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(en) US, Arthur J. Miller: The IWW Centennial, One Shipyard Workers Perspective

Date Mon, 12 Sep 2005 12:05:27 +0300


Come with me for a moment up upon an old rusted steel ship. Up
the gangway to the main deck, then into the main house and down
the steps to the engine room. Then off to the port side of the engines
and down into the bilge over the top of a small opening to a ballast
tank. Yesterday we had removed all the nuts from the lid of the tank.
This morning a marine chemist tested the air of the tank and
certified that it was safe for workers.
The IWW Centennial, One Shipyard Worker’s Perspective
Come with me for a moment up upon an old rusted steel ship. Up
the gangway to the main deck, then into the main house and down
the steps to the engine room. Then off to the port side of the engines
and down into the bilge over the top of a small opening to a ballast
tank. Yesterday we had removed all the nuts from the lid of the tank.
This morning a marine chemist tested the air of the tank and
certified that it was safe for workers.

Before going into the tank we take a padlock and attach it through
one of the holes in the lid so that no one can bolt the lid back on to
the tank. We do this because there are no hole watches. We climb
down into the tank, which is about four feet deep. On our hands and
knees we to crawl through the tank and through the lightning holes
that divide up the tank structurally. Where pipes go through the
lightning holes, getting through them is hard and some people just
can't do it because they panic when they squeeze through the tight
hole. We reach the piping and valve we must remove with our little
bucket tools.

Our job is to remove the ballast valves and any section of the ballast
piping that is rusted away. Once we finish this tank we have three
more ballast tanks to do the same job in.

The tank is all rusted out and so are the pipes, and the bolts and the
nuts connecting the pipes to the valves. First we disconnect the
reach rod that is attached to the top of the valve. We take out a
wrench to fit as a backup for the cap side of the bolt so that the bolt
does not move as we take off the nut, and another wrench for the nut
side. One of us holds the backup wrench while the other works the
nut side of the bolt. The bolts are all rusted out and will not come
loose by hand so we have to use a five-pound maul to beat them
loose. Because of the rust we must beat the nuts all the way off. We
then must disconnect the tail suction piece off the valve. And then
remove the valve off the rest of the piping. We inspect the inside of
the piping and find that it is rusted out and then we cut the piping
out with a power saw until we reach the forward bulkhead. We cut
the pipe into sections that are as long as we can make them and still
be able get them out of the hole. These sections of pipe are used to
fabricate new pipes in the shop. When the new pipes are ready we
must drag them down into the tank along with the new valve and fit
the system back together and have a welder weld out the joints
connecting the sections of pipe.

My hands begin to get stiff from all the hammering and holding the
wrench that sends a shock wave through my hands when I hit the
wrench with the maul. By the end of the day my hands are so stiff I
cannot make a fist. The heavy vibration from the power saw adds to
the stiffness. The stiffness comes from many years of such work,
hour after hour of abuse of my hands, year after year. I have had
surgery on both my hands and that did relieve the pain I was having,
but both of my hands are permanently damaged.

It is hot down in the tank and the longer we work the hotter it gets.
Soon we are drenched in sweat. Hour after hour of beating nuts off
and pulling old pipes and valves loose can make it seem like the
workday will never end. Because the ship is set to sail soon we are
working 12-hour days until the job is done. Then they kick us out
the damn door like we were nothing but trash until there is another
pipefitting hell to endure. Welcome to my reality of the working class
experience.

What does the IWW mean to me as an industrial worker? It means
the only hope for real industrial change. What do I think of the
IWW's Centennial? One hundred years of workers like me resisting
our bosses and trying to make a decent life and decent working
conditions for all workers.

From the belly of ships to the grease pits of fast food joints, we labor
for the benefit of a few. From the dark shafts of coalmines to the
confined cubicles of office workers, our conditions serve to
maximize profit. From the long-haul truck drivers to the janitors of
office buildings, we are dehumanized as lowly servants of the rich.
From the hot steel furnaces to the farms where our food is grown,
our human existence only has value in our production. From every
job from all the lands of the world, we suffer as a class to satisfy the
greed of a few. Must this forever be the doomed fate of working
people? No! We can as a class organize together and seize the tools
of production and create a society where there is honor and respect
for labor; where our conditions are set by us the workers who do the
work. Our toil will no longer benefit a few parasites but rather where
we will labor for the well-being of all. That is the hope the IWW
brings to the working class even in the hardest of times.

I received a request to write something on the subject of the IWW's
Centennial and why the IWW is still relevant today. They knew I
was a longtime Wobbly and they wanted my perspective on the
subject. My first though was to tell them that there have been many
things written on the subject by intellectuals. When I thought about
which ones I could recommend, it hit me, maybe I should write on
the subject because it would be different than most other writings on
the subject and maybe something different is needed.

Many historians and advocates of various political philosophies will
write or talk about the IWW's first hundred years in many different
ways. The words they write will often be guided by their own
personal agendas. More often than not, such writings will lack a true
understanding of the IWW, because the IWW was founded and
existed for 100 years based upon the one thing they have a hard time
understanding and acknowledging: the direct experiences of rank-
and-file workers who sought to organize for a better life. Somewhere
in the madness of political and intellectual interpretations of the
IWW there needs to be other voices heard: that of the simple
workers who made up the real history of the IWW.

I am not a political philosopher or a historian from the intelligentsia;
I am a simple shipyard worker and a member of the IWW for 35
years. This writing seeks to give a different perspective on the
IWW's first 100 years, one that is grounded in the reality of the
working class experience.

The IWW turns 100 years old this year. Who could ever image such
a thing? But when you think about it, who could ever doubt this
birthday would come about? For there is something about the IWW
that will live on as long as working people are exploited by the
employing class. Like Joe Hill, the Wobblies will never die.

There are some who will tell you that the days of the Wobblies have
long since past, some even say that class no longer matters. But
those folks just don't understand the reality of working for a living. It
does not matter if you are slinging burgers at a fast food joint or
digging coal down in some deep dark mine, or if you lived in 1905 or
2005, "The working class and the employing class have nothing in
common"; these words are as true today as they were one hundred
years when they were first written by workers in the Preamble of the
IWW.

It is not that us working folks are looking for a fight; the class
struggle is forced upon us. Every day of our lives we struggle in order
to survive in this world. Every thing that we do to improve our way of
life involves a struggle with the class of folks who live off our labor.
The business unions may help us gain more nickels and dimes from
our employers, but the Wobblies want more than just a few more
crumbs off the industrial table, we want peace that will only come
from an end to class conflict. That is why our Preamble also says:

"It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with
capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for
the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production
when capitalism shall be overthrown. By organizing industrially we
are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the
old."

Some times I get asked why I continue to be a Wobbly year after
year? It is true that on many jobs I have work the shop is organized
by other unions. I have been a member of five AFL-CIO business
unions with their limited vision and their top down form of
organization. Being a Wobbly keeps me grounded in the concepts of
what a union should stand for and how a real union should function.
Though I have been active in other unions I paid dues to, still there
ain't no shame or contradiction in being a dual unionist.

I have lived in the underbelly of this world, that which they do not
show you on TV or teach you about in the schools. As I grew up I
was placed in youth institutions and Foster Homes and learned that
this system cares not for the youth of the poor. All they want is blind
obedience and not a word about any suffering endured. I saw how
our society keeps people of color down in a lower-class level and
uses its doctrine of "might-makes-right" to keep them there. At the
age of 17 I had to quit school and work full-time for my survival.
Finishing high school was not an option for me if I wanted to eat.

I have worked a string of jobs that I would not care to see anyone be
forced to endure. It is not work itself that I rebel against, it is the
dehumanizing conditions of labor. I worked assembly lines, as a
farm worker, washing dishes until I landed a job in the hard rock
mining industry. At Bunker Hill Mining Company as a zincstripper,
I saw just how far the workers could be subjected to abuse by their
employers, fifty-six percent of the Bunker Hill workers over the
years have come down with kidney disease due to lead poisoning,
including myself, and hundreds of children who lived in the area
were poisoned as well. Five miles down the road at the Sunshine
Mine, the murder of ninety-one miners was called an industrial
accident. At that point I decided I wanted to learn a trade so I
became a marine pipefitter. Since 1974 I have worked in fourteen
shipyards on the west, east and gulf coasts. When I could not find
work in shipyards I worked other jobs, roughneck on a wildcat oilrig,
long haul and port truck driver and as an environmental technician at
some nasty toxic sites and oil spills. This is where my Wobbly
perspective comes from, not out of some damn book.

As a young Wobbly my mentors were old-time Wobblies who were
still around, people like Gilbert Mers, Blackie Vanughan, Fred
Hansen, Carl and Fanny Keller, Paul Ware, Walter Westman, Frank
Cedervall, Fred Thompson and others. From them I learned what
being a Wobbly was all about and I learned Wobbly history that you
will not find in any books. The first thing they taught me was that
there is only one class of Wobblies and no matter if you joined years
ago or you joined today, every Wobbly is a Wobbly, there are no
second class Wobblies. And that every worker no matter how they
labor, as long as they did not labor against their fellow workers like
scabs and cops, were just as
much a worker as any other worker. Though these old-timers may
not be in the history books, to me they were the real working class
heroes of the IWW because they never gave up on the class struggle.

Contrary to what many have written about the IWW, the IWW was
not created out of a coming together of different political
philosophies. The IWW came about as a direct result of the direct
experiences of working people who tried to organize labor unions.

It has always been the experience of working people that as
individuals or as tiny individual organizations little could be gained. It
was only when working people united together and supported each
other in universal solidarity did we working folks ever stand a chance
against the employing class.

It was found that the old craft style of unionism only had a limited
effect and only for a limited number of workers. In craft unionism
the workers on the same job were divide into different unions and
many workers were left unorganized. Out of that experience came
the concept of industrial unionism where all the workers in an
industry were organized into one union. Unions such as the Western
Federation of Miners and the American Railroad Union pioneered
the idea of industrial unionism here in America and those
experiences inspired workers to create the industrial unionism of the
IWW.

Even with industrial unionism advancing the power of organized
labor, workers quickly found that single-shop or single-area
organizing had its limitations and that those limitations became even
clearer as the companies of the employing class became larger and
went well beyond limited geographic areas. Out of that realization
came the idea of creating national and international industrial unions
and the concepts of industrial organizing and industrial action.

It was realized that there needed to be an organization that united the
industrial unions and that would directly seek to organize those that
have yet to be organized. This was necessary in order to build a labor
movement that could stand up to the organized power of the
employing class. Attempts were made to create a new type of labor
organization, such as the American Labor Union, which the
Western Federation of Miners tried to create.

The direct experiences of labor struggles showed that the existing
economic arrangement meant continuous class conflict and limited
gains for working people. Nowhere in the creation of our world was
it written in stone that one small class of people had the divine right
to own the means of production within society and that the many,
the working class, was doomed to forever toil for that same class of
owners. This economic arrangement made the employing class very
rich and condemned those that did all the real work of society to
poverty and faced with forever being in a state of class conflict in
order to improve their lives and to protect the improvements they
have gained. Not wanting to leave future generations an inheritance
of poverty and class conflict, many good unionists came to believe
that the organized labor movement needed to do more than just gain
more crumbs from the bosses table of riches, but that also the labor
movement had the responsibility to change the economic system
and that the only economic system that could create industrial peace
was one where the producers controlled their production.

In 1905 veteran unionists gathered together to try to create an
organization based upon their collective union experience that would
included those things they had come to realize a labor movement
needed: universal working class solidarity, industrial unionism,
industrial organizing and action, an organization that would seek to
organize all workers and an organization that would seek the end of
class conflict by changing the control of the economic system to
those who produce giving them control over their production. The
organization they created was the Industrial Workers of the World.

In each of the decades for one-hundred years Wobblies have
struggled and organized working people. Though the intellectual
historians like to focus on a few different Wobbly struggles and
so-called leaders and to analyze them and declare them successes or
failures, that is not the true history of the IWW. The IWW, like the
class struggle of which it is a part of, cannot be looked at in the
isolation of a few events or individuals. The class struggle is a long
journey down the road of liberation and each step down that road
adds experience and knowledge making further steps possible. As
long as working people struggle against their exploitation no part of
their struggles is a failure because, in the long run, all of their
struggles together is what will help us working people reach our
collective goals. Each stage the IWW went through in its
one-hundred years was an important stage for our organization.
Even when we reached our lowest point of membership in the
mid-to-late 1950s, those Wobblies who remained did an important
job of keeping the organization and our ideas alive for the next
generation of Wobblies.

Each Wobbly struggle is important. From the massive grand
Lawrence Textile Strike in 1912, all the way to the smallest fast-food
strike, each worker is important and every struggle is worth fighting.
We do not say "an injury to many is an injury to all", rather we say
"an injury to one is an injury to all" All the IWW struggles
throughout our one-hundred years have been the result of the efforts
of rank-and-file Wobblies and that has not been what the history
books tell you. They say that our struggles have been the result of a
few leaders. The history of the rank-and-file Wobblies is the history
that has yet to be written.

A few years ago I was asked to speak at a college where the film
"The Wobblies" was being shown. After the film a college labor
history professor spoke for 45 minutes about the IWW. He did not
understand our history, which has been made by all our members.
He did not understand that the IWW is not about a handful of
historical events but rather the IWW is a long journey down the road
of class struggle. He seemed to think we are just moved by ideology
rather than the collective working class experiences. Though he
knew words out of books on the IWW, he did not know or
understand the IWW. I guess I was like some museum piece, a real
live Wobbly, when he was done ranting his nonsense, he told me I
had five minutes to speak. How could I explain the truth of the IWW
in that time? So I did not use up that five minutes of token time.
Rather I got up there and said, "Labor historians are to workers as
anthropologists are to Indians. Don't believe a word that they say."
And as I looked out at the shocked expressions upon the faces of
everyone there, I walked out. I ain't no damn museum piece nor
anyone's
token!

The IWW believes in the idea of building a One Big Union of the
working class. But in practice Wobblies have supported and do
support the struggles of all workers against their bosses no matter
what organization they may belong to, and we have tried to educate
working people to the great idea of universal working class solidarity.
In the reality of day-to-day struggle the One Big Union has also
come to mean the organized solidarity of the working class.

Universal working class solidarity is something that you will not find
much of in the business unions. It is not uncommon for business
unions to scab on each other by crossing picket lines or handling
scab goods or even doing the work that striking workers would have
done. Though a few unions may have gained a little by scabbing on
other unions, the labor movement has greatly suffered because of it.

Wobblies have always understood that resistance to the employing
class and the governments that work directly in their interests takes
many different forms. Though the purpose of the IWW is creating a
revolutionary industrial organization, still the Wobblies have actively
supported other forms of resistance and at times even gave their lives
doing so. Wobblies fought in the Mexican Revolution, and fought
the fascists in Spain. Wobblies have been active in such social
movements as: free speech, antiwar, civil rights, anti-apartheid, and
defense of the environment. Wobblies resisted segregation laws in
the South of the U.S. years before the renewed Civil Rights
Movement started in the 1950's. Wobblies have actively supported
indigenous people's resistance. Wobblies have actively worked in
support of political prisoners from Mooney-Billings and
Sacco-Vanzetti, from the old days to Leonard Peltier and Mumia
Abu-Jamal of today. Wherever you find resistance you are sure to
find some Wobblies. There were many Wobblies in the streets of
Seattle during the 1999 protests against the WTO and many
Wobblies working to save the redwood old-growth trees. .

Though the history books seem to think the IWW was and is a U.S.
labor organization, this is not true. The Industrial Workers of the
World, as its name suggests, is an organization of workers around
the world. IWW organizations have existed on every continent on
the face of the earth and have had major organizing and industrial
action in such places as: Chile, South Africa, Mexico, Canada and
Australia, to name a few countries. The IWW understands that the
employing class and their corporations go far beyond national
borders and thus the organized class struggle must be international
in scope.

In today’s world where the employing class is far greater
organized internationally than ever before and where it is clear that
the international capitalists seeks complete control over the
world’s natural resources, production and marketing, the
international working class must organize in order to be able to
withstand the onslaught of international corporate totalitarianism. In
my view, only the organizational ideas of the IWW has such plan for
the international organization of the working class that is needed in
the modern world.

We no longer have the luxury of passing off our responsibility of
actively seeking change to the mythical someone else that will do it
for us. I strongly believe that the capitalists are blinded by their greed
and they will pursue their quest for greater wealth until our planet is
nothing more than a wasteland and unable sustain our continued
existence upon it. We must organize and take action for our very
survival. Industry must be changed, not only in who controls, but
also to make it safe for our environment. Though there are
environmental activists who have carried on important resistance,
but it is, in my view, the organized working class that needs to make
the industrial change. First, because the economic system must
change, for there ain’t no way to reform the greed of capitalism.
And because the workers are at the point of production where the
changes must take place. The time has come where class
responsibility is not just to your sisters and fellow workers but also a
responsibility to the earth we dwell upon. Class responsibility is not
something we can pass off on others, it is the responsibility of each
and every worker.

There are those that see the working class as nothing more than a
mass entity. The working class is a great diversity of individuals and
that diversity is our strength and not our weakness, for every worker
brings to our organization skills, ideas, knowledge and a creative
spirit that is unique to them. That is one of the things that has made
the IWW survive for so long, for we not only believe in the
uniqueness of each worker, that has been the backbone of our
organization, that also is why we seek you out fellow worker to join
us. We need your uniqueness with us for that will make us even
stronger.

From 1905 to 2005 the Wobblies always struggled for day-to-day
improvements in the conditions of working people while at the same
time educating and organizing workers for the long-term class
struggle that they always hoped would eventually realize industrial
peace and well-being for all working people. Through the years there
have been many different political ideologies calling for this, that and
some other thing, I place my hope in the ideas of the IWW. The
IWW ain't an idealistic utopia that sounds beautiful while getting
there seems next to impossible. Nor is the IWW a top down
controlled plan by those who believe they can save us all; but who
will save us from the saviors? The IWW is a simple idea of how to
organize working people together by working people themselves in
order to make day-to-day improvements in their working lives and to
organize the class power of working people so that when the
organized power of working people is greater than the organized
power of the employing class, then the final battle of the class war
will be fought and all the bosses and capitalism will be removed like
a parasitic cancer growth from the host body of human society.

So that my friends is my perspective on the IWW based upon the
working class experience that I have lived. I wish all Wobblies a
happy centennial birthday and I feel honored to have been with you
through the years and with thoughts of past and present Wobblies
that have made up our first one-hundred years, it has been an honor
to be a Wobbly.

libcom.org/iww100


Arthur J. Miller
Ship Builder’s IU320-IWW
Edited by libcom

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