Considering recently the image of the hobo in the early IWW. The hobo sticks out in my mind from this period as possible the most important figure in the struggles of early 20th century American workers. The figure of the hobo, as a type of working class archetype, offers a lot of important lessons for contemporary Wobblies, I think. A couple reasons:
1. Networks. The Wobbly hobo became one of the key organizers. Taking out a red card and riding the rails from job to job, he (and I use the gender pronoun intentionally) was the perfect type of organizer for workers in industries that depended on changing conditions and temporary work. Timber workers in particular seem associated in the histories with hobo organizers. Jumping from job to job as needed, hobo organizers represented organic working class militants, who followed the conditions of industry and kept up with the pace of technological and economic transition. He knew his fellow workers, mostly because he shared their condition and perhaps their relatives from a previous job. The image of the boxcar orator may be quaint, but it represents one type of important power: while illegally traveling through the circuits of capital, the hobo organizer spoke with his fellow workers and created resistance to workplace exploitation outside/before jobs as well as on them.
What we can learn: These jobs were, like the post-Fordist ones we work today, short-term and without longer commitments. Also like today, they tended to involve the same groups of people over and over again. If you were a lumberjack, you were one in Ontario, Minnesota, and Oregon. Today, if you're a service workers, you're one at Starbucks, McDonalds, and a call center. In our economy, the conditions and style of labor change from job to job, but the basic character remains the same. We must build upon the already existing networks that exist within the class to mobilize resistance. As we circulate through capital, we can reach out to the myriad contacts that our labor necessarily creates and turn them into revolutionaries struggling around the clock.
2. Mobility. The travels of the hobo were many and he would pop up in different places depending on both fancy and the requirements of industry. He could weave in and out of bourgeois society as necessary, if always at the margins. This marginality, along with the aforementioned seasonal and temporary style of work, necessitated constant motion and the creation of a working class counter-culture. Yet the hobo organizer took this mobility as a strength. If he was needed to fill the jails at a free speech fight, he would jump on the rails with his friends and end up in a different state. He joined together in mutual aid in the hobo jungles with his comrades.
What we can learn: Struggles on the job move beyond the job when we connect them to the larger conditions of industry and the relationships of workers to bosses. What is less important is this specific strike or that specific action, but rather the constant strategic growth of working class power in the way most appropriate to the situation. So sometimes mobility means not fighting a battle when you cannot win, but rather looking for a different terrain upon which to engage. Additionally, mobility could mean the ability to follow the currents to where the action is. The wretched SWP is actively encouraging its cadres to work in the meat-packing industry. Not a bad idea, just done for foolish reasons. In fact, the struggle of migrant laborers today has some of the most obvious parallels with the historical work of the IWW.
Two important considerations:
1. The hobo is male. That is to say, he is unattached to anything or anyone and need only look after himself. Throwing ourselves over to replicating this is definitely anti-feminist. But we should also keep in mind that culture and society have changed a great deal since the days when the nuclear family was the only model. With the rise of the women's movement, more women are self-sufficient, in the workplace and outside of the home. So capital has created conditions where women too can be this type of organizers. Further, the hobo is not the figure to organize all of industry, as this point brings up. There are industries and social locations that he cannot break into, and people whose identification he rejects, so he cannot be the model for all of our organizing.
2. Networks and mobility bring to mind the vision of the modern city. I think that hearkening back to the Situationist legacy of psychogeography is important for us. How does the city relate to itself and to its denizens? How is industry organized geographically and psychogeographically? How can modern hobos tread through the paths, both clear and hidden, while constantly transforming those paths and being simultaneously transformed by them?