If you think of the Industrial Workers of the World as relegated to Chicago’s distant labor past, the solemn faces of Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs gazing out of faded photographs, you should have been with me on Milwaukee Avenue Friday afternoon, on the picket line talking with living, breathing Wobblies Gabe Galloway and Jessico Dickerson.
“A few weeks after we finished bargaining a contract, management just started ignoring the fact we had a contract or started reading the contract in absurd ways,” said Galloway, union secretary, explaining the two-day strike against the Dill Pickle Food Co-op near Logan Square.
“Complaints about nine unfair labor practices went before the National Labor Relations Board,” said Dickerson, shop steward of the Dill Pickle Workers Union. “The NLRB found merit in eight.”
Since the Sun-Times is owned in part by labor unions, and some readers think the way this works is a boss snaps his fingers twice, points at a story, and I go running, I should explain how I got there, because, to me, that’s the most amazing part.
I was researching the espionage trial of 113 I.W.W. members in Chicago in 1918, most guilty of what today would be considered pacifism or labor advocacy which, in the patriotic passion of World War I, seemed like treason to authorities.
So I’m picking over the historical record and notice the I.W.W., founded in Chicago in 1905, still has its international headquarters here, on Belmont Avenue. It has a store that sells pins and pennants. That was astounding, like discovering the Bull Moose Party is still around, still pushing for Teddy Roosevelt. Naturally, I had to reach out to them.
The I.W.W. is doing what it’s always done.
“Pretty much the same,” said Maxim Baru, communications officer of the I.W.W. “But of course the politics and times have changed a lot. ... The Second World War reshaped the labor movement, and shifted the I.W.W.’s place in the national dialogue. These days, we’re still very much focused on being a labor union, charting out an independent path.”
Its motto is “One Big Union” and the I.W.W. charters various locals and affiliates, guiding and supporting workers like the frustrated employees of the Dill Pickle Food Co-op.
Co-ops — stores where the shoppers are part owners — always struck me as being fairly progressive places, half hippie commune, half utopian settlement. It seemed odd that one would let employee relations slide so much that they go on strike.
“Food co-ops aren’t really as progressive as they make themselves out to be,” Galloway said. “The progressiveness is more or less window dressing.”
Of course I sought reaction from Dill Pickle management, several times, and was assured that I’Talia McCarthy, general manager, would disgorge a statement. Two days later, nothing, leaving more room for complaints against her store.
“After we finished bargaining a contract, a few weeks after that management just started ignoring the fact we had a contract or started reading the contract in absurd ways,” Galloway said.
“We had a really hard-fought and hard-won provision of the contract that they would give us lockstep raises based on seniority. Well, the HR department read that as prohibiting us from getting raises. They started reading it as that we’re not allowed to have raises unless we have an unreachable number of hours.”
Not to get bogged down in the worries of one store. The I.W.W. spokesman said something bordering on marvelous. The I.W.W. were once viewed as hard-core radicals bent on revolution; 100 years ago the United States couldn’t deport their foreign-born leaders quick enough. Now the world has risen up to meet them, at least in their own estimation.
“Ever since World War II, the atmosphere in North America has changed tremendously,” Baru said. “Issues of imperialism, issues of war, issues of race and class. There has been demonstrable evidence of improvement in society on all these levels. Our expectations of what we want to achieve have grown. There have been a lot of improvements.”
Isn’t that good news the day after the 4th of July? Now that the beloved bedrock of our nation — free speech, fair elections, unconstrained media — are under relentless attack by the radical right, it’s a good moment to snatch true patriotism from their clammy grip and return it to where it belongs: with hard-working Americans and their advocates.