Earth First!ers, Meet the IWW: Notes on Wobbly Environmentalism

By x322339 (Franklin Rosemont) - Industrial Worker, May 1988

Organized in Chicago in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World has been fighting the boss class and the megamachine—the industrial wreckers of the world—for [nearly a century] now and has chalked up quite a record for militant, hard-hitting, straight-from-the-shoulder direct-action style, rank-and-file democratic labor unionism. Ask any seasoned old fighter from any half-decent union he or she’ll tell you that the Wobblies set a standard that has rarely been approached and never beaten.

We don’t like to brag, so we’ll just refer you to a couple of good histories: Fred Thompson’s The IWW: It’s First Seventy Years and Joyce Kornbluh’s beautifully illustrated IWW anthology, Rebel Voices (both available from the IWW). In these books (and dozens of others you can find in … bookstores and libraries), you can read all about the epoch-making organizing drives, strikes and free-speech fights that the IWW has waged over the years, and that have made One Big Union an inspiration for every indigenous radical current that has come along to challenge the existing order. Civil rights, antiwar, anti-nuclear and student activists, the New Left, anarchists, feminists, and now animal-liberationists and radical environmentalists have all acknowledged the influence of the good ol’ rebel band of labor.

Here we’d like to note a few of the things that make the IWW different from other “labor organizations,” especially in regard to environmental and ecological issues.

First, in our view, the “official” so-called labor movement, the AFL-CIO, is not really a labor movement at all, but rather a corrupt statist, CIA-dominated bureaucracy whose specific function is to control labor. Some of these unions are undoubtedly better than others, and a few of them are able now and then to act honestly better than others, and a few of them are able now and then to act honestly and decently. But all of them are afflicted with outdated hierarchical structures and above all an idiotic ideology submissive to the capitalist system of wage slavery.

Consider, for example, a ridiculous bumper-sticker slogan promoted by several AFL-CIO unions: “Pollution: Love it or leave it.” This hideous inanity was supposed to save steel mills and oil-refineries in industrial hell holes like Gary, Indiana. In other words, the AFL-CIO mobilizes workers to defend pollution in order to save jobs that will create more pollution. Would a real labor movement, one responsive to the real interests of working women and men, do a thing like that?

Don’t think that this typical AFL-CIO slogan was some sort of accident. On the contrary, the AFL-CIO’s self-confessed love of pollution is consistent with its whole policy. After all, if you support capitalism—and you have to support the things that automatically go with it: militarism, war, racism, sex-ism, and pollution, in ever-increasing doses.

Instead of the imbecile slogan, “Pollution: Love it or leave it,” the IWW inscribes on its banner the ecological watchword, “Let’s make this planet a good place to live.” And we argue that the best way to accomplish this goal is to organize One Big Union of all workers to abolish the wage-system. The bosses are able to cause such vast environmental devastation because they have organized industry their way for their profit. The IWW says to the workers of all industries: Dump the bosses your backs, dump the ecocidal profit-and-wage system, and organize your jobs for yourselves, for your own good and for the good of the Earth!

Historians of the conservation and environ-mental movements have not examined the contributions of the IWW, but there’s a remarkable story there that should be told some day, at length. The Wobblies, in fact, can lay claim to being the only group in the history of North American labor to have been consistently on the side of the Earth against its commercial and industrial despoilers.

In its early years the Union urged that the organized working class would exercise an enlightened stewardship of the planet. The anthropocentric notion of “stewardship” has now been superseded, of course, but in those days it represented the thinking of all but a few conservationists.

Even in that early period, how-ever, the IWW sometimes looked far beyond the limited horizons of the conservation movement at the time, and now and then the Union’s voice of protest rang out in tones that bring to mind the impassioned vociferations of John Muir himself.

No organization in American history, for ex-ample, has done more to fight and expose the ruinous, murderous deeds of the lumber barons. From the 1910s on, the IWW press published numerous warnings of the great dangers to America’s forests posed by these malevolent mercenaries. The Industrial Pioneer for December 1925 called for immediate “conservation action” to stop the lumber companies’ “criminal and wholly unnecessary wastage” of forests: “Nothing but mute stumps over thousands of acres…Where is it going to end?” An accompanying photograph of devastated woodland is captioned: “A Forest Gone to Waste—Made into Chicago Tribune Editorials.”

Another article (One Big Union Monthly, October 1919) denounced the “totally destructive” character of then-current methods of reforestation, and pointed out that under the administration of workers’ self-management that the IWW proposed, such thoughtless destruction would be inconceivable.

Some of the old-time Wobblies stand out as real champions of the Earth, a living part of the wilderness they loved, and forerunners what today is often called “deep” ecology (to distinguish it from the superficial Mickey Mouse version which begins and ends with depositing one’s beer-can in the waste-receptacle rather than throwing it on the lawn). Wobbly bard Ralph Chaplin left us some powerful poems reflecting a profound awareness of Earth’s natural diversity. And then there were guys like Irish-born Fellow Worker John Dennis who, after working for a time on the Great Lakes headed west, fell in love with the wilderness (“This was as far as I wanted go. Idaho looked like the best county in the world”), joined the IWW, and fought the good fight for many a long year. Toward the end of his life he served as field consultant for St. John’s Flora of Eastern Washington and Harrison’s Flora of Idaho. “What they needed,” he explained, “was someone to show them where they could find various plants, and I knew the elevations and places where they grew.” These wilderness Wobblies deserve to be better known.

Let’s say a few words, finally, on over-population. As early as the 1910s Wobblies argued that a smaller workforce could more easily win higher wages and shorter hours, as well as better living and working conditions and working conditions, and therefore the Union became a vigorous advocate of birth-control. Of course they could have further justified their position with feminist and environmentalist arguments. What is important, however, is that they reached conclusions compatible with feminism and environmentalism not by adopting someone else’s arguments, but on their own, out of their own experiences as workers in revolt.

These are just a few elements in the “hidden history” of the IWW that many of us are trying to develop today, in the hope of building a mass workers’ movement capable of responding effectively to the specific challenges before us here and now and to-morrow. We are convinced that the IWW heritage is the best foundation to build on, and also that American working men and women are increasingly ready to take action along IWW lines.

We urge all of you out there to help us in any ways you can. Spread the word about the IWW among your friends and fellow workers. And if you know of unorganized (or misorganized) workers who are looking for a real union with vision and guts, tell them about us (or about them).

Remember, we’re all in this together.