Thursday, June 17, 2010

American Labor History: The 1911 Trek of "The Wobblies" From Oregon to California

Below: a rare photograph of a northwest American group of men, travelling as members of the Industrial Workers of the World, at a stop in Ashland Oregon in February 1911.  At was at this stop--hundreds of miles from their destination--that the men were forced to leave the train and rely on their own feet--and the goodwill of those good samaritans along the way---to take a stand for the rights of working people in America.  (from The Medford Mail-Tribune article, June 13, 2010.)    

The Wobblies were the nickname of an early 20th Century American labor group known as the Industrial Workers of the World.  They were a more radical bunch than the much larger American Federation of Labor, an organization that helped skilled workers but left industrial laborers and their kind out in the cold so as not to cause fear in the hearts of business men and politicians who were concerned about organized  labor becoming too large ar demanding too many laws protecting the welfare of industrial workers.

Because of the hostility engendered by some who had socialist and syndicalist views, "The Wobblies"  were often not welcomed in smaller towns. This was certainly true in February 1911, when just over a hundred men set off from Portland, Oregon to ride freight cars nearly 700 miles south to Fresno, California. 

This group of men made it through miles of railroad tracks, past large and small rural towns.  It was not illegal for men to travel on freight cars in those days, but it was if the train carried passengers.

  Some Oregon communities like Grants Pass, 200 miles south of Portland,  welcomed them, others did not in part because of the IWW being vilified in local newspapers as "hobos"  and violent revolutionaries. None of the men used their own names when talking to reporters or ordinary people, for fear of reprisals to themselves and their families. They referred to each other by a number.  

It was at approximately at 250 miles into the journey, at the Ashland Oregon train station just 15 miles from the border, that the men were forced off the freight cars by railroad police.  A few of the men turned back at this point, but most of them starting "riding the grits" in train parlance of the time.  They began to walk in other words.

The trek took them dozens of miles up into the Siskiyou Mountains that separate the California and Oregon state lines. The railroad tracks were the only means of getting over the mountains in those days and it took the IWW up steep terrain 3-4000 feet above sea level into the mountains in some of the worst weather the area had seen in years.  Over three feet of snow blanketed the pass. One man had severe frostbite when they finally made it to Yreka, California, the first major town just inside California. 

The group pushed on...and on.  It is estimated they walked over 150 miles.  Then they were allowed to take a train to continue their journey to Fresno. Finally, at the small farming town of Red Bluff in the Sacramento Valley, the IWW men found out through local reporters that the Fresno strike was over. It was at that point that the leaders burned all records and notes of meetings to keep them from falling into the hands of the authorities. All in all, in much adversity, they had covered 550 of the grueling 700 mile scheduled trip. 

The Trek of these disciplined and non-violent band of men would be all but forgotten were it not for a journalist, a professor at Southern Oregon University  and a local historian in Oregon who have collected what information they could find through the newspaper records. Here is part of a front-page article on the journey,as written by Paul Fattig in the Medford Mail Tribune:       

"Thrown off a freight train in Ashland this morning by special police in the employ of the Southern Pacific railroad, nearly 200 members of the Industrial Workers of the World are encamped just south of the city limits of Ashland," the Mail Tribune reported on Feb. 17.

"So far they have not made a single hostile demonstration," the article continued. "The police are on guard against their entering the city."

The Wobblies eventually decided to walk along the tracks — hit-the-grits in hobo parlance of the day — to Steinman, a railroad watering site some 10 miles south of Ashland, Mullen said.

When they arrived, hungry and without shelter, railroad section boss A.W. Nell loaned them shovels to clear an area in the snow and axes to cut wood and build warming fires, the historian said. Nell's wife gave the Wobblies apples and crackers, albeit not enough for all, he said.

In a Feb. 19 article in the Mail Tribune, a reporter who had spent the night with the Wobblies found no weapons, despite declarations to the contrary by the Ashland police.

"The railroad has given orders that no trains shall stop at Steinman, and mountaineers who know the Siskiyou pass say there is grave danger that the wayfarers may perish in the storm and snow," the journalist wrote.


For those interested, here's a link to the complete article:

Their aim was not to cause violence or intimidate ordinary citizens. They were simply supporting the rights of "working stiffs" like themselves to a better life.  And they were willing  to go peacefully to jail for what they believed.

Why have The International Workers of the World been all but forgotten in mainstream America? The major reason was the establishment backlash to the IWW, a process that picked up steam after the IWW opposed entry of America into World War I.  And even though many major IWW national leaders, like Bill Heywood, soon moderated their opinions to save the union from anti-free speech laws pushed through by Congress, the rise of Marxists in Russia in late 1917 excited a great deal of worry.  Coupled with bombings blamed on labor "agitators",  the government under Wilson and his Attorney-General William Palmer introduced a massive series of raids. These  "The Palmer Raids", against 43 IWW offices nation wide in May of 1919, were only the beginning of an anti-radical campaign that decimated  the IWW and other organizations with hundreds of arrests, most of which were declared illegal after the initial fears died down in the 1920's. These  arrests and political fissures between those who remained active in the concept of  "One Big Union" ended the IWW  as an effective force by the mid-1920s.  It survives today as a shell of a group that once boasted tens of thousands of members.      

Here's a bit of background on The Industrial Workers of the World and the polarized conditions between capital interests and undervalued labor which brought the organization into existence.



  1. You find the neatest things to post. This is quite something.

  2. Thanks., I have to give credit to The Medford Mail Tribune , Melanie. I had heard about IWW organizers being run out of lumber towns like Klamath Falls here in Oregon. But this was a series of events I had never heard about.

  3. tough times...definitely some tough men

  4. You said it Mike. They were determined men. You can't help admiring what they did.

  5. There were some bloody riots in Portland, surrounding the lumber mills outside of the city and the docks on the Willamette - some of the worst, in fact, in America, although they, too, go underreported.

    Thanks for this piece of Oregon history. Amazing how much things are now the same as they were then.

  6. You're welcome.
    That's one of the reasons why I wanted to share this history, Astra. I know somethings about Portland's labor troubles from the 1930's-40's from my dad ,who grew up in Oregon City and Milwaukee. His dad worked in a mill or two, among other jobs he got to keep the roof over the family.

    I agree in modern life it looks rather desperate for colege grads in good fields of training, much less ordinary working people.

  7. I don't think I agree that the workers should take over the ownership particularly but I do feel strongly that there should be a balance of power between the workers and the owners. I feel there should be fair wages, good benefits and a fair work week. What really bothers me is that so many people fought so hard and gave up so much so that we could have the standard of living we had in the 50s, 60s, and 70s and we let it all slip away from the 80s on, bit by bit.

  8. This is a really good post Doug. It is thought provoking, informative and has meaning.

  9. Our lives seem so much easier than even the recent past

  10. An interesting episode from your local history Doug and a testament to the IWW activists who made such determined efforts to support their fellow workers in struggle in California.

    The suppression of the IWW is the point at which the rot truly set in I think.

    Those long gone days are captured in the songs of Woody Guthrie composed at the time when the Robber Barons consolidated their power and became the new American monarchy.
    This new dynasty arose at same time as the old dynasties of Europe were under threat from the power of the industrial working class and in Russia they were swept away completely.

    The Wobblies probably paid the price for their peacefulness, turning the other cheek is really not an option when dealing with cut-throats like Rockefeller and the thugs he and the other mafiosi hired to wreck all hopes of any meaningful workplace democracy in corporate America.

    The IWW of course does still exist, although as you point out, now in far fewer numbers than during its heyday in the early 20th century.

    Currently their main claim to fame is the unionization of Starbucks - which causes me something of a dilemma, as someone who boycotts such labyrinthine transnationals, but who also supports the international organised labour movement of which the IWW of course remains a part.

    Thanks for posting this account of the Wobblies and drawing attention to the fact that American social and economic history is made up of such principled acts and those unsung heroes who subsequently have mostly been airbrushed out of the official accounts.

    I'm sure the Wobblies have lessons for us all today in the post-Fordist world, but they are probably more appropriate to India and China than to the US and the declining post-industrial economies of the 21st century West.

    A fascinating blog Doug and a great clip as well.

  11. I totally agree Mary Ellen.

    The USA now is not the country that had relatively stable equality of wages between workers and their salaried managers, nor is it a an upwardly-mobile and fair country I grew up in before Reaganism swept the land.

  12. Thanks. My hat is off to the historical researchers who provided the information for the original news article

  13. I agree AA. The violence against the IWW members, which did not preclude murder by mobs and thugs or, conversely, framing prominent IWW members for homicide, for instance did set the stage for the hysteria against radical ideas that were stoked by the waves of simplistic and venal propaganda of World War I coming to America in 1917 (i.e., all things leftist were lumped together as "un-American", including any doctrine not "nativist." Of course our own nation was founded on European "radical" notions as well, but that is an irony for another blog.)

    You raise an interesting question--what are the lessons for developed nations in the early IWW's struggles of nearly a century ago? It does seem that the labor intensive economies of the Far East and the Sub-Continent are the most likely to use the IWW paradigm.

    Mr Jay Gould's notion of hiring one-half of working men to kill the other half is indicative of the type of social Darwinist evil these workers could find themselves facing. Many, like Andrew Carnegie's men during the Homestead Steel Strike in 1892 Pittsburgh and the Rockefeller gang at a lead mine in Ludlow Colorado in 1916 employed shoot-to-kill tactics on strikers.

    I am simply amazed at the principles of people in action here--I cannot imagine modern American workers walking over snowy mountains to support others in a cause. And their support system was based on finding decent people along the way. These were rare men (and the women who helped them) indeed--recent immigrants most likely with a raw-boned attitude to life. That they did so anonymously is all the more fascinating.

    But there is a lesson in following the principles of our modern market forces and being awakened to the way the economy works. This unionization of Starbucks is news to me, so I see the spirit is still burning against the tough odds all service-sector workers face in creating collective-bargaining in their shops.

  14. Quite true, Oakie. Over here, many take a lot of the struggles of the past for granted.

  15. You remind me - whatever happened to our resident Wobbly Mike, I wonder?

    It is indeed a triumph of the rulers that they have managed to make so many unthinking workers in thrall with the right wing and the bosses and various other rulers.

    It's a bit like slaves believing that they are lucky and the slave masters know best and we should never throw away our chains.

    Or women still thinking that women still belong, barefoot and pregnant, in the kitchen and bed of our master.

    It is that kind of thinking which finds workers (in their role of taxpayers) supporting social welfare for the rich and the banks and the American car industry while tightening their own workers belts (string even) and losing their homes, paying still higher taxes, accepting reductions in their wages, and further, actually being foolish enough to agree that the poorest of us surviving on benefits are the bludgers.

    Go the wobblies. Great article Doug.

  16. A good question Iri Ani. Perhaps someone can enlighten us about Wobbly Mike.

    Yes, regarding propaganda triumphs, I literally run across working people like me all the time who vote against their best economic interests and make fat cats fatter. The politicans wh otalk their game for them talk up social issues like gun rights and gay marriage and the usual bill of particulars against reproductive freedom for women. Looks like a charm on many people who are a couple paychecks away from disaster.

    And when our reverse neo-Con Robin Hoods cut "government waste" they cut basic pensions for public employees , school classes, and school teachers first. Funny what can be defined as "waste" and "belt-tightening" huh? And who gets the blame for causing the mess. The brainwashed say its the governement first and foremost, not the bankers and mortgage lenders who overheated the economy with all these fancy credit-deficit swaps, derivitives and other pyramid scheme chicanery.

    (Starting to rant a bit here. Sorry.)

    Ah, but as you say when it comes to bailing out investment bankers and promoting tax breaks for corporations (that generated $7-800 billion in deficit spending, well, that's okay for them. ) That's where hypocrisy triumphs!

    Tens of billions for bankers who make bad loans knowingly---but belt-tightening for someone who works for years and finds their pension decimated, or dedicates their life to public service and are out of a job (unless their job involves fighting and maybe dying in distant places.)

    And even soldiers and Marines who are brain-damaged by insurgent bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan don't get their fair share of treatment. Under Bush and Cheney, they could be declared "unfit to serve" after their service tour ended. I'm not kidding.

    I know life isn't fair, but sometimes its flat-out bizarre.

    Thanks for your spot-on remarks Iri Ani.

  17. This is too interesting and I shall come back and look at this Doug. If not tonight when I return as I am heading out of town. Tremendously interesting.

  18. Be good to hear your take on this one, Jack.