IWW Lehigh Valley (PA) Branch

The IWW Lehigh Valley (PA) Branch represents workers.

"As far as Tina Gaffney and a few of her co-workers were concerned, things weren’t going well at Boulevard Bingo in Allentown last spring. In fact, it got to the point where the workers looked around for a union to represent them. But they were only 15. And, Gaffney says, the unions she contacted weren’t interested in bargaining for a handful of part-timers who worked bingo tables a few nights a week. So they set up an informational picket line outside the popular Union Boulevard bingo hall. And they were shocked when a union approached them. Some members of a small, fledgling Lehigh Valley union stopped and chatted with the picketing workers the first day they were on the line. That night—June 21, 1992—the bingo workers had a union. ‘When we ran into the IWW, we were elated,’ said Gaffney. ‘The IWW was a godsend to us on the picket line.’ The IWW? That’s the Industrial Workers of the World, the so-called Wobblies, that colorful amalgam of miners and lumberjacks, radicals and hobos that etched their initials into American labor history during tumultuous strikes by silk workers in Paterson, N.J., and textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., during the early decades of the century. It’s the IWW of ‘Big’ Bill Haywood, advocate of ‘One Big Union’ for all the workers of the world; of ‘Mother’ Jones, the ‘Miner’s Angel,’ who helped bring the United Mine Workers to the anthracite region; of the legendary folk singer Woodie Guthrie. The Wobblies, widely thought to be confined to the history books, are reasserting themselves 70 or so years after they faded from the American labor scene. There are nowhere near the 150,000 members the IWW had at its heyday, around 1919. Now the San Francisco-based IWW has only about 1,000 members scattered across the United States. But one of the IWW’s up-and-coming branches is in the Lehigh Valley, and there are spin-offs in Reading, Lancaster and Philadelphia. For three years, about 50 labor activists, environmentalists and other social critics have been meeting on Sunday afternoons in the community room of the Whitehall Mall. The branch is small but active. Anywhere there’s an activity, an issue or a cause that affects workers in eastern Pennsylvania, the Wobblies are likely to be there. They’ve picketed former U.S. Rep. Don Ritter’s office in Bethlehem. They’ve discussed the IWW philosophy in political science classes at Moravian College, Northampton Community College and Drexel University. And they’ll have a booth at the Earth Day celebration today in Bethlehem. Last May, they joined Berks County Wobblies and picketed the Van Heusen clothing outlet in Reading. The protest was aimed at forcing Manhattan-based Phillips-Van Heusen, the largest shirt manufacturer in the United States, to negotiate with workers who want to form unions at two textile plants in Guatemala. ‘Van Heusen isn’t in Guatemala to provide jobs and opportunities to Guatemalans,’ charged IWW organizer Fara Farbod of Allentown. ‘They’re in Guatemala because they can find laborers that work for $2 a day and aren’t allowed to organize a union.’ When workers went on strike recently at Beatrice Foods in Whitehall Township, the IWW lent moral support. During strikes at Spirax Sarco International in Allentown, Saucon Valley School District and Pottsville Hospital, IWW members joined those workers occasionally on the picket line. ‘We made sure they had coffee and talked solidarity,’ said Lenny Flank, one of the founders of the IWW branch in the Lehigh Valley. ‘We tried to keep their spirits up.’ When it comes to representing workers, the IWW operates different from most labor unions. Instead of directly negotiating for workers or representing them in grievance hearings, the IWW often acts more like an adviser to worker groups. From its inception in 1905, the IWW has mistrusted bureaucracy—union bureaucracy as well as corporate. Under its principle of ‘direct action,’ the IWW prefers that workers make their own decisions—be they work stoppages, negotiations or strikes. ‘We believe the only boss that workers should have is themselves, not a company or a union,’ said Flank. ‘Workers should make the decisions that affect them.’ The Boulevard Bingo workers, for example, have their own ‘job shop’ affiliated with the IWW. The workers, not the IWW, decide what actions to take. The IWW, however, has filed unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board on the bingo workers’ behalf. The NLRB has made several rulings the bingo workers view as favorable. The dispute is expected go before an NLRB administrative law judge in June. Meanwhile, the IWW and the bingo workers picket the bingo hall periodically. Charlene Havassy, manager of Boulevard Bingo, views the local IWW branch as a meddlesome organization out to make a name for itself. She says state laws already govern the pay scale and benefits of workers at bingo parlors run by non-profit groups, so there’s little to bargain over. No mainstream union, she contends, would be interested in representing the bingo workers. ‘You can’t bargain with this group (IWW) anyway. They’re totally irrational, and they’ve created a lot of problems for us,’ she said. ‘They’re radical organizers.’ Flank thinks the IWW’s approach, however, is particularly relevant to organizing businesses with 20 or fewer workers. Big unions, he contends, aren’t interested in organizing workplaces with fewer than 50 workers—where the majority of Americans work. ‘As traditional unionized employers like Bethlehem Steel and Mack Trucks shrink, more and more workers are forced into low-wage, non-union jobs in small shops,’ Flank said. ‘That’s where the future (of labor) is.’ Advocates of economic democracy, the IWW envisions a workplace where managers would be elected and committees of workers would run the company. ‘If we can elect a president and a Congress,’ Flank said, somewhat wryly, ‘why can’t we elect a shift foreman and a company president?’ While most members are more-or-less leftist, the IWW harbors a strong distrust of politics and politicians, regardless of ideology. ‘The mainstream parties—Democrats and Republicans—are the same,’ contends Mike DaMore, a member of the Lehigh Valley IWW. ‘Either way, they’re no good to us.’ Rather than supporting political parties, the IWW attempts to build coalitions with workers, minorities, environmentalists, feminists and peace advocates. The IWW considers itself a union and generally supports unions. But, DaMore indicated, the IWW has a broad vision that focuses on all workers, unionized or not. ‘Clinton’s anti-scab bill benefits the 13 percent of workers who are unionized,’ DaMore said of Democratic-backed legislation that would prohibit companies from hiring replacement workers during strikes. ‘What about the other 87?’ DaMore, a political science graduate student who works two part-time jobs, conceded that holding somewhat unconventional views isn’t always conducive to job security. ‘A lot of us don’t stay in places too long,’ he said. ‘We tend to have short-term jobs.’ For Gaffney, who has emerged as a leader of the bingo workers, the IWW has been a source of support at a time when it seemed no one else cared. A former supervisor who joined workers on the picket line, she’s found a sense of self that goes beyond the economic issues at stake. ‘Whether this (strike) is won or lost is not the issue. We’re all human beings and shouldn’t be denied the right to prove our worth,’ she told a political science class at Moravian College."

—Ron Devlin, "L.V. Union Rekindles IWW Philosophy:

Bingo Workers Say Help of Group Was a Godsend,"

The Morning Call (25 April 1993)

Give Back My Factory to Me