Founding of the IWW & the Black Worker
For this week’s Peace of History:
On June 27, 1905, 200 delegates gathered together in Chicago and founded a new kind of union: the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Unlike the other unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) -- which exclusively focused on protecting the interests of White male workers in “skilled” trades -- the IWW wanted to build “one big union” to represent all workers in all industries: women, Black workers, non-White immigrant workers, as well as white workers in “unskilled” trades. They called this idea “industrial unionism,” as opposed to the more common “craft unionism.” Indeed, although there is no direct mention of racial justice in the founding meeting minutes nor the founding manifesto, the IWW’s commitment to their slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” led Mary White Ovington, one of the founders of the NAACP, to write in 1913: “There are two organizations in this country that have shown they do care about full rights for the Negro. The first is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People… The second is the Industrial Workers of the World… The IWW has stood with the Negro.”
Many Americans have the view that trade unionism and left politics generally are almost exclusively white male spaces, historically as well as now. The IWW, or “Wobblies” as they came to be known, is one of many counterexamples to this narrative. Present at that founding meeting were several luminaries of the American Left at the time, reflecting a diverse mix of socialist and anarchist schools of thought: Mother Jones (legendary Irish-born labor organizer), Lucy Parsons (labor organizer, woman of color, and widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons), Daniel De Leon (leader of the Socialist Labor Party), Eugene V. Debs (leader of the American Socialist Party and for whom one of the Voluntown Peace Trust library is named), and more. Their foundational tactics became direct actions like strikes and sabotage, and their demonstrable passion for all working people continued to attract a diverse crowd -- the ranks of card-carrying Wobblies would later come to include the likes of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Hellen Keller, and Noam Chomsky.
In 1910, the IWW began to distribute leaflets and pamphlets specifically addressing issues of the Black worker and offering industrial unionism as the solution: “The Negro has no chance in the old-line trade unions… They do not want him. They admit him only under compulsion and treat him with contempt. There is only one labor organization in the United States that admits the colored worker on a footing of absolute equality with the white -- the Industrial Workers of the World.” As part of this shift, all IWW journals across the country began publishing educational pieces about racial equality -- including in the South. Some were directed at the Black worker directly, while others reminded White workers that the color line had always been used to divide the workers against themselves. As long as the color line existed, these journals argued, employers could continue to exploit the working class forever. This logic is compelling today and it was in the past as well. Indeed, one particularly passionate proponent of this theory was the editor of The Voice of the People (the Southern organ of the IWW) Covington Hall -- who, according to historian Philip S. Foner, was “an Adjutant General of the United Sons of Confederate Veterans, who became a radical, a Socialist, an active organizer for the I.W.W., especially among Negroes in the South.”
Although all trade unions are organized by the common understanding that workers are vulnerable to exploitation, all the other trade unions at the time had some arbitrary conditions to membership: gender, race, type of labor. One of the foundational concepts of industrial unionism is that all of these arbitrary conditions could be used to exploit workers in the exact way that the color line did. The IWW came to adopt racial equality as a goal not out of generosity or pity, but because the practical logic of ending worker exploitation demanded it. And with the IWW facilitating more opportunities for interaction and cooperation between workers of different backgrounds, a feedback loop of antiracist education emerged. As the IWW continued to grow, mature, and become a major force in the conflict between Capital and Labor, they became known for their legendary ability to unite workers of diverse backgrounds, national origins, even different languages (see our post from 5/14/2020 about the Bread and Roses Strike). The IWW proved that shared vulnerability is the first step toward solidarity.
Foner, P. S. (1970). The IWW and the Black Worker. The Journal of Negro History, 55(1), 45–64. doi:10.2307/2716544
“Industrial Union Manifesto.” https://archive.iww.org/history/library/iww/industrial_union_manifesto/
“Minutes of the IWW Founding Convention.” https://archive.iww.org/history/founding/
“The Industrial Workers of the World.” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/goldman-industrial-workers-world/
For this week’s Peace of History:
Since the Polaris Action in the summer of 1960, peace activists had been leafleting sailors stationed at the Sub Base in Groton as well as to the workers at General Dynamic/Electric Boat, where the workers build the nuclear-armed submarines. Often in the early years, the activists would suffer violence or threats of violence, but they also won some significant success as well. From Polaris Action Bulletin No. 2, in just the first few weeks of the program:
“Joseph Glynn tended his resignation from the Naval Reserve and returned his draft card to this board at a New London press conference the morning of June 6. He called upon all military men, ‘especially Navy men at the New London Submarine Base who are assigned to the Polaris Fish of Death, to resign from the Navy with him and join both Polaris Action and the movement for national defense thru nonviolent resistance.’ Joseph, a four year Navy enlisted man and three year Reservist, has written an open letter to his commanding officer, Rear Admiral Espe, 1st Naval District, Boston, and a statement Conscience Against Polaris Submarines. Copies of both documents are available from our office.”
Stories like Joseph Glynn’s were not common, and indeed, most of the activists who attempted to appeal directly to the consciences of workers and sailors were usually met with ugliness. Later, on the drenching rainy afternoon of June 18, “Brad [Lyttle] sustained a blow on the jaw, and other minor physical assaults were absorbed nonviolently by several participants. A station wagon with a large sign mounted on top, driven by Jim Peck, was mobbed, nearly overturned and the sign torn down and mutilated[...] As the evening progressed, we became more and more involved with a number of shipyard workers and sailors who were rather antipathetic.” And yet, despite the rain, the violence, and the verbal abuse, the efforts of these activists were not for nothing -- the entry for that date ends with the line: “Among the multitude of opponents there were two sympathizers who have since rendered invaluable assistance to Polaris Action.”
Later in the 1960s, as the war in Vietnam grew, some sailors sought military counseling from Marj Swann at CNVA. During the Trident/Conversion Campaign in the late 1970s, two workers publicly stated their opposition to the Trident Submarine Program; Dick Proescher, who wrote and spoke about his opposition, was fired for taking a few extra minutes on a break. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War and the massive layouts resulting from decreases in submarine manufacturing, the New England War Resisters League (successor to the CNVA) helped create the Community Coalition for Economic Conversion which included individual EB workers. Promoting a grassroots approach to economic conversion, the coalition worked on a Manufacturing Needs Assessment Survey and An Action Plan for Jobs with the EB Unions. This work resulted in changes in the retraining of EB workers, but have not yet won any real economic conversion projects.
In 2010, for the fiftieth anniversary of Polaris Action, “Veterans of the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action and all its successor groups” wrote again to the workers of Electric Boat:
“We are NOT here to put you out of your jobs. We know you have valuable skills and experience. We want to suggest, however, that those skills and that experience can be used to do work which will benefit our country , and indeed, the people of all nations. You know that this country’s infrastructure is falling apart. Our dams, bridges, roads, school-houses, and many other important structures need rebuilding. Also we need rapidly to change the patterns which are destroying our environment. That means stopping the use of coal, gas, oil and nuclear fuels, and quickly developing new fuels using solar, wind, and water elements. You have -- or can easily learn -- the skills to do all this work.”
We have written about the potential dangers of nuclear weapons in the past, but have focused less on the ongoing consequences of our government’s nuclear arms program. According to Timmon Wallis of NucleaBan.US (and one of the speakers in our recent Nonviolent Social Change in the Time of Covid-19 series), the projected cost of the United States nuclear weapons infrastructure -- including upkeep, potential clean-ups, and new systems -- comes out to about $90.7 billion annually. As Wallis notes in his free book Warheads to Windmills, “Unlike the money spent on renewable energy, this is not a capital investment in things that will bring a return of income at a later date. This money is simply spent and then it is gone. It is turned into weapons that can never even be used except in an end-of-the-world scenario.” Moreover, every person using their valuable skills, labor, and creativity on nuclear weapons is not using them for something like green energy. Many skills required to work on various levels of the nuclear arms program are transferable to more productive and necessary fields: research, engineering, design, fabrication, and more.
“A Message to Those Who Work At Electric Boat.” CNVA (June 11, 2010)
Polaris Action Bulletin No. 2. CNVA (June 14, 1960)
Polaris Action Bulletin No. 3. CNVA (June 22, 1960)
“Warheads to Windmills.” http://www.nuclearban.us/w2w/
Coda: Today, “cancel/callout culture” is a popular form of online activism in which one publicly shames someone perceived to have said or done something problematic. Directed at a celebrity, this may include active harassment as well as passive boycotting of their products. Directed at a neighbor, however, this ultimately leads to blocking the offender on social media -- a silencing, a removal, and a deepening of divisions. For people of color, sometimes it is a matter of mental or physical safety to remove oneself from engaging with hateful people. But on the same token, and especially for White allies, directly engaging with and attempting to convert the opposition is oftentimes the most courageous and productive action to take.
Polaris Action 60th Anniversary
For this week’s Peace of History:
On next Tuesday, June 16, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Polaris Action that brought the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) and a tradition of nonviolent direct action to southeastern Connecticut. As many groups around the country today are currently attempting to affect positive change in their local communities (some for the first time), let us review the CNVA’s remarkable flurry of activity that summer in New London and Groton, and how it permanently affected our region, if not the greater national and global peace movement.
First, what was Polaris Action? After months of preparation, organizing and promotion, the CNVA launched a nonstop summer-long campaign to “educate Americans to the realities and dangers of the nuclear deterrent policy typified by the Polaris submarines and their deadly cargoes of nuclear missiles,” which were being built at General Dynamics/Electric Boat in Groton. These were the very first nuclear-armed submarines ever built -- each one a genocidal weapon built for a cold war in which people of color were the most common victims. The United States had already used nuclear weapons twice on the Japanese -- a people widely considered in the United States as an “inferior race.” This fact was not lost on people of color in the United States, and Polaris Action was a multiracial effort -- indeed, legendary African-American civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin was a CNVA leader.
Headquartered on Bank Street in New London (where the city later put up a parking lot), Polaris Action members would often meet down the street at what is now the Hygienic Art Gallery. CNVA supported and organized hundreds of visitors as well as local residents as they held a wide variety of activities: daily vigils and marches, weekly documentary movie screenings and other educational events, handing out leaflets to Electric Boat workers day and night -- even when the leafletters were met with aggression and accusations of Russian influence. The CNVA helped visiting participants find housing and meals, and assisted individuals who may have found trouble with aggressive locals. A whole coalition of groups were invited: one of these groups, the Peacemakers, co-sponsored trainings on nonviolent civil disobedience and protesting to people who had never experienced them. A few especially daring activists chased submarines on little sailboats, attempting to and ultimately succeeding in boarding the massive death machines -- making international news. And yet despite the whirlwind of activity, Polaris Action members also knew the value of social recreation: one time, they participated in a local dance at Connecticut College for Women.
The CNVA won publicity by reaching out to high profile individuals, groups, and publications not just in Connecticut, but in the surrounding states as well (The New York Times and others ran multiple stories, as did our local Bulletin and The Day). The CNVA published and distributed its own weekly newsletter, Polaris Action Bulletin, that communicated the upcoming plans and summarized the main events of the last week. This newsletter would continue to publish long after the summer of 1960 ended, keeping all those participants connected even as many of them returned home to distant places across the country, and bringing on many additional readers as it eventually became the Direct Action Bulletin.
One summer of passionate protesting, leafleting, training, educating, and generally cross-pollinating ideas and people inspired movements across the country -- and continued to have lasting effects into the decade and beyond. Remember, Polaris Action happened in 1960 -- before U.S. involvement in Vietnam, before the Beatles or “hippies,” before even the Cuban Missile Crisis. As we watch in awe today at Minneapolis, Seattle, and other cities where feats unthinkable a month ago are now manifesting and spreading -- let us remember that only 60 years ago, that incredible place where the impossible became possible was right here in New London.
To learn more about Polaris Action, please visit our Peace of History from 10/31/2019.
The Trident-II (D-5) Nuclear Missile
For this week’s Peace of History:
Our friends the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 will be sentenced on June 8, 29, and 30 for their nonviolent protest actions on April 4, 2018 -- the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. On that day, seven Catholic activists entered Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary’s, Georgia to follow the prophet Isaiah’s command: “beat swords into plowshares.” None in the group were younger than 55, and the oldest was 78 -- not youths cutting their teeth on their first direct action, but a group of seasoned activists with decades of experience between them. The activists brought an indictment charging the United States government for crimes against peace according to international law. They hung banners and crime scene tape, symbolically and nonviolently disarmed the base, and then were arrested -- all to remind us of the perennial existential threat of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
What exactly is the danger? The Trident-II (D-5) missile is the latest model of a special type of missile with a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) -- essentially, a single missile containing several warheads capable of striking a single or multiple targets. MIRV missiles are almost exclusively used for nuclear weapons, and were pioneered by the United States in the late 1960s. Nuclear missiles have been a part of the U.S. Navy’s submarine arsenal since 1958, and the current Trident-armed Ohio-class submarines (as well as the new Columbia-class submarines currently in production to replace them) are the descendants of the Polaris nuclear missile-armed submarines the Committee for Nonviolent Action protested against in 1960. These vessels were built -- and continue to be built -- at the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in Groton, CT.
The most advanced nuclear warhead currently in the U.S. arsenal is the W88: 455-475 kilotons. Although the U.S. is treaty-bound to limit the maximum number to four, up to eight W88 warheads can fit in a single Trident-II missile. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 14 kilotons, which killed 150,000 people in moments. A single Trident-II missile can carry between 1800-3800 kilotons.
The Ohio-class nuclear submarine carries 24 Trident-II missiles, each missile capable of destroying more than 100-200 Hiroshimas -- each within 15 minutes of launch. No other vessel has ever carried more destructive power on earth. It is truly “the world’s deadliest nuclear weapon.”
The U.S. Navy has 14 of these submarines deployed secretly across the world.
But aside from addressing the literal existential danger of actually using this arsenal to strike, the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 emphasizes a more insidious danger: the continual moral degradation of our society by positioning implicit threats of nuclear annihilation behind much of our foreign policy. They invoke the United Nation’s Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the ongoing United Nations negotiations regarding the prohibition of nuclear weapons -- all of which the United States government violates with its nuclear arms program. In frank terms, the United States government has use
While the danger is especially heightened under this administration, as when President Trump threatens to resume nuclear weapons testing, for instance -- the truth of the matter is that the arsenal is preposterously dangerous for a single person, democratically elected or not, to control. In 1983, it was indeed President Reagan at the helm when a false alarm in the Soviet Union reported that five American missiles had been launched -- it was just one man, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who may have averted nuclear war that day by continuously convincing his superiors to confirm the report before acting. Just a few months later, the Soviet military mistook an elaborate NATO war exercise as preparations for a surprise nuclear strike and prepared itself accordingly. However, many of the other infamous nuclear incidents occurred under Democratic Presidents. Under President Carter, the year 1979 had at least four false alarms at NORAD, at least one of which resulted in a request to the president that he make a decision to retaliate within 3 to 7 minutes. Under President Johnson, radar-interference caused by a solar flare was misinterpreted as Soviet jamming in preparation for a first-strike, and thus nearly led to a U.S. nuclear bomber counter-strike. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 occurred as a direct result of Democratic President Kennedy’s aggressive action in the Bay of Pigs a year before. And we must not forget that the only world leader to ever command the use of nuclear weapons in war was Democratic President Truman, bringing to completion the project begun by his Democratic predecessor FDR.
Moreover, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, and regardless of whether or not the weapons are ever actually used again in war, the costs of the nuclear arms program continues to mount: the ecological cost, the human cost, the moral cost. The Kings Bay Plowshares 7’s actions remind us of our own individual responsibilities to humanity. Under the Nuremberg Principles, “Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity...is a crime under international law.” To what extent are we complicit in the crimes of our government? Certainly, we are not blameless: we, who pay taxes, who enjoy cheap consumer goods, who sometimes stay silent when we know we shouldn’t. On April 4, 2018, seven Catholic activists stopped being silent and took a stand.
As written in the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 Action Statement: “Dr. King said, ‘The greatest purveyor of violence in the world (today) is my own government.” This remains true in the midst of our endless war on terror…Nuclear weapons kill every day through our mining, production, testing, storage, and dumping, primarily on Indigenous Native land.
...As white Catholics, we take responsibility to atone for the horrific crimes stemming from our complicity with ‘the triplets [of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism].’ ...We cannot simultaneously pray and hope for peace while we bless weapons and condone war-making.”
Read their whole statement and learn how you can help here: https://kingsbayplowshares7.org/mission/
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