'Wobblies' resurrecting in Portland, but face employer opposition

Eight decades after a radical U.S. union was driven to the brink of extinction by vigilante violence, a handful of young workers in Portland and other cities are staging a modest resurrection.

Members of the union - the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) also are known as "Wobblies."

From 1905 to 1919, the IWW organized timber and mine workers in the Western United States. Members filled local jails in celebrated "free speech fights" when local authorities tried to stop them from holding public meetings. And they held strikes, vowing to build "one big union" of all working people that would take over industries and run them democratically. All this at a time when most unions were illegal and faced all manner of repression by the police, military and privately-hired spies and thugs.

Wobblies opposed U.S. entry into World War I, and on those grounds, faced violent attack by the newly-formed American Legion and by "citizens alliances" made up of local businesspeople. This repression was so severe, with organizers assassinated and union offices torched, that the IWW was largely driven out of existence by 1920, though some IWW organizers went on to take part in Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) union drives of the 1930s.

A few IWW members continued a shell organizational structure, best known for preserving the union's legacy of union songs written by one of its celebrated members, Joe Hill.

In the 1990s, young people in Portland and other cities - especially adherents of anarchist political philosophies - joined IWW, attracted by its militant history and more radical political positions than other unions.

"We're proud of our history," said Ian Wallace, a residential carpenter and IWW member since 1996, "but we're not a history club. We want to organize the working class."

The IWW advocates having one union for all employees in a workplace, regardless of job description. IWW membership does not depend on employment at a union-represented workplace, so the group functions more as a membership organization.

IWW's strongest chapter is in Portland. Founded in 1995, the Portland Chapter has as many as 200 members. There is no paid staff, but it maintains offices - and a lending library - at 616 E. Burnside in Portland.

It's in Portland that the IWW has done most of its organizing in the last several years, focusing on the low-wage service sector where most of the group's members work.

Although the IWW is willing to operate in workplaces where members make up a minority of workers, the union has filed for and won government certification at a handful of workplaces via elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). At two shelters for homeless youth - Street Light and Harry's Mother - the IWW was able to win union contracts that cover about 36 workers. Several other workplaces voted to unionize with the IWW but don't yet have a contract, including the community organization ACORN, the Southeast Portland health food store Daily Grind, and Salvation Army's Greenhouse, a homeless youth service organization that has since closed after losing funding.

IWW lost elections at Nature's Fresh Northwest on Southeast Division in January, and in August at Transerv, a downtown-Portland messenger service.

Union members also took part in an October 1999 work stoppage at the Mallory Hotel that resulted in the firing of 11 union activists and an eventual NLRB back-pay settlement. And they filed for election at the Northeast Broadway Godfather's Pizza in September 2001, but the owner pulled the plug and closed the store.

September 20, 2002 issue

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.