by John Showalter
20 May 2021
As the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine continues apace and the worst of this historical pandemic is (seemingly) behind us, many places of business are loosening safety precautions for both customers and staff. In addition to that, many places of business are seeking to alleviate a work shortage brought on largely by the pandemic and bolster their dwindled workforces.
Out of these conditions has risen a debate seemingly as old as time. While employers are decrying that they are unable to hire enough employees to rebound due to people not wanting to work anymore and expecting handouts, many people have retorted that these employers’ inability or unwillingness to provide a livable wage and proper working conditions to their employees is the cause of their current hiring woes.
One group that has been part of this debate for over a century is the Industrial Workers of the World, affectionately nicknamed “Wobblies.” The economic uncertainties of the pandemic era have provided fresh soil for the Red River chapter of the IWW, and recently I had the opportunity to interview Joe Hill, an organizer with the chapter.
Hill gladly provided a short history of the IWW, both as a whole and in North Dakota. “The Industrial Workers of the World was founded in 1905 with the explicit goal of organizing the working class into One Big Union in order to overwhelm the capitalist system and tilt the axis of power toward the workers, with the long-term goal of creating a ‘new society within the shell of the old,’” said Hill.
“In our heyday we were responsible for countless strikes and agitations, including events locally involving migrant harvest workers, a shooting of an organizer in Casselton in 1919 and the free speech fight in Minot, North Dakota in 1913 where a local judge proclaimed, ‘We’ll drive the god-damned sons of bitches into the river and drown them. We’ll starve them. We’ll kill every damned man of them or drive them together with the Socialists from the city.’”
Locally, the general membership branch was chartered in 2012 and existed for a few years before being de-chartered while they rebuilt their numbers. Finally, the Fargo IWW was able to become officially recognized as a chartered branch of the Industrial Workers of the World Union in the final months of 2020, allowing them to take advantage of the Union’s full benefits.
“We are here to meet a need,” said Hill, “namely, the exploitation and poor treatment of local workers and to counter nefarious anti-worker policies by the local employing class.”
When asked what makes IWW different from other trade unions, Hill explained. “The IWW had a different outlook on labor organizing than trade unions. We organize workers not by their skill or trade, but by what industry they are in. So for example, in trade unions you have different unions for each job; in a grocery store you would have a cashiers union, a butchers union, a stockers union, etc. In the IWW, all those workers would be under the same union because they all work in the same industry.”
He elaborated the philosophy behind this. “The idea is that separating workers by skill creates a situation where you are potentially pitting workers against themselves, instead of uniting as a single class with our class interests in mind. The IWW also practices Solidarity Unionism, which is, we don’t believe workers need to be in a contract to be a union or improve conditions at work, that workers can collectively do direct action to win improvements on their own, without outside arbitrating groups.”
Currently the Fargo IWW does not have any campaigns that are ready for public announcement, but in the past they have been involved in anti-fascist organizing, part of a tradition that goes back to the IWW engaging in street fights with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1910s and 1920s. “Members of the previous iteration of our branch were heavily involved in ousting Craig Cobb from Leith, North Dakota in the last decade as well.” As the branch is just restarting, there has not been a lot of backlash. “But” said Hill, “if history is any guide, we certainly expect pushback from the far right, the employing class, and other reactionary elements in society. We are prepared to deal with any backlash they may lob our way.”
Currently, the Fargo IWW is soliciting leads local workers may have in organizing a union at their workplaces. Any leads can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org Those interested in joining can go to the official IWW website and its Join Now section. The initiation fee is $11 and dues are $11 a month. From there, interested parties can reach out to the local branch at the email listed above. There is also a Facebook page for the local branch.
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