1482 The black cat lives on
For Freedom We Will Fight: The Industrial Workers of the World in British Columbia, 1905-1990
by Larry Gambone
Edmonton: Black Cat Press, 2021
$16.00 / 9781926878263
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
B.C.’s Wobblies: A radical union that will not die
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known everywhere as the Wobblies, were once the toughest and most uncompromising union organizers in the Pacific Northwest. But what do we know of this fearless fighter for workers’ rights in Canada and more specifically in British Columbia?
Larry Gambone, a “Wob” himself, enlightens us to an extent. We learn of early organizing activities across the province, particularly in the forestry, transportation and mining industries. We learn that “the first Canadian charter was for the Vancouver Mixed Union No. 322 on May 5, 1906.” We meet little known figures that fearlessly tramped Vancouver Island, B.C.’s north country as well as the Kootenays, carrying the IWW message of industrial democracy. Mostly men, they met workers, often secretly, to explain the principles of the IWW and encourage them to carry the union’s red membership card.
The book is limited to slightly more than 100 pages, but Gambone uses them effectively to provide a chronological account of Wobbly activity in the Vancouver shipyards, the coal mines of the Crowsnest, the lumber camps throughout the provincial interior and elsewhere. Campus activity is also documented.
The IWW was not popular with many union leaders. One reason: Wobblies sought change through direct action, not through the ballot box, while other leaders supported electoral candidates as the best way to win power for the workers.
Wobblies wanted a “worker self-managed, cooperative society” accomplished through “solidarity unionism” or syndicalism. And they advocated the general strike to accomplish their goals. This was usually anathema to the mainstream labour movement.
Gambone covers the ups and downs, and there were many downs, that marked Wobbly time in B.C. He supplies membership figures in many instances, showing them rising and dwindling. Despite the shrinking numbers, this was not a union that gave up.
The book notes the various branches that sprung up after the founding in Chicago in 1905. Gambone identifies local leaders like John Riordan and Fred Heselwood in the early years and describes their harassment by the authorities. Gambone, West Coast branch members Sylvia Lindstrom, Ed Shaw and Mark Warrior, and Kootenay-based writer Tom Wayman were among Wobbly leaders in modern times.
Regrettably, the book suffers from too little detail, reading more like a list of dates than a colourful chronicle of this scrappy, anti-establishment union bent on winning freedom from workplace tyranny for all workers. I say regrettable because in all of labour history this is the most flamboyant of unions and it deserves a more comprehensive telling.
The “Wobs” have a history, especially in the United States of aggressive, sometimes violent, workplace struggles. Famous socialist labour activists like Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood, and Helen Gurley Flynn held high the red flag and black cat symbol of IWW defiance. Murderous strikes and lockouts were marked by shootings and bombings.
Violent confrontations resulting in several deaths at Everett and Centralia, Washington, Ludlow, Colorado, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, attest to their commitment to improving abysmal working conditions and the willingness to confront employers and governments. But the Wobblies elicited an angry response in the media and from polite society.
Probably the most famous event in the U.S. was the bomb killing of Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg vividly recounted in Anthony Lukas’s 1997 book Big Trouble. Wobbly leaders, including Haywood, were tried for the killing and found not guilty, thanks to famed defence lawyer Clarence Darrow, but the image of violence worsened with it.
IWW troubadour Joe Hill made appearances in BC. Most notably, he supported the big Canadian Northern rail strike of 1911. Hill also made an appearance in the Kootenay mining town of Rossland, but Gambone does not mention it. Perhaps that is wise since there is no proof that Hill was ever there despite a plaque claiming otherwise. The plaque is mounted on the Rossland Mine Workers’ Hall, built in 1898 by one of the first IWW locals in Canada.
Gambone makes good use of labour historian Mark Leier’s Where the Fraser River Flows, a study of B.C.’s Wobblies. Among others, he also cites union organizer Jack Scott, B.C. historian A. Ross McCormack, and Paul Phillips, author of the first book-length B.C. labour history, No Power Greater. With their help, Gambone touches on parts of the Wobbly story, but he fails to generate the excitement we have come to expect from Wobs history.
For Freedom cries out for a hint of that fire in the belly that workers heard during the Wobblies free speech battles. It lacks the descriptive detail of the moment when the IWW black cat bristled with its coat of hair spiked for battle.
Gambone supplies solid sources, including several quotations from Wobbly publications like The Industrial Worker, but he does not weave his findings into a compelling narrative about the role of the radical IWW in the fight for a better workplace.
He does point out that Wobblies, though they may have been few in number and often fleeting, influenced other unions and other social movements, instilling in them the courage and solidarity that comes from their slogan “An Injury to One Is An Injury to All.”
He also offers an interesting explanation of the Wobbly name in a section explaining the terms used. Apparently, Wobblies like Chinese food and often met in Chinese restaurants. A waiter “who had a thick accent pronounced the name something like ‘eye wobble, wobble’.”
Gambone is an anarchist and a committed Wobbly. In his chronology we meet others like him who continue to carry on the IWW tradition, contributing to debates about climate change, industrial democracy and workplace safety. He concludes that capitalism is in “deep and fatal crisis” and will eventually reach a tipping point. When it does, “IWW ideas and practices will have an ever-increasing relevance.”
With polls showing a rise in union popularity, perhaps that Wobbly spirit will infuse organizing drives like the ones at Amazon and Starbucks. Perhaps non-union workplace leaders will recall the enduring strength of the Wobblies as they challenge their employers and fight exploitation. The black cat lives on.
Note: for some background of the IWW, see the film The Wobblies (1979), directed by by Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird.
Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker whose short film Joe Hill’s Secret Canadian Hideout discusses the possible appearance of Hill in Rossland. His latest book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), is reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer, and an earlier book, Codename Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), is reviewed by Mike Sasges. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh’s work has appeared in The British Columbia Review since it was founded in 2016. He has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy and has recently reviewed books by Terry Gainer, Marilyn Kriete, Michael Neitzel, Peter J. Smith, Chad Reimer, and Robin Winks. Ron lives in Victoria.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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