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IWW gains attention in North Providence

If nothing else, the injury suffered in North Providence by 22-year-old Alexandra Svoboda is bringing some attention to the reemergence of the Industrial Workers of the World, who have maintained a low public profile locally. Today, to bring more attention to the situation, the IWW plans to hold a 4 pm vigil outside Rhode Island Hospital.

Some of the demonstrators are slated to join John DePetro this morning.

In 2005, when a local event was held to mark the 100th anniversary of the Wobblies, here's part of what I wrote:

Although the Industrial Workers of the World — better know as the Wobblies — never claimed more than 100,000 members during the height of their influence, the radical labor union continues to hold a fond place in the collective imagination of the left. Paul Buhle, a professor of history and American civilization at Brown University, attributes this to how "their spirit was so wonderful, their songs so unforgettable, and their satire of capitalist values so delicious. It’s the spirit of rebellion — it never dies."

. . . .

"The Wobblies were part of an era of social, economic, and political uncertainty in the United States and the world," according to a history at www.pbs.org/joehill/story. "The IWW was a more radical extension of movements challenging the existing order, including socialists, progressives, and populists . . . The Wobbly founders were fed-up with marginal, inconsistent success in the nation’s labor movement, and offered a dream for the total transformation of the American economic system, predicated on every man, woman and child joining ‘One Big Union’ to take profits away from the wealthy and place them in the hands of the people who did the actual work."

The IWW’s iconic face was an immigrant who adopted the moniker Joe Hill. "Hill’s years with the Wobblies are shrouded in contradictory reports, legends, and tall tales," notes the PBS report. "Years later he would be reported on the front lines of virtually every major job action involving the IWW between 1909 and 1912. Legend would often have have Hill fighting for the Wobblies in a dozen different locations at the same time." Convicted in a grocery store robbery in Utah that left two men dead, Hill became a martyr when he was convicted and executed by a firing squad. Whether he was actually guilty remains a source of debate.

The IWW’s claim to fame includes having led spectacular industrial strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Patterson, New Jersey. Today, the IWW consists of "mostly young people, semi-employed, often in counter-culture communities," Buhle says. In a nod to its roots, the union is trying to recruit recent immigrants who might not speak English and have not been invited into existing unions, but who urgently need help.

The Wobblies were unique in the early years of the 20th century, Buhle says, "as a completely trans-racial union movement" which took in Asian, black, American Indian, and Latino workers. Contemporary unions, he notes, have increasingly tried to reach out to recent immigrants, albeit with limited success.

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