by Stephanie Kadel-Taras
When you get off the elevator on the seventh floor of the U-M Hatcher Graduate Library this month, you may be surprised to hear the insistent strains of "Solidarity Forever" floating from the exhibit room. This space, open to the public for rotating displays from the Special Collections Library, is currently showcasing materials to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. Using photographs, posters, buttons, songbooks, letters, and small-run newspapers from the Labadie Collection of Social Protest Literature, the exhibit tells the colorful, influential, and tragic story of a "radical labor union."
My formal education somehow failed to introduce me to the history of social discontent in this country, but the Labadie Collection has begun to fill in some gaps. I realized I'd heard of IWW member Joe Hill ("I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night . . ."), but otherwise I was clueless. Just an hour at this exhibit, curated by Julie Herrada, is a moving reminder that people have risked and given their lives to fight for the rights of the working class.
Most active from 1905 to the end of World War I, the IWW organized some of America's most overlooked laborers, including unskilled miners, mill workers, and loggers. They reached out to immigrants (with newsletters in many languages), blacks, women, and itinerant workers.
Members of the IWW, who became known as "Wobblies" (the exhibit explores the origin of this nickname), initiated over seventy strikes in communities across the United States to protest dangerous working conditions, long hours, and poor pay. Many walkouts spread to other factories in the same city or industry, leading to strikes of tens of thousands. Leaders advocated "sabotage," represented on IWW pamphlets as a black cat or a wooden shoe (sabot in French). Sabotage could mean work slowdowns, machine breaking, or explosives, depending on how radical you were.
Most of the violence in the IWW story, however, is
Arts and Entertainment reviews and news.>> Blogs