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The radical IWW - "Wobblies" - gaining strength in Oklahoma after an absence of nearly a century

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
IWW Oklahoma organizer Mitch Runnels.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – In the fascinating and compelling 1979 documentary The Wobblies, the filmmakers managed to interview a number of surviving, original members of the radical union known as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or “The Wobblies,” who were active in the early 20th century.

This organization, billing itself as “One Big Union,” successfully organized unskilled workers across the United States as industrialization changed the landscape those heady days, and ruthless industrialists like Rockefeller and Carnegie took advantage of America’s growing industrial working class.

And while folks in those days would offer religious salvation to the struggling workers, who suffered indignities day in and day out, the IWW would help workers stand up and dust themselves off, offering anti-religious slogans like: Slogans included “Trust in the Lord and sleep in the street” and “Jesus saves the willing slave.” The IWW were about the here and now and helping folks where they were - not the Starvation Army's feel-good "pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye." Yes, there was violence used against the IWW, but they reject violence because those tactics don't work and end up marginalizing workers.

Led by “Big Bill” Haywood in those days, the IWW was feared by the capitalist class and they used the law to crush the Wobblies, ultimately leading Haywood to flee the U.S. and go to the Soviet Union where he spent his final days, partly in serving Lenin’s Bolshevik government as a labor advisor.

While better known in the industrial north, the IWW did have a history in the early days of Oklahoma statehood, a small union that “punched way above its weight class.” A book on the Wobblies presence in Oklahoma is called Oil, Wheat and Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma, 1905-1930 by Nigel Anthony Sellars. This OU Press book delves into Oklahoma’s early years as a “wage-workers frontier” where low-skilled workers, particularly in seasonal and migratory jobs, were exploited by powerful, organized corporate entities of that era. But, as we noted in our review of Jim Bissett's Agrarian Socialism in America, early Oklahomans embraced socialism, until bourgeois reactionaries and "patriots" clamped down hard on those early efforts.

And while the Wobblies may seem like anachronistic “agitators” of a bygone era, a new generation of radical, anti-capitalist union organizers is making their presence known in the Sooner State once again.

Mitch Runnels, 23, is a branch delegate with the Oklahoma General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. He recently paid a visit to Red Dirt Report and was frank about the union’s goals.

“If anybody in this state is fighting for a better workplace environment or a better future for themselves or other workers in this state, and doesn’t want to go at it all alone anymore … that’s what we’re here for. Get in touch with us and we’ll do what we can,” Runnells said in a serious and direct way during our interview.

Runnels explained that he organizes primarily in eastern Oklahoma and the Tulsa area and that the Oklahoma IWW is very busy these days, already organizing May Day events in Tulsa and Norman and an upcoming Anarchist Book Fair.

A self-described anarchist and former construction worker, Runnells lives in Broken Arrow and became familiar with the IWW in school while studying labor history. Fascinated by the IWW, a few years ago he took the time to research the organization further and discovered there was not an active branch in Oklahoma at the time.

But that soon changed as Runnels and others took the time to activate an IWW branch in the state. He also noted that a lot of people who would have normally joined the IWW have not because they assumed the organization was defunct.

“We went through some seriously lean years for a while there,” Runnels said. “After the Palmer Raids and the split in the union in 1924, membership was on a steady decline until it finally bottomed out in the 1950’s.”

In the mid-to-late 1950’s, he said,  there were only a few hundred Wobblies, but he noted that the union never ceased to exist entirely, despite a lack of major organizing outside of certain strongholds.

“In the 1990’s, some older members were worried of a die-off (of the Wobblies), but for whatever reason we have seen a major resurgence since about 2000,” he said. “We’ve more than doubled in size in the past 15 years. We currently have currently more than 3,000 members in good standing as of this month. A number more who are a month or more behind in dues.”

And Runnels noted that for the first time in the union’s history, they are actively organizing outside the United States.

“Historically we were primarily a North American organization,” he said, adding that growth in IWW membership is occurring in Europe.

Nicknamed “The Wobblies” (allegedly because Chinese immigrants to America could not pronounce the letter “W” and would instead say “I-Wobble-Wobble,” instead) say that any and all wage workers are entitled to membership in the IWW (“I.Will.Win.”).

When joining – in Oklahoma City, for instance – Runnels said a potential member will first talk to the Western Oklahoma membership delegate, you are asked a number of questions, read the IWW literature, fill out an application, pay your initiation fee and first month’s dues and then you are issued your “red card.”

You must be someone who does not exercise unilateral hiring and firing authority over other employees and agree to the basic principles in the preamble to the IWW.

“Skilled workers to panhandlers on the street” are eligible to join, Runnels said. They have an active presence in the service, construction and technical fields in Oklahoma.

“Some sought us out because they read about us in a history class,” he said.

And while many of the trade unions are seeing a drop in membership, the IWW is, as he noted earlier, experiencing a resurgence, likely due to their uncompromising nature and history.

“There are things that the traditional trade unions are failing to do in the current climate and people look at the IWW and see an alternative form of organizing and a chance at striking back against these injustices,” Runnells said.

Low wages are an issue the IWW is sought out to address, Runnels said, in addition to workers who are offered too few hours or too many hours. And then there are the wage theft complaints.

“We just recently resolved a wage theft complaint,” added Runnels.

As for politics, Runnels said the Wobblies do not endorse any political parties, and this fact, 100 years ago, caused a split with those, like the Socialist Labor Party’s Daniel DeLeon, who split off from the original IWW and formed the short-lived Workers’ International Industrial Union.

“In terms of the union’s politics,” added Runnels, “We are explicitly anti-capitalist. Our eventual end goal of our organizing is the abolition of the wage system and we have very carefully not endorsed any left-wing political tendency.”

Continuing, Runnels said: “We’ve got anarchists in the union … we’ve got socialists of various kinds, we’ve got social democrats and we have people who don’t identify with any one political tendency at all. People who understand that the working class is being crushed and want to do what they can and to fight back (join the IWW). We are happy to welcome all of those people.”

Added Runnels: “Sectarian in-fighting of various stripes of ‘left’ is just detracting from the union’s primary mission.”

When asked about such a radical, left-wing labor organization building a presence in Oklahoma after an absence of nearly a century, Runnells said people in other states express surprise that right-wing, conservative Oklahoma is experiencing success in terms of IWW organizing.

He said: “We’re fairly small, but we’re growing quickly. And we have enough people that we are able to have a self-sustaining organization. We are able to pay for all of our events. We are able to pay for all of our transportation. And we’re able to put on a number of events.”

And while some people are surprised at the IWW’s successes in Oklahoma – which had an early, socialist history – others are not, and that his comrades in other states tell him that the IWW’s successes “have been a long time coming.”

“There are few places in the country more ripe for organizing than Oklahoma is,” he said. And with mainstream liberalism increasingly viewed as ineffectual at truly fighting for the working class, workers seek out the IWW, increasingly so in this state.

“Oklahomans make far better radicals than we do liberals,” Runnells said with a smile. 

To learn more about the IWW here in Oklahoma, send an email to iwwoklahoma@gmail.com. Or simply go to the IWW's main website - www.iww.org.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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