Our Progressive Legacy: The Southern Wobblies

One of the biggest reasons progressives are so easily driven to despair about prospects for change in the South is because we're so cut off from the region's progressive history. Consciously or unconsciously, too many buy into the myth of a monolithically conservative and unchanging South, a mindset which in turn lowers our vision of what's possible in the region now and in the future.

That's why here at the Institute we've always had a special interest in bringing to light stories of the region's rich legacy of progressive politics and social movements. Today's case study: the International Workers of the World, or the "Wobblies."

As Max Sawicky and others have noted, 2005 is the 100th anniversary of the IWW, whose organizing efforts from 1905 to about 1917 is one of the brighter chapters in American progressive history. (The union still exists, doggedly organizing local Starbucks shops and similar operations)

But while folks may know about Joe Hill, Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, "Solidarity Forever," and other pieces of the Wobblies' fascinating tale, how many know about the IWW's historic, cross-racial campaign to organize lumber workers in the South from 1907 to 1912?

Although the IWW's involvement with loggers and mill workers is usually associated with California and the Pacific Northwest, historian Philip Foner argues in his History of the Labor Movement in the United States (Vol. 4) that "one of its most interesting inspiring chapters relates to the lumber industry of the South."

At the turn of the century, timber and lumber barons snatched up millions of acres of forests in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and East Texas (paying the U.S. government 12.5 to 75 cents an acre), and went to work cutting down some 90% of the region's native tree land (one of the nation's greatest environmental disasters).

By 1910, 262,000 workers toiled in the Southern lumber empire, half of them African-American. Not only were wages in Southern lumbering 15 to 25 percent below the national average, workers existed in a near-feudal domain of company towns marked by poverty, violence and fear. As one complaint read, "The timber and lumber workers ... are being practically held as peons within barbed wire enclosures; where there is no law except the will of the Lumber Trust's imported thugs and gunmen."

The workers launched their revolt in 1907.

After the lumber companies cut wages 20 percent while lengthening work hours, "Lumber workers in Western Louisiana and Eastern Texas rose en masse," Foner writes, "and in a spontaneous general strike closed hundreds of mills." The strike was beaten back (except for stalwart workers in mills near De Ridder, Louisiana), but it inspired a handful of IWW-influenced workers to organize, a drive which culminated in 1911 with the formation of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers, based in Alexandria, Louisiana.

The Brotherhood started out moderate, renouncing violence, going out of their way to recognize the rights of employers, and stating "our appeal shall be to reason and enlightened humanity." But the lumber barons stepped up their repression anyway, locking out workers at 300 mills in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas and blacklisting (with the sanction of rival labor leader Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor) between 5,000 to 7,000 of the most active members of the Brotherhood.

The corporate crackdown only emboldened the Brotherhood, whose membership jumped to 25,000 workers by May 1912, half of them African-American. It also radicalized them. In the spring of 1912, the lumber town of De Ridder, La. voted in a socialist mayor, agitation reported in such radical press as The Rebel (a Socialist paper out of Halletsville, TX) and The Toiler (another radical paper out of Leesville, LA).

From the very beginning, the Brotherhood organized both black and white workers, a radical move in the post-Reconstruction South marked by racist terror. This went a long way towards defusing company attempts to split workers down race lines, including replacing fired union leaders with black scab labor - despite grinding poverty, black workers largely refused to cross the picket line.

At first white and black workers were organized into segregated "lodges" (multi-racial meetings being, of course, illegal). But at its May 1912 convention, the Brotherhood formally affiliated with the IWW, a move which pushed them further in the direction of racial justice. When legendary Big Bill Haywood found out that black workers were meeting in a separate meeting for the 1912 gathering, he declared:
"You work in the same mills together. Sometimes a black man and a white man chop down the same tree together. You are meeting in convention now to discuss the conditions under which you labor. This can't be done intelligently by passing resolutions here and then sending them out to another room for the black man to act upon. Why not be sensible about this and call the Negroes into this convention? If it is against the law, this is one times when the law should be broken."
The union followed Haywood's advice, nominating a multi-racial slate of delegates to the IWW national convention in Chicago.

The timber companies, noting the worker's growing strength, swiftly hit back, beginning a period of unprecedented violence and suppression that would eventually shatter the union. In Grabow, Louisiana, in May 1912, company guards rained bullets into a union gathering, igniting a battle that left three dead and 40 wounded. 65 of the union leaders were arrested, and although they were eventually acquitted, the trial served its purpose of bogging down the union in legal defense.

Soon after the Grabow trial, the union launched what would turn out to be its biggest and last major strike, an action involving 1,300 workers at the American Lumber Co. in Merryville, Louisiana. White, African-American, and Native-American timbermen banded together and refused to cross the picket line, causing one white worker to realize that "all the colored workers needed was for the white workers to meet them half way, and they will always respond, eager and anxious to fight."

Yet the workers' solidarity proved no match for the timber interests and their allies in local and state government, who launched a wave of blacklistings, arrests, beatings and other suppression to crush the strike. At one point, a mob of gunmen and anti-union "Citizen Leaguers" went to union headquarters, raided the office, seized all books and papers, and then proceeded to the striker's soup kitchen, trashing it and driving out families at gunpoint. A few days later, union leaders were rounded up and deported, and an armed mob was allowed to arrest or drive out the remaining pro-union workers and families.

Although the Brotherhood would go on to launch a new journal in 1913, The Lumberjack - "a red-hot, fearless exponent of revolutionary unionism" published in Alexandria, LA - the crushing of the Merrysville strike was the beginning of the end for the union. As Foner writes, "years of blacklistings, jailings, and mob violence had taken their toll."

The Wobblies won some concessions for timber and lumber workers in the South, but their greatest victory may have been in showing that Southern workers could be rallied to see their class interests, join unions, and work across race lines. The union's ultimate demise, rather than showing the futility of labor organizing in the South, spoke more to the climate of anti-union (and racist) terror mobilized by the Southern elite. As Bill Haywood noted in a speech in 1912, "From the standpoint of the laboring man, the lumber trust is more autocratic and vicious in its mandatory rule than any other employer of labor."

The South is now a different place, but the protecting the right of workers to organize, free of intimidation and fear, remains a key demand. Who knows what Southern workers would do if freed from threats of retaliatory firings, company threats of closing shop if the workers vote for a union, and other suppression tactics?

It's impossible to predict, but at least workers would have the opportunity to discover and act on the idea that "an injury to one is an injury to all," the motto that inspired the Wobblies one hundred years ago.