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Chicago Tue Apr 27 2010

Wobblies Return to Chicago

A new tenant has moved in to a street level office space on Irving Park. Driving past the office past dark, you can see a neon sign in the window that reads "IWW." On closer inspection a number of fliers and posters are tapped up to the windows, letting passer-by's know about upcoming rallies and benefit concerts. The Industrial Workers of the World have returned to Chicago, where under the leadership of a new General Secretary Treasurer, they hope to revitalize their organization and the labor movement.

The Industrial Workers of the World, or as they are often called, the Wobblies, were founded in 1905 in Chicago. The first industrial union, they allowed women, minorities, immigrants, skilled and unskilled workers to join. The IWW was always radical, calling for a society where "from each according to their ability and to each according to their need," was a reality.

The Wobblies led successful fights in the early 20th century, organizing seamstresses and lumberjacks and leading free speech fights throughout the country. However in the Red Scare of 1919, the wobblies became a target. Many members were deported, jailed or intimidated by the FBI. For decades the IWW was a shadow of its former self. The radicalism of the 1960's gave the group some life, but since then the IWW has remained a small group which many claimed resembled a labor history club more than a real union. That most members didn't even have contracts with their employers, but were individual dues paying members, didn't help.

However in the last decade the wobblies have watched their membership rolls increase. The 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization seem to have awakened a generation of young people to labor issues and the war in Iraq seems to have radicalized them.

The New Generation

One of those people was Joe Tessone. Tessone grew up in suburban Lockport, where he helped organize a concert called Punk Picnic and convinced the town council to build a skateboard park. Tessone went to Columbia college for audio engineering. A former straight edge, he eats a Vegan diet and has a pet Beagle named after the famed Anarchist Alexander Berkman.

He became increasingly involved in Anarchist politics and attended a May Day rally in Chicago where he was introduced to local members of the IWW. Years later Tessone was working at a Starbucks in Logan Square, and was inspired by the efforts of New York Wobblies in their attempts to unionize Starbucks stores.

Starbucks has a good public image because it promises health benefits to part time employees, but the reality is that it is a struggle to receive the graces of a manager to even obtain the 20 hours a week needed to qualify for the benefits. Starbucks workers often face low pay, unsanitary conditions, undefined schedules and a litany of workplace health hazards.

Tessone organized at his Starbucks for 3 and a half years. At the beginning Tessone admits he, "wasn't quite prepared for it... I kinda learned as I went along."

While the Logan Square Starbucks campaign received some media attention and created dedicated activists out of a few workers, the campaign buckled under the union busting activities of Starbucks. Tessone was fired after he politely introduced himself to Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz. Shultz was being interviewed at a downtown Chicago Starbucks and Tessone dropped in hoping to talk to Schultz. Tessone told Shultz that the IWW was interested in talking to him about a number of issues. However Schultz became flustered and ran out the back exit of the store. Tessone received a termination notice the next day.

Tessone stayed involved in the wobblies and was nominated for the position of General Secretary Treasurer in their 2009 conference. "A fellow Wobbly patted me on the back and said, 'I'm nominating you for GST.' I had about 30 seconds to decide. My life passed before my eyes and I decided to accept the nomination."

Moving to Chicago

After becoming head of the IWW, Tessone set about moving the headquarters of the group from Ohio back to its traditional home in Chicago. The office on Irving Park Rd. contains historic pieces including historic newspapers and an urn that contains part of the ashes of Joe Hill, the famous wobbly songwriter.

The office's new location has led to new developments. "A lot of former wobblies have been walking in wanting to get involved again... we've actually taken on some really strong new organizing campaigns just from walk ins."

Tessone is optimistic about the future of the Wobblies in Chicago. "We got a lot of people with a lot of experience [in Chicago]. I think we can make another heyday out of it here."

The Chicago headquarters has aggressively taken on a plan of modernizing the IWW. "In the past 20 years or more the IWW has been very resistant to technological advances. Some of it is very practical, the organization didn't have a lot of money for a while, so money was going towards organizing, books, stuff like that."

The lack of investment in technology has left the wobblies with an outdated database that didn't even have a field for e-mail, making it impossible to generate a complete e-mail list of members. Data entry took about 60 hours a month, "my job was to do basically data entry. I think my position can be more than generating reports."

However Tessone has hired computer programers to develop a new easy to use database and Tessone is looking to expand, potentially even to allow members to pay electronic dues. "I would like to make a wobbly iphone app. I think that's where we need to be."

With a clear list of members in good standing, the headquarters has set the goal to double members in good standing by the end of the year. The list includes over 10 thousand people in inactive standing, just by reaching out to those members, Tessone hopes to boost membership in the union. The group is hoping to expand around campaigns organizing Starbucks, trucking and social service workers.

Some wonder about the legacy of the group and whether a radical labor organization can persevere or whether it will come under renewed attacks from the government. "I don't think the government is threatened by us honestly... their less concerned about organized labor right now than they are organized environmentalists." Tessone explained that the things the wobblies used to be attacked for, allowing women and minorities to join, going on strike, and collective bargaining rights are all legal now. However "we went from the red scare to the green scare," before describing the case of Marie Mason a mother of two serving 22 years in a federal prison for participating in vandalism against genetic engineering of food.

"We're not being beaten down with baseball bats and guns anymore. But companies are spending billions every year combating us with their checkbooks instead.... what we have on our side is a lot people who are fired up and ready to put up a fight... The more money [companies] throw at us the more money they're going to waste"

The Musical Tradition of the Wobblies

The wobblies have one of the best musical traditions in organized labor. Their Little Red Songbook is filled with dozens of folk songs that stretch back to the early 20th century. The IWW can count songwriters such as Joe Hill, Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco as their own.

Which is why in this new era for the wobblies, it makes sense that music would play a prominent role. "Music is a very powerful tool for social change. It's not only good for our world but a lot of fun."

Tessone received an audio engineering degree from Columbia College in Chicago and opened a recording studio on Lincoln Ave called Mystery Street Recording. Unlike other studios though, Mystery Street prides itself on its non-hierarchical organization, being run as a collective space.

One of the pet projects of Tessone is to organize musicians. "Its something I'm passionate about organizing and hopefully in the next couple of years we can get an organizing campaign around musicians and entertainment workers off the ground."

The first big event that the Chicago Headquarters is orchestrating is a concert benefiting the wobblies taking place on Friday April 30th at the Bottom Lounge, 1375 W. Lake St.

The show will feature Tom Morello, the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, performing his solo acoustic act, the Nightwatchman. The show will also star folk singer Bucky Halker and the group that Tessone plays banjo for, the Rust Belt Ramblers.

All of the groups performing combine folk and country with punk rock. A combination that might be startling to people who think of Garth Brooks or Toby Keith. "Not all country is wavin' the flag and drinking budweiser. There's a lot of rebellion in the country music scene.. there's a clear difference between pop country and other country." Tessone explained, "Country is working class music, like punk rock."

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michael / May 3, 2010 4:04 AM

keep up the good work i will always back you up no matter what

Matt / May 19, 2010 9:37 PM

I truly hope the US labor movement gets revitalized, and I think IWW should be applauded for trying to organize new groups.

Check out for a new kind of online union organizing software - free and available to anyone who is thinking about a union. Maybe it can be of some help to unorganized workers.

mark / August 20, 2012 6:43 PM

There was a time and place for unions, now is not the time and Starbucks is not the place. Lets not forget what the IWW was fighting for back in the 20's - A very noble cause. Now what are you fighting for? Being treated better at Starbucks - Please! There are now laws on the books relating to workplace treatment. This is a lame campaign without any meaningful grievances. The article would be better served if they researched how much $$ big corporations were actually spending on union busting ie. Starbucks. Am I to believe that Starbucks is spending billions on this. Furthermore, Anarchy can you be serious, sounds like too much teenage angst, people generally grow out of that phase at about 18 or so. If you were a true anarchist you would have to create your own internet and computer to write on this blog. Enjoy the benefits of living in a free society and be thankful you don't live in a place that actually does have workplace horrors.

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