One hundred years ago this summer, the Wobblies, the IWW or Industrial Workers of the World came into being. Unlike the existing craft unions, which brought together skilled workers within a particular craft, it aimed to be all-inclusive, to admit women, blacks, Mexicans, unskilled and unemployed workers, and to use this inclusiveness to face the employers from a position of strength, with workers supporting each other across divides of race, gender or specialised skill.

Verso celebrates the anniversary with a book - Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World - which likewise reaches across boundaries: part history, part comic, part collection of historical essays and part picture book. Wobblies! acknowledges the IWW's tradition of popular arts, from the songs of Joe Hill to the Mr Block strips of Ernst Riebe. But the substance of the book is new material by a variety of artists, some of them IWW members, some established comics professionals and some both. This eclecticism is both its strength and its weakness.

Lucy Parsons, drawn by Jeffrey Lewis

The story begins quietly. Jeffrey Lewis does his best to give visual life to the union's founding conference, sketching the mills of industrial Chicago where it was set, the debate with the already extant American Federation of Labor, the larger-than-life participants in the discussion. But his images add little to the words which are the essence of this section. The remarkable thing is that in 1905 a massed gathering of workers were prepared to listen to Lucy Parsons, and that she told them:

"We, the women of this country, have no ballot, and you men have made such a mess of it in representing us that we have not much confidence in asking you. Women are the slaves of slaves, exploited more ruthlessly than men, and if there is anything you men should do in the future it is to organize the women."
A mug-shot of her - and of the other speakers - at the rostrum adds very little to this.

Strips narrating the lives of the union's founders: not only Lucy Parsons, but "Big Bill" Haywood and Mother Jones, and the background which shaped their thinking, such as the appalling conditions in the mining industry, tell a fascinating story, but the graphics do not really come to life until the book's second section, when the narrative moves on to the industrial action of the IWW's early years.

The call to strike: from Seth Tobocman's Strike! (Lawrence 1912)
Seth Tobocman's bold woodcut-style images do not merely illustrate the story of the 1912 strike in the textile town of Lawrence, Mass., their big, bold gestures sweep the action along. Sabrina Jones' 1,000 Red Carnations is a complete contrast in the fluidity of its black line, and in the decision to tell of the 1913 strike in Paterson, NJ, through the pageant organised by affluent sympathisers in New York. Paradoxically, the device of presenting the strike as a theatrical re-enactment does not make it seem unreal. It takes the extreme poverty and powerlessness of the strikers, and the brutality of the employers and local police, and points out that although this may all seem very long ago, these events coexisted with a cultural middle-class world not so very different to the modern day.

From Black Wobblies, by Tauno Biltsted and Mac McGill

After this, Tauno Biltsted and Mac McGill's tribute to Black Wobblies seems very static. Yet it is in itself work of an astonishing richness, to which a small reproduction cannot do justice. Its twelve full-page images run from Frederick Dougless to Paul Robeson, via the lumber camps of Louisiana and the longshoremen of Philadelphia, an introduction to Black labour history in the form of a picture book for adults.

The College of Complexes takes on New York

Wobblies! is full of astonishing stories, a valuable reminder that the USA has a strong left-wing tradition, and that the brutal divide between different currents of opinion in that country is deep rooted. The book works hard to demonstrate the continuity between the Wobblies of ninety and a hundred years ago and the radicals of today: individual stories tell of the activists throughout the twentieth century, and their sense of connectedness with the Wobblies of earlier times, but it is clear that the IWW as an industrial force saw the height of its power in its first twenty years.

Jerome Neukirch and Harvey Pekar collaborate on a lively introduction to Slim Brundage and the College of Complexes, making a link between the Wobblies and the Beat Generation; Mike Konpacki and Franklin Rosemont carry on the story to the Rebel Worker group of Chicago in the 60s. If the IWW ever had a central organisation, Wobblies! does not describe it; its focus is on the causes, the individuals, and the attitudes that sprang from the confrontation of the two. In this light, the legacy of the IWW appears not as the survival of any particular institutional structure, but as a liberated and creative approach to working life and if this is an epitaph, it's a pretty good one.

© Jean Rogers, 2005

Read more reviews or return to the Shadow Gallery