photo by SG

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Drifting through Industry

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?

1 comment:

Nate said...

Hey dude,

I disagree with this pretty strongly. But first, you should talk to Matt May about this if you haven’t already. He’s doing research on the free speech fights and so on. If you haven’t seen it, you’d probly like this article “The Hobo Anomalous: class, minorities and political invention in the Industrial Workers of the World” by Nick Thoburn. You’d also probly like this book - Indispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880-1930.

All that said, my objections. First off, the hobo stuff in IWW historiography has been really over-emphasized. The IWW failed a lot of the time in building – and more importantly, maintaining – membership and real organization among migratory workers. The heart of the IWW in its heyday was the organization in more stable locations like factories and when it succeeded in organizing mobile workers the emphasis was not on mobility at all. It was attempts to organize among those workers that led the IWW to restructure its delegate model to emphasize precisely organization at the point of production: job delegates rather than roving delegates. More than that, the heyday of IWW mobility, the free speech fights, helped speed the decline of the union, rather than building it.

Re: point of production struggles and off the job stuff, yes, absolutely, but that’s true of so-called fordist jobs too. Meetings happened off the job, not on the job, just like we push in the organizer trainings now. And picket lines took place at the job site-ish but not on the job. So the theoretical point here about struggle outside the point of production can be made about more traditional point of production struggles. And like I said, effective struggles among mobile labor actually looked a lot like other point of production struggles.

Finally, I think there were few if any hobo real organizers in the IWW. There are a lot of hobo activists, but that’s another matter. There’s a parallel here to the discussion on your other thread about SDS.

Take care,