History of the Labor Movement in the United States - Vol. 4

By Philip S. Foner | Go to book overview

ECONOMIC CRISIS AND THE UNEMPLOYED

Barely was this prediction made early in October 1907, when a severe financial panic hit the country. In the last week of October, the New York stock market crashed, and several banks closed. The succeeding depression of 1907-08 hit the working class severely. "There are 184,000 men out of work in New York City alone," a labor paper estimated in the spring of 1908. "There are at least 75,000 out of work in Chicago. There are 30,000 out of work in St. Louis. There must be more than 500,000 unemployed in the whole country on the most conservative estimate." The wages of those working were cut from 15 to 50 per cent.60

The crisis nearly wiped the I.W.W. out of existence. The depression had a particularly serious effect on the unskilled and semi-skilled workers who made up the bulk of the I.W.W. membership. ll Proletario and other foreign language I.W.W. papers were forced to suspend publication. From August 8 to December 12, 1908, the Industrial Union Bulletin appeared fortnightly instead of weekly, suspended publication temporarily between December 12, 1908, and February 20, 1909, and ceased publication with the March 6, 1909, issue. I.W.W. locals dissolved by the dozens and the general headquarters in Chicago "was the only maintained by terrific sacrifice and determination." The hope of collecting money due from local unions, expressed at the third convention, vanished; before collections could be arranged, the general secretary explained, "the industrial panic struck the country with all its force, and the misery following in the wake of that collapse, was mostly felt in places where the Industrial Workers of the World had established a stronghold." As a result, the revenue for December 1907 was not more than half of what it had been the year before.61

Fighting for its very existence, the I.W.W. virtually suspended organization of workers into unions and gave up its strike activities. However, it boasted that it was winning support of large sections of the working class because of its activity on behalf of the unemployed. However, there was some dispute within the I.W.W. whether the organization should even be involved in fighting for immediate relief for those out of work. There were those, for example, who adhered to the theory that "immediate demands" to solve the unemployment problem, such as shortening the work day or providing public works, were a waste of time, and that the only answer was for the workers to take over and operate the industries.62 The Industrial Union Bulletin, on the other hand, emphasized the need for a mass campaign for a shorter work day through economic action. "We do not share the view that the unemployed can be entirely eliminated under the capitalist system. But that unemployment can be greatly reduced in volume by the action of an economic organization in shortening the work day and dividing up the work at hand, goes without much

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