Review of Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World

Erstwhile editor Beau Driver returns to the Graphic Histories series with his review of Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (2005), edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman.

Author’s note:

In the wake of the recent shooting of an IWW member and apparent anti-fascist demonstrator at the University of Washington on January 20th, I am pleased to publish this review of Wobblies at this time. If you have the means, I would encourage you to consider donating to help with the legal and/or medical bills of the victim. You can do this here.

In Solidarity,

B.D.

Founded in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World represented a new, more radical approach to unionism. Looking to unite workers under the banner of “One Big Union,” the IWW—or “Wobblies” as they are often called—did not restrict its membership to any specific trade, race, or gender in the way that many of the trade unions did up to this point. The IWW garnered both positive and negative attention for its socialist and anarchist politics as well as a large membership until after the end of World War I, when, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, many Americans looked at communistic ideologies as un-American and sought to limit their spread in the United States. Subsequently, the membership of the IWW dropped significantly through the 1920s. Inner conflict and competition with other unions, such as the American Federation of Labor, further reduced the IWW’s membership. In the years after World War II, the Taft-Hartley Act and the Un-American Activities Commission reduced the Wobblies in number yet again. The IWW survives to this day, albeit in a greatly diminished capacity compared to its heyday at the beginning of the 20th century, and, as Wobblies shows, it has continued its fight for workers’ rights through the latter half of the twentieth century and to the present day.

61d3-mbfn7l-_sx258_bo1204203200_Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World is different from the graphic histories that we have reviewed thus far in this series. It is an edited work that brings together the efforts of many different writers and artists to construct a history of the IWW through a series of vignettes that highlight different important figures and events in the union’s history. Weighing in at a hefty 305 pages (including the appendices and bibliography) Wobblies is also the longest of the graphic histories that we have examined.

One of the first things that readers familiar with graphic novels will notice immediately is some of the names of the contributors to the volume. Writers like Harvey Pekar, famous for his series American Splendor, and artists like the long-time IWW member and contributor to The Industrial Worker, Carlos Cortez. All of these writers and artists are brought together under the editorial direction of Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. Buhle is an important name in the historiography of the American Left with a number of well-respected books to his credit—including acting as the editor of Kate Evans’s Red Rosa previously reviewed by Graeme Pente here. Schulman works as a fine artist based in New York City. She also is on the editorial board of World War 3 Illustrated and has had her art placed in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress.

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Panel from the “Free Speech Wars” by Susan Simensky Bietila in Wobblies

With this talented line-up, it is no surprise that Wobblies delivers on a number of levels. The individual stories of leaders such as “Big” Bill Haywood,“Mother” Jones, and Joe Hill are alive in the styles of their respective artists. Because of the format, different artists are responsible for different individual stories and this makes all of them stand out due to the personal attention each subject garners. Additionally, the different styles of the artists ensure that the sheer breadth of the study does not bore the reader. From the standpoint of the art and editing, Wobblies is excellent.

 

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A page from Nick Thorkelson’s “Mr. Block” comic in Wobblies

Wobblies is also a great resource with regard to the scope and breadth of its study of the Industrial Workers of the World. The book is comprised of six different chapters, consisting of a total of forty-nine individual subjects (Joe Hill has two sections, which brings the grand total of the individual parts to fifty). This collection follows from the beginnings of the IWW, all the way through the twenty-first century. In many ways, Wobblies is a great accompaniment to Melvyn Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (2013). Where Dubofsky examines the first fifteen years of the history of the IWW in great detail, Buhle and Schulman carry the story of the union up to the present day. Again, Wobblies proves to be an excellent source.

 

wobblies

With regard to the use in the classroom, Wobblies falters a bit. The size of the volume and its detail make it somewhat unwieldy for a high school classroom, unless the instructor was to assign individual sections of the book to their students. The same goes for most college courses. However, this text could feasibly be used in an upper-level college course, especially one on labor history, or in a graduate-level course on historical methods or United States history. In either of these capacities, the text would more than likely be seen as a welcome break from the regular, historical monographs and it would still present enough reading to fill up a week while also giving the student a sense of the history of the IWW, the more recent of which rarely receives much attention.

With these restrictions aside, Wobblies is a wonderful history of the IWW and one that is easily accessible to historians and non-historians alike. Anyone who is interested in the history of American labor unions or working-class history will enjoy this text.

 

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