Flowers to the Rebels Faded


iww-bookVerity Burgmann’s Revolutionary Industrial Unionism is a fine history of the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia. They predated the Communist Party, and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was probably the beginning of the end of the IWW as a major force on the left in Australia. The Communist movement developed rapidly in and out of the ALP and the trade unions from that time.

Burgmann makes the connections between the IWW of the early part of this century with more recent radical initiatives in Australian working life. The Draft Resisters Union’s anti-conscription pamphlet, produced to oppose the Vietnam War, used the Wobbly poster ‘To Arms!!” which earned Tom Barker a stretch in gaol in 1915 (for more on Tom Barker see Eric Fry’s interview with him from the 1960s.)

toarmsMichael Matteson was inspired by this interview having found it at Bob Gould’s bookshop in 1965 (you can still get the printed copy from Bob). He also bought copies of the US IWW paper Industrial Worker in the Domain in 1964 from speakers like Col Pollard and Bert Armstrong.

Matteson was inspired by the Wobblies’ example to think about the impact of mass resistance, which could turn the ethical stand of many individuals into practical politics. He claimed that IWW tactics were more effective than those inspired by Leninist principles. Those who claim unions need to wrestle with the more individualist ethic these days with the collapse of collectivism could do well to take note of Matteson’s point here as we struggle for renewal.

Frank Hardy’s famous novel, Power Without Glory also highlighted the differences between the communists and the IWW. Hardy was a member of the CPA when he wrote the novel (and the CPA was instrumental in making sure it got published) and he subsumed the Wobbly legacy into the CPA view in the book. Later he acknowledged that the book was a “Wobbly novel”, “a book that the Wobblies would have appreciated”. The ex-wobblies such as Roly Farrall were the most enthusiastic in getting it printed and bound while CPA leaders were pretty hostile.

Pat Mackie was Chairman of the Mt Isa Section of the AWU during the famous 1964-65 lockout. He became the whipping boy of the media during that national divisive episode. “The hard-headed left wing old-timers wanted me, knowing of my industrially militant non-political “Wobbly” inclinations.”

Mackie was popular with the miners, but not so with the AWU, who expelled him from the union. During the dispute Mackie toured Broken Hill, and an old miner came up to him and took his hand. He held it to his heart and said “I’m an old miner, by God! I fought through the 1916 anti-conscription thing with the Wobblies, and it’s the happiest day in my life that I meet a real honest-to-God Union fighter like we had then!”

Burgmann sees the NSW BLF during the Green Bans era as displaying a Wobbly temper. The very notion of delaying development for environmental reasons rather than just on worker conditions and wages was an example. The way of running the union exemplified a wobbly notion of authority too, with the idea of limited tenure for union officials (. Jack Mundey explained “the driving force that made me suggest limited tenure was my own experience of seeing modern, contemporary unionism and seeing the need for some inbuilt guarantee for limiting power and having inbuilt renewal.” Mundey was a member of the CPA at the time, and found the idea was unpopular with CPA leaders and CPA union officials such as Laurie Carmichael.

The wobbly temper of the BLF was displayed by its preference for direct action at the point of production, and its distrust of the pretensions of vanguard parties to lead workers in struggle, its belief that trade unions themselves could educate workers to a class-conscious viewpoint, in its dislike of dogma and doctrinal hair-splitting, in its imaginative and inventive tactics, and in its larrikinism and good-humoured anti-intellectualism. For example when one of its organisers was asked about Lenin’s view that revolutionary consciousness had to be brought to the workers by a separate party, he replied simply ‘bollocks’. When a student Maoist was addressing one of their meetings, the BLF members nailed his briefcase to the floor. The Wobblies might have done the same.

One reason for the continuing inspiration provided by Wobbly deeds and legends to the generation ’68 in particular, was the recoil from the horrors of Stalinist communism and the disappointment of Laborism.

From a moderate Labor perspective, the IWW was seen as unnecessary and a messy part of labour tradition in Australia, because of the rapid rise of the ALP and its early successes in getting a worker based party into office and then getting arbitration as a part of the national political framework. Bill Hayden maintains that the IWW were “impossibly idealistic”. His father, a merchant seaman, and a wobbly in the US said “direct action appeared justified” in the brutal conditions there. This exemplifies the contrasting histories of the US and Australian labour movements.

Vere Gordon Childe, whose How labour Governs remains a classic view of the disappointments of the ALP in power, saw the IWW as “the first body to offer effectively to the Australian workers an ideal of emancipation alternative to the somewhat threadbare Fabianism of the Labour Party”.

The right saw the IWW as standing for I Won’t Work, which was a significant part of IWW ideology and agitation, as many of their songs, pamphlets and slogans showed:

Slow Down
The hours are long
the pay is small
So take your time
And buck them all
A pamphlet advocating a six hour was written by A E Brown which argued for the increase in the workers proportion of surplus value, undermining the capitalists.
The songs and slogans were directly addressed to the ‘boneheads’ who too readily accepted bourgeois values. ‘Mr Block’ showed this approach:
Please give me your attention, I’ll introduce to you,
A man who is a credit to our red, white and blue;
His head is made of lumber and is solid as a rock,
He is a common worker, and his name is M r Block.
And Block, he thinks he may
Be premier some day.
Oh Mr Block, you were born by mistake,
You take the cake,
You make me ache.
Tie a rock on your block, and then jump in the lake;
Kindly do this for liberty’s sake.

The distrust of the ALP and labourist ideology was a strong part of the IWW, as the example of Pat Mackie in Mt Isa showed.  There most well known song was Bump Me Into Parliament, written by Bill Casey in Melbourne, and sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle. It expresses the anti-labourist , anti-arbitration views of the IWW

Come listen, all kind friends of mine,
I want to move a motion,
To build an El Dorado here,
I’ve got a bonzer notion.
Bump me into Parliament,
Bounce me any way,
Bang me into Parliament,
On next election day.
Some very wealthy friends I know
declare I am most clever,
While some may talk for an hour or so
Why, I can talk for ever.
I know the Arbitration Act
As a sailor knows his ‘riggins’,
So if you want a small advance,
I’ll talk to Justice Higgins.
Oh yes I am a Labor man,
And believe in revolution;
The quickest way to bring it on
Is talking constitution.
I’ve read my Bible ten times through,
And Jesus justifies me,
The man who does not vote for me,
By Christ he crucifies me.
So bump them into Parliament,
Bounce them any way,
Bung them into Parliament,
Don’t let the Court decay.

This article is largely extracted from Verity Burgmann Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia. Cambridge Uni Press 1995. A great read.

Other histories of aspects of the IWW include Frank Cain’s The Wobblies at War and Ian Turner’s Sydney’s Burning.

The history of anarchism in Australia before the development of the IWW has been most usefully analysed by Bob James in a number of self-published books including Anarchism and State Violence in Sydney and Melbourne 1886-1896 (1986) and brief biographies of Chummy Fleming and J A Andrews. Quite a number of Bob James essays and arguments with Australian labour history are on the web. He has been the labour historian most concerned with uncovering forgotten histories, including the histories of mutuals and friendly societies. See the articles at Takver’s site for historical and current material on anarchism, direct actions and labour history generally.

James and other IWW people would probably take issue with much of what Burgmann says and you can see via the web lots of other histories of anarchism and syndicalism in Australia.

The IWW in Australia continues and via their website you can keep up to date with their activities in Direct Action and links to international branches.


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