Cult of Spontaneity: Finnish-Canadian Bushworkers and the Industrial Workers of the World in Northern Ontario, 1919-1934

By Campbell, J. Peter | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Cult of Spontaneity: Finnish-Canadian Bushworkers and the Industrial Workers of the World in Northern Ontario, 1919-1934


Campbell, J. Peter, Labour/Le Travail


J. Peter Campbell, "The Cult of Spontaneity: Finnish-Canadian Bushworkers and the Industrial Workers of the World in Northern Ontario, 1919-1934," Labour/Le Travail, 41 (Spring 1998), 117-46.

THE STORY of the spectacular rise, and equally spectacular fall, of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has been told many times. (1) Organized in Chicago in 1905, the IWW gained international attention during the Lawrence strike of 1912 and the Patterson, New Jersey strike of 1913, before suffering a precipitous decline during the state repression of World War One. Many of its top leaders, including the legendary William "Big Bill" Haywood, left the IWW to join the newly-formed Communist Party. The IWW fought on in the 1920s, but internal dissension, Communist Party intrigues and attacks, and the general malaise of organized labour in the America of Coolidge and Hoover seriously weakened the vaunted spirit which had rejected the business unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and called for the abolition of the wage system. Following the mid-August 1918 conviction of 101 leading members of the IWW for having supposedly committed more than 10,000 crimes, it became increasingly difficult for the organization's adherents to convince their many critics that the revolutionary unionism of the IWW:

rejected violence because the nature of the revolution they envisioned simply did not require it. To the IWW, the new society was to be accomplished not by an electoral victory nor by taking to the barricades but by a general strike that would paralyze the economy and force the employing class to hand over peacefully the means of production...Strikes for immediate gains were also rehearsals for the eventual general strike and therefore also need not be violent. (2)

The critics carried the day: in the ensuing years the Industrial Workers of the World became a synonym for violence and a symbol of the essential futility of indigenous American radicalism. (3)

Canadian historians, although often evincing a genuine admiration for the "Wobblies" in the Canadian context, have picked up the futility theme and focused on the organization's early demise. (4) William Rodney has suggested that, due to the Canadian wing's dependence on the American organization, the IWW had "failed" by the end of 1913. (5) Ross McCormack's summation of the fate of the Wobblies in Canada is that by 1914 IWW locals in western Canada were "disintegrating." (6) Bryan Palmer gives the Wobblies a bit of a reprieve, but concludes that the IWW in Canada had become "nearly non-existent" by 1918. (7) Gordon Hak's analysis of the IWW in British Columbia echoes McCormack's assessment by claiming that "the organizational structure of the IWW disappeared in the 1910s," although he adds that "IWW delegates continued to haunt logging camps" as organizers for the Lumber Workers Industrial Union into the 1920s. (8) Stephen Gray points out that in the late 1930s the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) "faced the difficult task of convincing men steeped in the Wobbly legend to adopt the longer-range plan of establishing the union and negotiating signed collective agreements instead of restoring to a strike over every `two cent issue," as IWA organizer Hjalmar Bergren put it. (9) The language is striking: Wobblies in the 1920s "haunt" the logging camps, as if they are ghostly apparitions, not flesh and blood human beings. IWA organizers in the late 1930s have to deal with the Wobbly "legend," a word that evokes images of the ethereal and the gone forever, instead of a politics of direct action and antiauthoritarianism that has over the course of the 20th century appealed to hundreds of thousands of workers of both genders, all colours, and speaking many languages. (10)

In his analysis of labour radicalism in the Ontario north woods, Bushworkers and Bosses, Ian Radforth chronicles the important role Finnish Wobblies played in the labour struggles of the 1920s and 1930s, putting a human face on the IWW in the 1920s.

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