It’s no secret that the IWW has seen better days. At one time, our membership was in the hundreds of thousands and we appeared to be on the verge of becoming the voice of “unskilled” labor. Vicious government repression over several years put an end to that, and instead we were forced to fight for our very survival. Obviously we are still here, but we have not yet regained the same recognition and influence that we had a hundred years ago. Now the question is how to regain that which we lost during the First Red Scare a hundred years ago.
There has been a lot of speculation around what caused the decline of the IWW after 1917. The factor that immediately comes to mind is government repression, which was certainly a large part of it. But the people who ended up getting arrested and left in prison to rot were also a factor in and of themselves. Though the IWW prides itself on being an organization that doesn’t truly have leaders, there are certainly individuals who have more influence than others. Those individuals in particular were targeted by the government to effectively remove them from the equation and stop them from providing their skills and experience to the union. By the end of the Red Scare, the union was bereft of much of its leadership and became vulnerable to infighting. This resulted in the split of 1924, which reduced the union to a shadow of its former self.
So, what now? The vast majority of the American public has forgotten that the IWW ever existed, and those who do remember tend to think the IWW died out sometime in the 1920’s, never to be resurrected. Imagine their surprise to find out we do in fact exist and are ready to help organize them! This is what makes propaganda important. The early IWW was fond of using soapboxes and aggressive leafleting campaigns that ensured everyone in the United States and Canada who didn’t live under a rock knew of the IWW. It is, after all, much easier to organize people who know that the union exists in the first place. And when newspapers all over the country started picking up on this new threat to capitalism, the soapboxing and leaflets provided a different narrative from the one the capitalists were pushing. It’s harder to lie about an organization who consistently and thoroughly educates the public about its purpose and goals (of course, the capitalists managed to do that anyway through censorship of IWW materials, but that’s a different story). Perhaps, then, we can build our union to new strength by taking a leaf out of their book and making propaganda a central part of our activities alongside workplace organizing.
Recent studies have shown that the millennials as a generation are very interested in unions and union organizing, but the rise of the modern gig economy and the decline of union jobs are making it difficult for millennials to join a business union. This is where the IWW has the potential to gain a multitude of dedicated organizers, provided that we are willing to put forth the effort to make ourselves known to them. Being a solidarity union with a plan to end the exploitation of the working class does no good if nobody knows we exist or think that we vanished following World War One. So, let us make sure they know about us. Let’s grab piles of flyers and paste them all over the local university. Let’s host events with speakers and free food and talk about solidarity unionism and how to fight back against cruel bosses. Let’s use the power of the internet to tell people exactly who we are and how we can fight for the honest working people of all countries. This way, even an IWW member who isn’t currently organizing their workplace can help advance the cause and bring more people to the union. And as an answer to the ills of capitalism and business unions, it would be a dereliction of duty on our part to not try to spread our message as far and wide as we can. So let’s start making posters and distributing leaflets like the General Strike is going to happen tomorrow. We’ve got nothing to lose and a world to gain. ⯁