My People-Wobblies

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, Alive as you or me. Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.” “I never died,” says he. “I never died,” says he.

                                    —Alfred Hayes/Earl Robinson


Though she died in the mid-1990s, I saw my Grandma Sadie last week at my sister’s house. She lives on in sepia, over the hearth, as she looked in 1917 in her teenage flapper’s garb—grinning broadly, playing her ukulele, resplendent in a grass skirt, hat, and high-laced black boots. I saw her photo in a new light—perhaps because we had laid my dad to rest a few hours earlier—and recalled a night, 22 years past, when she revealed to me more than I’d ever known before about how I come so honestly to my political commitments.


The night before my wife and I adopted our son in Florida in January, 1990, we took Sadie to a deli. Sadie and my Grandpa Izzy had moved from the Bronx to pre-Mouse Orlando in 1954, when there were no skyscrapers and few sidewalks. She was originally from Paterson, New Jersey, her childhood a cauldron of union/boss/police tension.


Sadie and Izzy had stayed in Orlando, opened a mom-pop, retired.


When we flew down for the adoption, Sadie had been living for some time—Izzy having been betrayed by a bad heart in 1966—in a modest yet well-kept building. She insisted that we and our new son stay with her for the week. (“What trouble could it be…and the price of a hotel!?”) When she wasn’t transfixed by our son, Sadie was devoted to television news and to debating, always from the Left, any issue raised, whether in the lobby of her building or with us.


After she ordered her pastrami on rye and strawberry shake, Sadie leaned across the table. “Jon, now that you have a son, now that you’re going to be a father, I want to tell you, both of you, about your family.”


Sadie told us some stories I’d already heard—about Izzy’s thieving partner in the Manhattan fur trade, their various other business ventures and failures, how  virile her Izzy had looked in those quaint, two-piece swimsuits at the New York beaches, details of her family’s coming from Eastern Europe, and how she was born in London on the way.


Then she told me something I never knew before: “Your great-grandfather—my father—and his father were Wobblies. Do you know who they were?”


I did know of the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, and their at times vicious competition with the American Federation of Labor. I knew of their sometimes anarchic vision of a capitalist-free America, their insistence on racial and ethnic union inclusion (an ideal the AFL then spurned), and their conviction that labor organizing on the basis of crafts alone, barring unskilled laborers (as the AFL favored), would allow corporation owners to divide and enfeeble the union movement. Beyond that, I knew little, and I wondered why Sadie would raise this now.


“Your people were Wobblies,” she went on. “They called themselves Wobblies because they believed with everything they had that their radicalism would wobble the earth on its axis, that they could shake and then bring down capitalism. Of course, they were mistaken, and, of course, that bum Stalin ruined any chance for the Wobbly ideal of One Big Union.”


“My people?”


“My shul, my house of worship, wasn’t, as it was for most Jews, on Saturdays. When I was a young girl in Paterson, my weekly service meant being taken to union rallies on Sunday mornings—or any other day of the week. The rallies happened at the factories all the time back then. I was brought every week to watch my father and grandfather—your people—throw rocks at cops and scabs and then be hauled off to jail.”


“A weekly ritual.”


“Yes. For your great-grandfather, his father and uncles, and their brothers and cousins, yes—a rite. At first it was frightening. After a while, I knew they’d all be home by dinnertime, at least most days. They’d share tales of the fight. The good fight. So, Jon, when your new son is not taking up as much of your time as he will for the next several years, find out more about your family. They were heroes, Jon. They lost; and they were heroes.”


Sadie told me to study up on fallen Wobbly heroes and heroines such as the murdered Joe Hill and Mary Harris (“Mother”) Jones. I have the time now, and the impetus. I’ve amassed a small Kindle library on the Wobblies, and a northern New Jersey cousin has sent me some very, very old resources.


Sadie said the Wobblies lost, and, of course, on one level that’s so. They lost in the sense that the AFL-CIO gradually drew in the IWW’s membership and muted the Wobblies’ most radical positions. And yet the Wobblies were a powerful impetus to the larger movement that brought us humane child labor laws, the forty-hour workweek, overtime pay, and safety regulations for plants, mines, and fields. And the Wobblies were prominent among the Progressive groups that, in large measure, moved Teddy Roosevelt to propose universal health care. One hundred years on, we’re closer than we’ve ever been to that economic and moral necessity.


So, I’ve been reading, for Sadie and for myself. I’m getting to know these people, my people.

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