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(en) US, BOULDER, Media, [MHR-News] At Free Speech Television, workers organize union with a view to the past - 'Wobblies' live on at TV station

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 19 Feb 2004 13:11:56 +0100 (CET)


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BOULDER - Free Speech Television bills itself as the "antidote to Fox
News," broadcasting anti-war rallies and documentaries about global labor struggles.
So when workers at the nonprofit, Boulder-based satellite station wanted
a union, they rejected conventional labor organizations. Instead, they
chose the Industrial Workers of the World, a group that offered a socialist
alternative to men who toiled 12 hours a day in Colorado mines a century ago.
Mention of the union known as the "Wobblies" draws blank stares even in
Colorado's most liberal city, said Alex Fountain, a technical director
at Free Speech TV and an organizer of the station's IWW local.

But, he said, "As I've learned more about the IWW, it's really
reflective of where I feel I am at and want to be at in my life."

Except for a few historians, almost no one remembers the group.
Fountain, 24, who grew up in Longmont, said he learned about them only
two years ago.

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the IWW and its
predecessor, the Denver-based Western Federation of Miners, were at the
center of bitter strikes that swept Colorado mining camps, including one
of the state's bloodiest, at Cripple Creek in 1904.

Western Federation of Miners leader William Dudley "Big Bill" Haywood
was instrumental in founding the IWW during a meeting with other labor
leaders in Chicago in 1905.

Some industrialists considered the charismatic Haywood the most
dangerous man in America, said University of Colorado at Denver history
professor Tom Noel, who has written about the era.

Haywood was 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 250 pounds. He wore a patch
to cover the empty socket of an eye he lost in a fight.

"He'd go into a bar and say, 'I want to see your union cards.' And if
you didn't show one, you better get out of there," Noel said.

"And he would also sell them (union cards) out of his hat," Noel said.
"He didn't pocket the money, either. He was real honest."

Haywood's running battles with authorities were followed closely in
Colorado with the help of a thriving socialist press.

He was kidnapped in 1906 and taken to Idaho to stand trial along with
two other labor leaders for the mailbox bombing that killed a former
Idaho governor. They were acquitted.

He lost a bid for Colorado governor in 1908 on the Socialist Party ticket.

Haywood and other socialists were jailed for their opposition to World
War I. Haywood jumped bail and fled to Moscow, where the experiment with
communism was in its infancy. He died there in 1928.

By that time, IWW membership had declined sharply amid the Red Scare
that swept the nation after World War I.

But the IWW never died, said Alexis Buss, the group's general
secretary-treasurer - the same title that Big Bill held.

The Wobblies had between 100,000 and 150,000 members in their heyday
before World War I. The group, with headquarters in Philadelphia, has
about 1,000 members today, Buss said.

The IWW represents workers in a few industries, including recycling
workers in Berkeley, Calif., Buss said.

But individual labor contracts are not the main point for the IWW, Buss
said. The group believes in changing the world through international
worker solidarity.

"Wobblies don't believe in capitalism," Buss said.

"I think socialism is a loaded phrase today," she added. "A number of
our members would say we don't consider ourselves socialist. . . . We
just believe there should be a world where nobody is a boss and nobody
is an employee. Some people call that socialism, and that's fine."

Fountain said that fits with the view of workers at Free Speech TV, if
not with many other young people. Of 20 workers at the station, 12 were
eligible to be part of the bargaining unit under federal labor law, and
11 signed with the Wobblies earlier this month, he said.

"We all felt that both personally, as well as organizationally at Free
Speech TV, that the IWW very strongly reflected our values and would
very much complement what we want to achieve in the workplace and in the
world," Fountain said.

The IWW's position on war mirrors Free Speech TV programming, said
Shannon Service, 29, a program host.

Service said her generation grew up without any sense of labor history.
It's rarely taught in the schools, and unions are rarely covered in the
press, she said.

"You don't hear about unions unless they're apparently screwing
something up," she said. "I think there's this sense (among young
people) of, why would you want to be a hindrance to the smooth
functioning of society?"

Service and Fountain say they didn't join a union because they're angry
at Free Speech TV executives, but because it seemed like something that
belonged at a station that airs documentaries about workers in countries
affected by globalization.

"It's really a question of bringing a more democratic power structure to
the organization," said Service, who helped organize the
anti-globalization protest in Seattle in 1999. "We're doing it for
political reasons, not because we feel oppressed."

Free Speech TV is a "progressive television station," said founder and
President John Schwartz. He said the station is "kind of the antidote to
Fox News."

During the run-up to the Iraq war, Fox started putting a U.S. flag in
the corner of the screen. Free Speech TV takes a decidedly different view.

"When the Bush administration is lying to us about going to war, we need
someone to tell the facts straight," Schwartz said.

Schwartz also said he knows of Big Bill and the Wobblies "only distantly
and dimly."

He's still ambivalent about Free Speech TV workers joining the group,
Schwartz said. He plans to discuss the matter with the nonprofit's board
of directors.
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