Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Soapboxers and Saboteurs: 100 Years of Wobbly Solidarity

6. September 2005 • MarkDilley
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The IWW members are commonly known as Wobblies,” said Julie Herrada, curator of the exhibit and the collection. “The organization attempted to organize all workers into ‘One Big Union,’ challenged restrictions on First Amendment rights and broke down barriers of race, sex and class in their membership.”

Sometimes called “The singingest union America ever had,” IWW was started in Chicago in June of 1905 by Big Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners and others dissatisfied with the lack of progress of the craft unions under Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor. The organization’s direct action tactics, as well as the songs, poetry and lore that have come out of the movement have attracted some of the most colorful characters in
labor history – Joe Hill, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (Rebel Girl) and Ralph Chaplin, writer of “Solidarity Forever.” The movement held attraction for later singers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger as well as current artists Utah Philips and Ani DeFranco.

U-M’s IWW Centennial celebration, one of many at educational institutions across the U.S., offers a free concert October 19 featuring Anne Feeney, a national recording artist called by some “the greatest labor singer in North America.” Feeney was just named the recipient of the 2005 Joe Hill Award from the Labor Heritage Foundation. The concert will be held in the special collections library, 7th floor of the Harlan Hatcher library on UM’s central campus. Doors open at 7:00 p.m.

At one time, with every union card issued, IWW also handed out a little red songbook. The cover carried a motto: “To Fan the Flames of Discontent.” Inside were the words to about fifty songs, usually parodies of well-known melodies—pop songs of the day, hymns, or older tunes commonly sung. The songs were sung at meetings, on picket lines, in jails, on freight trains through South Dakota wheat fields or wherever Wobblies happened to meet. If
the Salvation Army was preaching against them from one street corner, they might set up a soapbox on the opposite corner. When the Salvation Army band started up “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” Wobblies would use it to accompany their own singing of Joe Hill’s parody “Pie in the Sky.”

Along with the concert, Joyce Kornbluh will talk about the history of her influential book, “Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology.” A discussion of current and past IWW labor struggles will follow.

The hours of the exhibit are M-F 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and 10 until noon on Saturdays.


Special Collections Library, University of Michigan
University Library, University of Michigan
Department of History, University of Michigan
Industrial Workers of the World, Detroit Branch
Institute for the Humanities, University of Michigan
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 58
Program in American Culture, University of Michigan
Roger A. Lowenstein, U-M LSA ‘64