat of Australia: they didn't have any labour skills, all they had was their labour power.
By 1914 there were four I.W.W. locals, at Sydney Adelaide, Broken Hill and Port Pirie. A split into extremists and political actionists in America had complicated the set-up a bit: the Sydney local was pro-De Leon at first, but with the influx in membership in 1913 it became extremist. The Adelaide local had been so from its inception. The greatest number of locals achieved was twelve, by 1916, there were others at Melbourne, Brisbane, Newcastle, the goldfields in Western Australia, Fremantle, Northern Queensland. Nothing like the ideal organisation was ever achieved— in Australia there were the locals and a General Executive Board of Sydney. The maximum membership was 2,000 and there was a newspaper, "Direct Action," published fortnightly at 330 Castlereagh Street, Sydney. In 1914 its circulation was 16,000.
As has been shown, the concept of a union embracing different types of occupation, was, in Australia, as old as unionism itself. Since 1890 this concept had been given a series of shakes, the last of which was the failure of the Brisbane General Strike in 1912 and the consequent break-up of the union which had existed only in Queensland, but bore the grandiose title, "Australian Labour Federation." We may suppose that the I.W.W. derived its initial impact, not just from its aims nor yet from the organisational scheme by which it hoped to secure them, but by the very simplicity and elegance with which it stated precepts which were red meat to many an old time unionist:
" . . .The truth dawns on us that all social relations, all institutions, all political parties, are but a reflex of the economic system that prevails; that only a militant working-class organised on sound lines, at the point of production, and carrying the fight on IN THE INDUSTRIES, can bring about emancipation from wage slavery."
And, " . . .Arbitration recognises the right of the employer to share in the product of labour, and the power of the Court to decide some conditions in an industry it does not understand.
"The I.W.W. holds that there is nothing to arbitrate about.
"The I.W.W. holds that any understanding between workers and employers is only an armistice, to be broken, when convenient, by either side. The Employing Class, as a whole, has always recognised and acted up to this. Only the working class have been foolish enough to keep on their side of contracts."
The I.W.W. emphasis on immediacy, on forthright action in the here-and-now, its justification of no-holds barred combat with the employer, was its most novel and dynamic contribution to the Australian working class movement:
"There are many ways of applying sabotage as rules in the game of chess.
"Of course, the employers practice sabotage on a large scale, both on the workers and on each other. Adulterating foodstuffs, 'cornering' commodities; failing to tell a man applying for a job, what the others are getting so as to start him at less; secretly paying a slogger a little extra in order to get him to speed the others up; 'editing,' or cooking up, news items so as to deceive the workers and the public generally; and in a thousand and one ways. The sailor, Nelson, committed sabotage when he didn't see that signal.
"Cement hardens too much, or too little, to suit the designs of a man manipulating the materials; paint peels off and changes colour if the mixer is careless; it is unlucky for a tyrannical boss to walk under a ladder; class conscious farm hands, or travelling rebels, would be more careless with matches when on the property of farmers who ride into town to shoot or bludgeon strikers.
"Every worker will know best how to practice sabotage in his own industry; he can get further information if required from 'Industrial Unionist'
and syndicalist papers and literature, but the job is the best place to study. A little theory and practice combined, during working hours, will soon turn an intelligent man into an artist."
Some of the methods by which the wobblies proved their point are worth recounting. The Labour Government refused them permission to peddle literature and make speeches in the Sydney Domain. They did not debate about their rights, they just continued to peddle literature and make speeches. A few were jailed, the rest just kept on. In 1914, C.T. Reeve, of Sydney, went to take part in a campaign in South Australia. On July 1, a telegram from Port Pirie was printed in Direct Action: "Reeve gaoled 19th, 10 days, five on 23rd, 3 weeks; three today, one month. Six new names taken. Freefooters wanted." The wobblies were being jailed for carrying on their "freespeech campaign" in the streets. They simply announced that they could fill the jails to overflowing if need be, and the police soon hung off. In Newcastle, the tactic was for one member to stand orating until he was hauled away. He then put up a ferocious struggle and when the weary police returned, there was another demagogue, also ready to fight back for all he was worth. There were more where he came from, and they were duly released, one at a time. The police grew tired of it before the wobblies did.
These tactics had their disadvantages. They were a ready inducement for all the bums in the neighbourhood to settle their debts with the police or anyone else under the pretext of union activity. The wobblies did not bother to draw the line where bum ended and revolutionary began, and though every little bit helped at the moment, some of those crimes which the wobblies came to be blamed were committed by this element among them.
Other labour organisations expressed strongly their disproval of I.W.W. methods. But antagonism was not as strong in the unions as it was in the Labour Party. Wobblies worked alongside ordinary unionists in the A.M.A. at Broken Hill, and their membership and influence steadily grew. At the 1916 Convention of the A.W.U. a wobbly delegate opposed W.G. Spence for the presidency and was defeated, but the I.W.W fomented strikes on the shearing sheds in Northern N.S.W. and secured 30/- a hundred sheep, whereas the A.W.U award, fixed by the courts, was 25/- a hundred.
It is by their opposition to army conscription that the I.W.W. secured their only customary place in the routine history books. Billy Hughes, the Commonwealth Prime Minister, announced on the 30th August 1916 that:
"In view of certain urgent and grave communications from the War Council of Great Britain ... the Government has arrived at the conclusion that the voluntary system of recruiting cannot be relied upon to supply that steady stream of reinforcements necessary to maintain the Australian Expeditionary Forces at their full strength."
It was proposed that the issue should be submitted in a referendum at the end of October. Hughes and the N.S.W.. Premier Holman, over-rode general labour opinion in backing the "Yes" vote. From the start, the I.W.W took the lead in the campaign against conscription. They were admitted to the Trade Union Congress in September, and their guiding hand can be detected in the stickers which this Congress devised and unlawfully pasted about:
Do YOU want Conscription?
While you are TALKING about what you will do
At the BALLOT BOX
Hughes is ACTING and will have you called up next month and put under MILITARY LAW.
You must unitedly refuse to go up.
If you are arrested, refuse to take the oath or drill
If you do not help yourselves now, you will not have a chance afterwards
Thousands of your mates will refuse
Do not scab on them - REFUSE ALSO
This was the campaign which at last brought the concerted wrath of the political parties down upon the I.W.W. Tom Barker, the editor of "Direct Action," was arrested, and the pages of his newspaper now petitioned for his release. At the same time, a number of fires occurred in Sydney store buildings. When the referendum was only a matter of days away, and the campaigns for and against conscription at their height, the police arrested twelve I.W.W. men on three charges connected with arson, and two others on a charge of murdering a constable in the N.S.W. mining town of Tottenham. Together with another I.W.W. man accused of a murder committed in April, these men were tried through the latter part of that year, 1916. The trial of "the twelve" has become a cause celebre in Australian legal annals, something to set beside the case of Sacco and Vanzetti in America. In recounting the stories of the trials, it is most important to remember that, whether or not these men did what their accusers claimed they did, it was, in the popular mind, not they who were on trial so much as the organisation of which they were members. Attention was diverted from what the I.W.W. said, about conscription and so forth, to what they allegedly did before the law. Just as Vanzetti regarded the sentence passed on him and Sacco as a crime against the working class, which anarchism would repay in due time 1, so Direct Action saw the trial of the Twelve as simply the latest and most flagrant of capitalism's desperate efforts to preserve itself, indicative of a moral rottenness which the roused proletariat must immediately put an end to. But if the Twelve were martyrs, it was not to a growing cause. The I.W.W. never recovered from this blow.
It seems evident that the Tottenham men did murder their policeman. What does not emerge from the evidence, however, is that this had anything to do with the I.W.W. The two men were members, but only a third, who was subsequently cleared, made any point of this. The prosecution could not get off the subject, though. The April murderer, of a Greek cafe proprietor of sinister reputation in Sydney, was apparently handier to the court's purposes, as police claimed he told them on his arrest, "I blame the I.W.W. for this. I was never in trouble till I joined the organisation. Curse the I.W.W.! It has made a criminal of me and many others." It is difficult to see what benefit the I.W.W. could have had from this crime, for which the motive was robbery.
The trial of the Twelve, held in November, was a fait accompli from the word go. The prosecution did not have to prove that the men did burn down buildings, incite sedition, or employ unlawful means to secure Tom Barker's release. They only had to prove that they conspired to do these" things. Under these conditions, of course, no evidence of actual deeds was necessary. The twelve men were not tried separately, but in bulk and without too much particularisation. The witnesses were an imposing crew: a number of police detectives, a police spy in the I.W.W., and three I.W.W. men who had originally been suspected of forging notes and other deeds, but against whom, now they had turned police-renegade, proceedings were obligingly dropped. The evidence was likewise imposing. For example, Detective Leary, hiding behind telegraph posts at a few different places in Sydney, each time happened to overhear I.W.W. men talking in the street, and in the process of conspiring. Detective Robson on asking Fagin, one of the accused, how a bottle of fire-producing liquid came to be found in his bag after his arrest received the answer: "you know, you bloody well put it there." Some of the men produced alibis, which were ignored. Reeve's alibi at least might have been supposed to convince - he was being discharged from Long Bay Jail at a time when the police "saw" him outside the I.W.W. rooms.
The judge was Judge Pring. In his summing up he chose to define sedition partly as "to promote ill-will and hostility between two different classes; that is to say, between the employers and the employed." Without any direct evidence being brought forwards, five of the men were given fifteen years hard Labour, six were given ten years hard labour, and one five years hard. This got them behind bars til the war was over, at any rate.
Even when the men were in jail they got themselves into further trouble. They were distributed among the N.S.W. jails - Long Bay, Parramatta, Goulburn, Bathurst. At Bathhurst a negro named Buckley was knocked about in his cell by several warders. The four I.W.W. men after petitioning the Governor, organised a strike among the prisoners against this kind of treatment. One of the men in Parramatta jail claimed that the prisoners' therapeutic duty of broom-making was being turned to good use by a Sydney broom firm.
There is no evidence to suggest that any of the twelve men were guilty of arson or any such crime. That they defied the law at times is obvious, the law being what it was. Some of them, such as Tom Glynn, had a long and honourable record as left-wing agitators, even apart from their I.W.W. work.
With the I.W.W. declared illegal, many of the old wobblies regrouped into the Industrial Labour Party, which had a fortnightly paper, Solidarity. This newspaper continued to denounce capitalism and campaigned for the release of the twelve men. "They went to jail on an industrial argument and they must come out on an industrial argument." A Royal Commission on the matter was held in 1918, and came to naught. In 1920 the clouds of war, so to speak, had rolled away and a new Commission, under Mr. Justice Ewing, found that only one off the sentences that passed on Charles Reeve for ten years was fair. Five other sentences were ruled excessive and six should not have been imposed at all.
A strike involving 100,000 men was held in 1917 mainly in N.S.W., beginning at the Railyards. The Government of N.S.W. took advantage of this to enforce the Unlawful Association Act and break up the I.W.W. by waves of arrests. This was the end of the wobbly bogey in Australia. And in Australia, as in many other countries, 1917 spelled the end of a phase in the revolutionary struggle. "Wobbly" as a pejorative has taken its place with "anarchist," "syndicalist"— words which to the modern conservative sound unpleasant but engender no fear.
What were the virtues of the I.W.W movement? They were held in common by many similar movements in the years before 1917, including the Bolsheviks in Russia. The revolutionaries of that day were working in a direct a way as they knew how for ends that were simple to name. What they lacked in numerical strength they made up for in revolutionary integrity. They had no treasure of their own in any part of the world to hoard: their directives were issued on the job and understood, not mandated from afar, the cloaked desiridata of political power. The dialectic, when it was used, was not a mystique, but a part of revolutionary pragmatism. The real strength of the movement was that the revolution never having happened, no one doubted much what it would be like. And the wobblies, the anarchists, the syndicalists, were at the end of the agrarian period in human history before industrialisation was much developed, before it was realised that machines had come to stay. They believed that whatever a man could achieve in the field of labour and social conditions, he could achieve with his own two hands.
At the end of 1921 Direct Action was started up again by Tom Glynn. He was now "hon. secretary Industrial Propaganda League," Balman, Sydney. The I.U.P.L. said the same things as the wobblies, but "does not aim at being a rival union in the I.W.W. sense," did not issue a red card, and anyone who shared in its aims could be a member. Direct Action was now predominantly a journal of protest, bringing to the notice of its subscribers such matters as the heavy sentence given to Nicholls, strike-leader on the canefields, in Innisfail, Queensland, about which most working-class organisations had little to say. Direct Action was still 1d.; anyone could buy it. Its issue of April 1922, had this to say about a new type of revolutionary at a time when the Bolsheviks were sitting more firmly in Russia:
"For a considerable time, the Revolutionary Movement had been pestered by a species of spurious intellectuals ... announcing ... that they are 'the very best elements' . . . 'the only people capable of leading a revolution.'
"They appeared on the horizon following the Russian Revolution, and all those having the hardihood to criticise them are described as traitors to the Russian proletariat.
"The argument inflicted upon the council by the reactionary 'Communist' element amounted to the following— 'We know the Labour Party is reactionary, but seeing the working class has faith in it, it would be good tactics to return them to power.'
"Could there be anything more putrid? Any third rate bum Labour politician finds a better justification for his mental prostitution than this offered by the intelligentsia of the 'United' Communist Party.
"The argument offered by the United Communist Party is pure camouflage, covering some personal motives of its authors yet to see the light. If it is sincere, they are the queerest bunch of tacticians who ever had the impudence to parade and pose as the revolutionary section of the industrial workers."
1 Our lives—the lives of a good cobbler and a poor fish-peddler—nothing! Our deaths, all!