Article on the History of the IWW in Grand Rapids

July 25, 2014

Article on the History of the IWW in Grand Rapids

As a result of our research into the history of anarchist activity in Grand Rapids, we recently had an article published in the Industrial Worker that provides an overview of the activity of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Grand Rapids during the 1910s and the 1970s. While a lot has changed politically since that time, it was interesting to learn how the IWW formed as an anti-political group that specifically rejected political action in Grand Rapids and was very hostile to the electoral left. In fact, many of the members of the IWW were former members of the Socialist Party who defected from the Party after they realized the limits of electoral politics.

We’re reprinting the article from the Industrial Worker here, and you can read a lot more about the specifics of IWW activity in Grand Rapids in Mob Work: Anarchists in Grand Rapids, Volume 2, which is available to order online.

Exploring The History Of IWW Activity In Grand Rapids, Michigan

by Ruhe

In recent years, the Industrial Workers of the World branch in Grand Rapids, Mich. has received attention on the pages of Industrial Worker and across the world for its organizing efforts. In the mid-2000s, a campaign to organize workers at Starbucks received considerable attention, while a more recent campaign to organize workers at Star Tickets in Grand Rapids was undertaken beginning in 2010. The cooperatively-run restaurant Bartertown Diner also affiliated with the IWW when it opened back in 2011.

These contemporary acts are essential to the continued presence of the IWW in the city. However, beyond these recent struggles, there is a history of IWW activity in Grand Rapids that is largely unknown. Owing to the IWW’s legacy of 100 years of struggle, it isn’t a surprise that Grand Rapids—a mid-sized city in the Midwest that once had a strong industrial base in the furniture industry—would have attracted the interest of the IWW. In cities like Grand Rapids, workers were fed up with the tactics of craft unions and the con tinued exploitation by the capitalist class, and the IWW’s militant approach had an undeniable appeal. Going back to the earliest years of the IWW, workers founded the Grand Rapids Industrial Workers Union No. 327. There isn’t a lot known about the union—it formed following a visit by a national organizer and almost immediately was attacked by other labor organizations in town who saw it as threat to their power. Industrial Workers Union No. 327 was like hundreds of locals that formed and fell apart in the IWW’s early years, vanishing largely without a trace.

In 1910, a group of workers and former members of the Socialist Party in Grand Rapids established Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Local 202. Despite its name, Local 202 was a mixed-local with workers in various industries. Only half of its 30 founding members came from the city’s large furniture industry. Its name reflected the importance of the furniture industry in Grand Rapids and showed the union’s interest in organizing within it. Efforts to organize furniture workers proved to be relatively unsuccessful, but it was not for a lack of trying. Local 202 intervened in one of the most well-known labor conflicts in Grand Rapids’ history, the Furniture Strike of 1911. While never having a strong base of workers in the furniture industry, the IWW nonetheless played a role in the strike. Members of the IWW provided frequent updates on the situation in Grand Rapids to the national IWW via the pages of Solidarity. The articles written for Solidarity reflected the development of IWW theory in the early 1910s, with the IWW in Grand Rapids encouraging independent worker organizing, rejecting the gradualism of craft unions, urging the organizing of unskilled workers, and advocating for sabotage and passive resistance. Whereas the official unions distanced themselves from instances of worker militancy including relatively limited acts of property destruction and attacks on scabs, the IWW defended them. During the strike, the IWW held regular weekly meetings designed to agitate and promote self-organization of furniture workers. At key points in the strike, the IWW invited national organizers such as Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn to fan the flames. When the strike ultimately failed, the IWW organized a massive distribution effort of a piece titled “Why This Defeat?” that explained the failure of the strike in light of craft union tactics.

Along with its efforts in the furniture industry, the most prominent campaign that the IWW engaged in was an effort to organize garbage workers in 1912. Workers went on strike in 1912, and while the workers were initially unrepresented, several workers were Wobblies. As the strike progressed and was criticized by the city government and other labor organizations, workers affiliated with the IWW. Ultimately, the involvement of the IWW didn’t do anything to help the strike as the city government was determined to crush it. The workers were eventually fired and the local govern – ment used the strike as a pretext to attack the IWW, banning it from soapboxing in town and preventing IWW members from getting their jobs back. Reflecting on their organizing efforts a few years later, a member of Local 202 wrote that this was a critical defeat for the IWW in Grand Rapids.

Beyond these two or – ganizing campaigns, Local 202 organized a number of public events throughout its existence. It hosted a wide range of IWW speakers, including visits by Frank Bohn and Ben Williams. In addition, members of Local 202 wrote for IWW publications such as Solidarity and the Industrial Worker , providing coverage of events in Grand Rapids and weighing in on stra – tegic debates within the national IWW. Some Local 202 members would gain national prominence within the IWW, among them were A.M. Stirton, an editor of Solidarity who worked with Local 202 in 1910, as well as T.F.G. Dougherty, who wrote a pamphlet published by the IWW titled “How to Overcome the High Cost of Living.” Doughtery left Grand Rapids in 1913 “after a particularly strenuous IWW campaign” but later was arrested in Seattle under criminal anarchy laws.

The last activity of Local 202 seems to have taken place in 1914. That year the union published a lengthy analysis of its organizing efforts titled “What’s the Matter with Grand Rapids?” that explored the inability of the IWW to catch on in the city. Among its insights, the IWW cited the high turnover within the local, opposition from the city liberal government, and the lack of talented organizers who worked within the industries they were trying to organize. The union also identified the pacifying effect that the high rates of home ownership had on workers in Grand Rapids, arguing that because so many workers were tied to their homes, they were dependent on capitalism and adverse to taking real risks.

The IWW appeared in Grand Rapids again in 1917, with brief accounts in the mainstream press reporting that anti-conscription stickers produced by the IWW were used to vandalize military recruiting posters. Additionally, three IWW organizers were arrested in Grand Rapids as part of an investigation involving local, federal, and private detective agencies. In both cases, the government had a zero-tolerance policy for IWW organizing and acted aggressively to stop potential organizing against the draft and job actions. This reflected the larger campaign of repression that was directed against the IWW during World War I. Again reflecting larger trends in the IWW, a branch was formed in the late 1970s when workers at Eastown Printing Co. affiliated with the IWW. At the time, the IWW was actively organizing small printing shops and co-operatives and such efforts made up the majority of shops organized at the time. It was the third such shop to be organized in Michigan. It lasted until most employees found jobs elsewhere in the private sector.

The activity of the IWW in Grand Rapids is an example of a tradition of struggle that has largely gone unexplored in the study of the IWW’s history. While not as well-known as the more prominent events and individuals in IWW history, there are countless hidden histories of resistance waiting to be written that explore the activities of the hundreds of locals that have formed over the years. These histories, scattered throughout the pages of IWW newspapers, in pamphlets, and in hostile mainstream newspapers, can provide valuable insight into a variety of organizing efforts that made the IWW an appealing option for those struggling for the abolition of capitalism. While disconnected in terms of continuity to current struggles, these histories have the potential to develop into stronger traditions of resistance, situating present struggles within a larger history.

Article on the History of the IWW in Grand Rapids was published on July 25, 2014

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