A hero of the Western Wobblies

August 19, 2015

Avery Wear reviews a recent book about IWW organizer Frank Little.

AT 3 a.m. on August 1, 1917, six men pulled Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Frank Little out of bed in his underwear in Butte, Montana. They dragged him behind a car, scraping off his kneecaps. Just outside the city limits, they beat him severely before hanging him off a railroad bridge. They pinned a note to his dead body warning other organizers, singled out by their initials, that they could be next.

Today, Little gets remembered as another Wobbly martyr, overshadowed by folksinger and labor organizer Joe Hill. But as historian Irving Werstein wrote, "Next to Big Bill Haywood, Frank Little was the most vital leader of the IWW." Arnold Stead's short and engaging Always on Strike: Frank Little and the Western Wobblies aims to recover his mighty struggles and special boldness as object lessons for left-wingers organizing in the shadow of the Great Recession.

Little, like Haywood, started out in the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), the main union behind the launch of the IWW in 1905. Stead shows how the WFM's radicalism grew up amid the frontier individualism central to conservative national myth-making. "The union echoed the cowboy motto--'Anything's better than wages,'" Stead writes. "In fact, Big Bill Haywood briefly attempted to organize cowboys."

Frank Little
Frank Little

Little played a leading role in the string of militant free-speech fights waged by the IWW from 1909 to 1914 in Missoula, Montana; Spokane, Washington; Fresno, California; San Diego; Denver; Wheatland, California; Los Angeles and Kansas City.

The armies of boxcar riding radicals that descended on cities to fill the jails after local cops arrested street speakers came from "hobo jungles" that Little and others organized. Stead writes, "Little and his comrades first drove out the predators...banned the use of alcohol, instituted proper toilet facilities...and generally established order. Perhaps most importantly, they brought men society had turned its back on into the free-speech fights."

Through these Western struggles, Little helped build a floating army of migrant worker revolutionaries for the IWW. But as Stead writes, "It may well be the jungles' effectiveness as recruiting sites for the free-speech fights that caused organizers, Frank Little among them, to overestimate their value for union organizing."

MEANWHILE, THE eastern IWW led a series of spectacular strikes as in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912. This eastern wing led by Haywood--the more Marxist one, according to Stead--built up a larger and somewhat more stable membership based around immigrant workers' steadier jobsites. Over Little's objections, the IWW dropped free-speech fights in 1914. Simultaneously, he was elected to the General Executive Board--in Stead's opinion, both to "mend the [East-West] fissure" and to keep Little under "Haywood's heavy wing, decidedly outnumbered by eastern Wobblies."

Yet Little, too, sought new organizing directions. Drifting away from the anti-centralism characteristic of the Western Wobs, he proposed coordinated regional organizing plans for farm laborers, directed toward "uniting the migratory harvester with his counterpart in the mines and the oil fields." This led to the formation of the Agricultural Workers' Organization (AWO), which by the time of Little's death anchored the dramatic growth of the IWW and changed the balance between East and West.

In Little's last years, he organized strikes and unions among Minnesota miners and dockworkers, Oklahoma oil workers and, finally, Butte miners. He built connections between workers in allied industrial sectors, always seeking to expand and sustain the struggles through all obstacles.

"The IWW is always on strike," he would say, when asked about apparent defeat--a perspective perhaps shaped by his prior experience in the free-speech struggles. Free-speech fights won by constantly expanding and escalating--rather differently from strikes, with their strategic constraints imposed by the need to maintain majority support inside a workplace.

Little clashed with Haywood and most of the leadership over his bold public opposition to military conscription in the First World War. He said he would rather "take a firing squad" than back down on his ambition to organize a general strike against the war. As such, he played a large if indirect role inspiring the 1917 Green Corn Rebellion in Oklahoma. This armed antiwar uprising by radical farmers, Stead speculates, may have broken out earlier than planned on news of Little's lynching. Some 3,000 people attended his funeral, "the largest ever held in Montana."

EAST-WEST tensions, personified in Haywood and Little's battles, express the contradiction between the IWW's twin goals of mass unionization and revolutionary organization. This played out through different demographics, different organizing methods and goals, and even differences of principle--all of which Stead shows. But his unsupported speculations on whether Haywood was "jealous of Little's popularity and influence in the AWO" unproductively divert us from politics to personality.

Stead's jazz background (he is a music critic) fits with his freewheeling (but soft-pedaled) suggestions on the Western Wobblies' relevance. He invokes Walter Benjamin on the structural necessity of workers defying police and the law where necessary. And he quotes Hannah Arendt to the effect that direct action is necessary in modern capitalism to affect real change, as it "interrupt[s] what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably."

Frank Little died before either of these writers could have influenced him or his fellow Wobs, but Stead isn't trying to rigorously unpack IWW ideology. He's encouraging us to see looser connections that might more naturally reflect on current struggles.

He does claim Little's (fluid and thus debatable) "anti-centralism" as a virtue because "centralization invariably has a vertical, from-the-top-down structure." Yet his positive reference to "a way of living together that raised its head for a few days in the Seattle General Strike of 1919"--given the centralized organization of that strike (and other experiences of workers' councils historically--contradicts his sweeping statement.

Stead also argues that "a vast number of working people today," weighed down by debt, need Little's "elemental, visceral" "anger" and "tenacity," and that "American society certainly has reached a point where the left has nothing to lose by asserting itself, rather than simply accommodating".

In some times and places, such a call might lead toward impatience and a dismissal of politics and strategy. But in today's working class and left movement, which is only yet regaining the confidence to strike and struggle in isolated pockets, Stead's words hit the nail on the head. And so does Frank Little's story.

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