by Bennett Muraskin
THE MOST RADICAL labor union in American history was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), colloquially known as the Wobblies. Its active years were from 1905 to 1919, with some campaigns extending into the 1920s. Fierce government repression during and after World War I, along with vigilante violence and internal divisions, dealt the IWW blows from which it never recovered, although it continues to exist on a very small scale until this day.
Its philosophy can be described as anarcho-syndicalist: Workers, organized into one big industrial union, would seize the means of production through a general strike and run the economy on a cooperative basis. No government would be necessary.
The IWW made absolutely no distinctions among workers on racial, ethnic or religious lines, welcoming whites, blacks, Mexicans, native-born and immigrants, including the Chinese who were being shunned, if not despised, by the mainstream American Federation of Labor and mistrusted even by the Socialist Party. The IWW published its literature in a multitude of foreign languages, including Yiddish.
The IWW did not have many Jewish members because it did most of its organizing among workers in heavy industry or out west, among miners, agricultural workers, maritime workers, and lumberjacks. These were not occupations that particularly attracted Jews. Of the few Jews living out west, most tended to be peddlers, merchants, and shopkeepers. The workers among them were employed mainly in the garment industry or in other skilled trades.
Yet one of the five victims of the 1916 Everett Massacre in Everett, Washingon was a Jew, 19-year-old Abraham Rabinowitz, who joined hundreds of Wobblies who hired a boat in Seattle to transport them to Everett where they planned to launch a “free speech fight” demanding the right to speak on street corners in support of labor organizing. They were met with police gunfire as the boat attempted to dock. Some were shot, others drowned. The IWW press eulogized Rabinowitz as one who was “born of a race without a flag, a race oppressed by the intolerance and superstition of the ages, and died fighting for the brotherhood of man.”
THE IWW’S was headquartered in Chicago. Although it did not represent many workers there, it had a considerable presence among hobos, who were essentially migrant laborers. During the warmer weather, they would hop freight trains to take them to jobs further west, returning to Chicago over the winter, where there were many flop houses and soup kitchens.
Beginning in 1908, It was in Chicago that Dr. Ben Reitman found housing for hoboes and organized a Hobo College, featuring lectures and other educational programs, in which hobos themselves participated. Reitman had hoboed around as a teenager and was so enamored of that way of life that he wrote a work of fiction that purported to be the memoirs of a female hobo, Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha as told to Dr. Ben Reitman. In it, the fictional Bertha describes her encounters with a variety of types, including IWW organizers.
Reitman was best known as the manager and lover of anarchist Emma Goldman. His brief but intense involvement with the IWW occurred in San Diego in 1912, when he and Goldman arrived to lend their support to an earlier “free speech fight.” A mob of vigilante dragged him from his hotel room and forced into a car. He was brutally tortured and dumped 20 miles out of town in his underwear. None of his attackers were charged with a crime.
Reitman also lectured on sexual health and was a strong advocate of birth control. He went into Chicago’s brothels to treat prostitutes for venereal disease and perform abortions. Some of these activities landed him in jail.
Only in the IWW’s forays into the east — most notably the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts textile workers’ strike and the 1913 Paterson, New Jersey silk workers’ strike — was there significant Jewish participation. Hannah Silverman, a Paterson mill worker, became an important strike leader in the Paterson mill strike.
Boris Reinstein, another Wobbly organizer, was involved in the Passaic mill strike, which involved some 10,000 workers in 1912. A refugee from tsarist Russia, Reinstein lived in Buffalo and Detroit and worked as a pharmacist; his wife was an obstetrician. Fluent in English, Polish, German, Yiddish, and Russian, he was very effective among the multi-ethnic millworkers.
Matilda Robbins, born Tatiana Rabinowitz, led a strike of textile workers in Little Falls, New York in 1912. She was one of only two paid IWW female organizers. During the 1920s, she was active in the IWW Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. She wrote a column and contributed poetry to the IWW press and, In later years, became a social worker in Los Angeles.
THE BEST-KNOWN Jewish Wobbly was Frank Tannenbaum (shown being arrested in 1914). He organized unemployed workers in New York City to demand food and shelter from churches during the bitter cold winter of 1913-14. He was falsely accused of incitement to riot and served a year in a notorious city prison, where he organized a strike of inmates against harsh conditions. After World War I, Tannenbaum dropped out of the labor movement to pursue a higher education. He earned a PhD from Columbia University and became a scholar specializing in race relations, criminology and Latin American history.
Irving Abrams joined the IWW in Rochester NY as a teenager, where he met Emma Goldman. Moving to Chicago, he found work in the garment industry, where he participated in a general strike led by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in 1915, in which he was arrested thirty-nine times. In 1920, he became an attorney specializing in civil liberties cases. He is best known for his role in the association that preserved the monument in a Chicago cemetery honoring the Haymarket martyrs and provided support to their families, duties he diligently carried out until 1971. His Jewish affiliations included the Workmen’s Circle, the Jewish Labor Committee, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Abrams wrote a memoir, Haymarket Heritage (1989).
Abrams was the product of an improbably marriage—both his parents were converts to Judaism who met in Europe, before immigrating to the US. Ironically he may have been the most Jewish of Jewish Wobblies.
I was recently in touch with the outgoing editor of the IWW newspaper the Industrial Worker. She told me she was Jewish. Gey veyz (Go figure)!
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.