William Z. Foster writing for Jay Fox’s ‘The Agitator,’ was a guest at the seventh I.W.W. convention in Chicago and penned this report. In 1912, Foster was already a veteran activist, a 30-year-old recent convert to syndicalism after his trip to Europe, particularly by the work of the C.G.T. of France and the Unione Sindacale Italiana, and had left the I.W.W. to form the Syndicalist League of North America shortly before this was written.
‘The Seventh I.W.W. Convention’ by William Z. Foster from The Agitator. Vol. 2 No. 23. October 15, 1912.
Tho the 7th annual convention of the I.W.W., recently held in Chicago, developed no very remarkable features, nevertheless some of its doings deserve special notice. One of these was the strong sentiment aroused at one time in favor of decentralization, a sentiment that ill fits the centralization theory prevalent in the organization.
A motion was made to give the General Executive Board jurisdiction over the calling, conducting and settling of all free speech fights. The professed object of the motion was to limit the number of free speech fights, making it more difficult for locals to get support for such fights.
F.H. Little, a G.E.B. member, made a vigorous onslaught upon the motion, clearly showing the evils of centralization in the craft unions, warning the I.W W. against them. He concluded by saying: “The G.E.B. be damned! Don’t give it any such power.”
Thompson, (General Organizer) and Speed (G.E.B. member) also made telling arguments against the motion. Thompson declared that if the locals are to maintain their rights of free speech they must be permitted and prepared to fight for it at the drop of the hat, and that the general organization will have to rely on the intelligence of the locals to avoid uselessly squandering their strength in such fights. Speed sensibly urged against the motion saying that if the locals were deprived of the right to declare free speech fights the next thing the G.E.B. would despoil them of would be their right to strike. The motion was lost by an overwhelming vote and thus an important victory was scored for decentralization in the I.W.W.
In the discussion so strong was the sentiment for local autonomy that one was almost led to believe that the I.W.W. had repudiated the centralists theory, which differentiates it so sharply from every other revolutionary labor union in the world, and had accepted the decentralization theory.
The disillusionment came, however, in a later discussion on motions to deprive the G.E.B. of the power to levy special strike assessments (a most dangerous power, as it gives the G.E.B. the power to decide whether or not a union’s strike shall be financially supported, and thus, perhaps, even whether a strike shall be called) and the power to pass on all agreements made between subordinate parts of the I.W.W. and employers. (Another dangerous power, as it gives the G.E.B. absolute control of all strikes).
Both these motions were overwhelmingly defeated. The same men, with the exception of Little and one or two others who had previously fought for local autonomy, in those cases fought against it.
The explanation of this contradiction is simple: The I.W.W. has had great experience in free speech fights and has learned that local autonomy is essential to their success, and it, therefore, endorses the Syndicalists’ decentralization idea in regard to them.
On the other hand it has had absolutely no experience in collecting national strike assessments and but little in settling strikes. It has not yet learned the danger of allowing a few men to arbitrarily hold the purse strings of the whole organization and thus largely control its strike activities, nor the danger of allowing a small committee, which might easily be corrupt, to dictate upon what terms all strike settlements shall be made. Hence in these matters it still strikes to the Socialist centralization theory, foisted upon it at its birth. It’s safe to say that when, if ever, the I.W.W. does get experience in these matters it will repudiate the Socialist centralization theory and adopt the Syndicalist decentralization practice even as it has done in the case of free speech fights.
An interesting debate was caused by a motion by Halco (G.E.B. member) to strike the constitutional clause forbidding I.W.W. members to become officials in craft unions. Tho Halco, assisted by several other delegates, ably defended his motion citing numerous instances where I.W.W. members could have taken charge of craft union machines and used them to benefit the I.W.W. but refrained from doing so, to the detriment of the I.W. W. The motion was lost. The merits of the proposition, which Halco et al unsuccessfully tried to make the issue, were lost to a blizzard of abuse against the A.F. of L. Halco was called a syndicalist and his motion one to “bore from within” and both were squelched on this basis.
And in truth the experiment would have been a dangerous one for the I.W.W’s ambitious program. Give I.W.W. members the right to hold offices in craft unions and they will strive to win them. This would lead inevitably lead to the building of rebel machine sand a general campaign of “boring from within.” This might lead anywhere. The fear of encouraging “boring from within,” tho unexpressed, no doubt lurked in the mind of many of the delegates and influenced their action.
A general air of prosperity, bred of the Lawrence strike and its aftermath, pervaded the convention. All the delegates were enthusiastic and business like. They departed the convention with high hopes for the coming year.
A strong Socialist minority, if not a majority, was present at the convention. Owing to its newness, the general enthusiasm, etc., this minority did not manifest itself greatly. However part of it could be seen to wince under the “tongue lashings” administered the S.P. by various reports. It’s only a matter of time, however until the old quarrel between the politicians and the direct actionists is again unchained in the I.W.W.
WM. Z. FOSTER.
The Syndicalist began as The Agitator by Earl Ford, JW Johnstone, and William Z Foster in 1911. Inspired by the revolutionary syndicalism of the French CGT, they felt they were political competitors to the IWW and in early 1912, Foster and others created the Syndicalist Militant Minority Leagues in Chicago with chapters soon forming in Kansas City, Omaha, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. They renamed The Agitator The Syndicalist as the paper of the Syndicalist League of North America with Jay Fox as editor. The group then focused on the AFL. The Syndicalist ceased publication in September 1913 with some going on to form the International Trade Union Educational League in January 1915. While only briefly an organization, the SLNA had a host of future important leaders of the Communist movement. Like Foster, Tom Mooney and Earl Browder who were also members.
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