Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

The Wobblies

The International Workers of the World, or 'Wobblies' as they were called, had a significant impact on labor relations in Canada

Donna Jeanpierre
Published April 29, 2010
Sitting down to Finnish pancakes at the Hoito Restaurant today, one could hardly imagine that this location was once the subject of RCMP surveillance and home to the national headquarters of an organization considered so dangerous that it warranted numerous police raids. Yet, through a referendum held in 1932, Canadian delegates of the Industrial Workers of the World decided to establish their Canadian administration at this very address in Port Arthur, where it remained off and on until the 1950s.

AN EXPERIMENT IN AMERICAN SOCIALISM

Finnish Labour Temple in Port Arthur
An archival photograph of the historic Finnish Labour Temple in Port Arthur
Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as the IWW or the Wobblies, was born in 1905 in Chicago, Illinois, probably the only socialist organization founded in the United States. Its founding members were reacting to the perceived failure of the existing trades and craft unions to change workers' circumstances fast enough and to the degree needed in order to change society. A radical departure from the traditional unions, Wobblies sought the abolition of the wage-based system. "They were basically hard-core Marxists, but not in the traditional sense," says Michel S. Beaulieu, "They wanted workers controlling the means of production, and they called for the complete abolition of the wage-system."

Michel Beaulieu is an Associate Professor of History and Co-Director of the Centre for Northern Studies and the Lakehead Social History Institute at Lakehead University. He is currently researching the history of the IWW in Canada.

Another unique feature of the IWW was its willingness to organize so-called trade-less or skill-less workers rejected by the other trade unions, such as grain handlers, lumber workers, farmers and farmhands, and seasonal workers.

Long before multiculturalism became a common word in our lexicon, the IWW welcomed immigrant workers, minorities, and non-English speakers. In fact, in both the United States and Canada, non-British, non-English-speaking individuals even rose to prominent positions. "Finns in Canada were the backbone of the IWW, both in British Columbia and Northwestern Ontario, at least prior to the First World War," says Beaulieu.
Michel Beaulieu, Nick Sottie, and Chelsea DeGagnéMichel Beaulieu shares a meal at the Hoito with his students Nick Sottie and Chelsea DeGagné

In Northwestern Ontario, Port Arthur in particular, British Columbia, and Alberta, IWW meetings were often multilingual. Meeting minutes from the Port Arthur meetings in the 1920s and 1930s were in English, Finnish, and occasionally Italian and Ukrainian.

Even women were welcome to join the IWW and many had prominent roles in the organization.

"It's for a lot of these things that the traditional trade unions actually targeted them [IWW]," says Beaulieu. "Because they were more radical, but also because they gave a voice to those to whom the trades and crafts unions did not want to give a voice."

LOCAL ACHIEVEMENTS FOR WORKERS' RIGHTS

Michel Beaulieu, Nick Sottie, and Chelsea DeGagné
Although the Wobblies are often portrayed as impractical and overly attached to rhetoric, they were responsible for a lot of the improvements in conditions that forest workers achieved in Northwestern Ontario and Northern British Columbia. They were directly involved in a number of strikes in lumber camps, notably the Pigeon River company, as well as massive strikes comprising thousands of workers in 1923, 1926, 1931, and 1933.

One of the Wobblies' most notable local achievements is the Hoito Restaurant. "Wobblies believed in the idea that all workers, especially seasonal and migratory workers, should not only be in camps, but also that when they're not working, should have access to facilities, such as a place to eat a nourishing, home-cooked, yet affordable, meal," says Beaulieu.

RED SCARE

From its beginnings to the end of the First World War, the IWW was considered the most dangerous organization in the U.S. Since both American and Canadian authorities liked to portray it as violent, myths about the radical organization of dangerous foreigners developed over 100 years.

In the United States, there were a number of incidents in which Wobbly organizers were targeted, and even executed.

And while there were no such headline-grabbing scandals in Canada, the federal government clearly considered the Wobblies a threat. "By 1913, Port Arthur and Fort William were nationally recognized by the government and the RCMP as the region in Canada with the most labor unrest," says Beaulieu.

"The bloodiest strike to ever occur in Canada prior to the Winnipeg General Strike occurred in Fort William in 1909, and the RCMP and the Canadian government firmly believed that if any place in Canada were to have an uprising of the likes that sparked the Russian Revolution, it was going to be Port Arthur and Fort William." The emergence of the IWW just prior to the First World War and its re-emergence in the 1920s as a force in the bush camps of Northern Ontario was seen as merely confirming this belief.

Beaulieu says that a lot of intelligence information on the IWW obtained in the 1920s and 1930s is stored in Ottawa.

"An individual would sit in the apartment in the buildings above where Lauri's Hardware used to be, watching the Finnish Hall and taking notes, and then report back to Winnipeg." During this same period, the Finnish Hall was raided at least eight times and many Wobblies were deported.

BEAULIEU'S RESEARCH

Beaulieu's goal is to compile the first complete history of the IWW in Canada from its beginnings to as close to present-day as possible, not an easy feat considering that they were declared illegal from 1918 to 1923 and were forced underground, or that literature was confiscated during RCMP or local police raids across Canada.

A newspaper article printed in the 1930s reported a bonfire held in front of the Fort William town hall in which alleged socialist documents confiscated by police were destroyed. Similar stories can be found across the country.

No wonder then that one of the most striking characteristics of the IWW for Beaulieu is the organization's persistence.

"Membership dropped from tens of thousands of people across the country down to probably 800 people, and most people said it wasn't really a national organization anymore − it was irrelevant," Beaulieu says. "What I'm seeing is: it wasn't."

Membership has increased and dropped several times over the years, but is still active after more than 100 years.

"How did this non-political organization survive two World Wars, the Cold War, countless political changes in Canada, the rise of the CCF, the rise of the NDP, and the decline of the Communists?" says Beaulieu.

In recent years, the IWW has re-entered the spotlight, most notably for organizing the first Starbucks Unions in both Canada and the United States and triumphing over the coffee giant in a 2006 United States National Labour Relations Board hearing.

Through his research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Beaulieu hopes to understand the history of the IWW in Canada and around the world, and how it's been able to survive to present-day. The IWW still exists in the U.S. and Canada, and there's still a branch in Port Arthur.

Beaulieu already has an idea for a possible, alliterative title for the book: Syndicalists to Starbucks: A Social History of the IWW in Canada.

FINN FORUM IX

May 26 – 27, 2010

Academics from around the globe are coming to Thunder Bay to attend Finn Forum IX, a conference about Finland and the World: Past, Present, and Future. Presentations will focus on Finnish history, migration, culture, and language; cultural, social, and economic aspects of the Finnish diaspora; and the country's impact on the world.

"This conference gives the academics coming from outside of Thunder Bay the opportunity to discuss their research in a city that embraces Finnish culture and tradition," says History Professor Ronald Harpelle. "Those who visit can enjoy the much-loved Finnish landmarks that add to the subtle nuances and ambiance of our city."

Finn Forum IX also celebrates the 100th anniversary of the building of Thunder Bay's Finnish Labour Temple. Over the last century, it has been host to political rallies, theatrical productions, concerts, motion pictures, sporting events, and festivals.

 

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