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IWW, Mother Jones Commemorated

The Industrial Workers of the World will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of its founding in Chicago on June 25 and 26 with events including a conference and concert.

Meanwhile the downstate town of Mt. Olive celebrates the 75th anniversary of the death and 175th anniversary of the birth of legendary labor organizer Mother Jones, one of the IWW’s founders, with a June 24-26 festival, including a commemoration at her grave in Mt. Olive’s Union Miners Cemetery

Mother Jones joined radical labor leaders including Eugene Debs, Lucy Parson, “Big Bill” Haywood and 200 others in Chicago for the 1905 founding of the IWW to promote industrial unionism aimed at abolishing capitalism.

They met at Brandt’s Hall at Erie and Clark, now the site of a Walgreen’s, according to labor historian William Adelman. Their national office was at 1001 W. Madison until 1930, and at north side locations until the 1980s. At Dearborn and Hubbard is the former Cook County Court House, where in 1918 one hundred IWWs were convicted of criminal syndicalism, with Haywood sentenced to 20 years. (Big Bill fled to revolutionary Russia.)

Migratory workers

Successful in organizing militant unions of agricultural, lumber, and mining workers — and leading the 1912 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Mass. — the IWW (dubbed the “Wobblies”) was considered a major threat by the government, and the 1918 trial culminated a long campaign of mass arrests, deportations, and lynchings which almost destroyed the organization.

“The heart and soul of the IWW was migratory workers, and Chicago was the hobo capital of the world,” said Franklin Rosemont, author of a study of Wobbly bard Joe Hill and editor of “Dancin’ in the Streets,” a new collection of IWW writings from the 1960s. Along Madison and North Clark was what Rosemont calls the “hobohemia area” where storefront lecture halls and Bughouse Square orators created a subculture that kept the Wobbly philosophy alive through the Depression and into the mid-century.

Today the organization continues to focus on marginalized workers, as economic conditions foster the growth of casual and temporary employment which is often beyond the reach of mainstream labor, said IWW general secretary Alexis Buss. In Philadelphia they’ve launched a “corridor campaign” organizing “networks of solidarity” among retail and restaurant workers in 350 businesses on South Street. Along with health and tax clinics, the campaign built pressure on business owners to oppose state cuts in mass transit that threatened night and weekend service needed by their employees, she said.

Bike messengers

In Chicago, IWW members are working with messengers in the Stop NICA Committee, opposing the National Independent Contractors Assocation. NICA has come into several large messenger services, taking over payroll operations and charging membership fees to messengers.

As independent contractors rather than employees, messengers are considered ineligible for workers compensation or unemployment benefits. (Last year the Illinois Department of Employment ruled that Standard Courier messengers are eligible for unemployment benefits in a case brought by the Stop NICA Committee.)

“It’s pretty much a scam to help employers get out of their obligations,” said Jenny Ohlson of the Chicago IWW. The messengers “still have to wear uniforms, they still have to show up at a certain time and leave at a certain time.”

The IWW centenary celebration includes a conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. Harrison, June 25 and 26, and a concert featuring IWW songs at the Peoples Church, Lawrence and Sheridan, on the evening of June 25.


In Mt. Olive, the town will hold a Mother Jones Banquet Dinner on Friday, June 24, featuring United Mineworkers president Cecil Roberts. A self-proclaimed “hellraiser” once called “the most dangerous woman in America,” Jones was a UMW organizer for many years.

Mt. Olive’s Main street will feature labor history displays along with craft vendors, and local unions will compete in a Mother Jones float contest in the town’s homecoming parade on Saturday, June 25 at 6 p.m. A graveside memorial at the Mother Jones monument in the Union Miners Cemetery will be held Sunday morning.

Fifty thousand workers and their families gathered when the memorial was dedicated by local miners six years after Mother Jones’ death in 1930, according to local labor historian Jim Goltz. She asked to buried at the cemetery, which was established when the town cemetery refused to bury miners killed in 1898 as they opposed the importation of strikebreakers during a labor dispute there, he said.

A building donated to serve as a Mother Jones museum by the Laborers Union local will be dedicated over the weekend.

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Category: history, labor


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