Travis Wilkerson: An Injury to One (film)

Frank Little

It may be said that the “working class”, in political struggles throughout the emergence and expansion of capitalism, was epochal.

We use the word here in its ancient Greek sense. The Greek word epokhe meant “stoppage, fixed point of time,” from epekhein “to pause, take up a position”. (etymological dictionary)

First in Europe, then in the Americas, Asia and Africa, the working classes, from the early 19th century to the mid-20th, would organise to defend themselves, rebel against, and endeavour to overthrow capitalist social relations in a myriad of different ways, as workers, and against being workers, thereby tearing away a social-political horizon that reduced them to wage slavery. They sought, in other words, to bring the machine of oppression and exploitation to a halt, assuming a position against it and beyond it.

One may question the means used and ends sought, for they were never homogeneous or consensual. But for roughly a century, working class revolt offered the promise of a world beyond capitalism through the destruction of Capital’s time, Capital’s history.

Walter Benjamin captured this notion of the epochal powerfully in his Theses on the Philosophy of History.

The consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action. The Great Revolution introduced a new calendar. The day on which the calendar started functioned as a historical time-lapse camera. And it is fundamentally the same day which, in the shape of holidays and memorials, always returns. The calendar does not therefore count time like clocks. They are monuments of a historical awareness, of which there has not seemed to be the slightest trace for a hundred years. Yet in the July Revolution an incident took place which did justice to this consciousness. During the evening of the first skirmishes, it turned out that the clock-towers were shot at independently and simultaneously in several places in Paris. An eyewitness who may have owed his inspiration to the rhyme wrote at that moment:

Qui le croirait! on dit,
qu’irrités contre l’heure
De nouveaux Josués
au pied de chaque tour,
Tiraient sur les cadrans
pour arrêter le jour.

[Who would’ve thought! As though
Angered by time’s way
The new Joshuas
Beneath each tower, they say
Fired at the dials
To stop the day.

(Thesis XV)

It is not false or unjust to affirm that the epochal dimension of the working class is dead. The reasons for this are far too many to enumerate. This of course is not to dismiss the struggle of workers to improve their conditions of labour as irrelevant. It is rather to state that these struggles have been effectively confined to work, to wage labour, and promise little if anything beyond it. The radical engagement with something more, with the emancipation from Capital has waned and passed away. And the old blueprints for freedom seem grotesquely outdated. What autonomy could possibly be had by the workers’ or a “workers’ state” appropriation of the garment industry of Bangladesh or Vietnam, the soya and meat industry of South America, the portable telephone manufacturing sites in China, cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The intensely globalised productive and consumer economy of the present calls not for workers’ collectivisation or nationalisation, but destruction, the destruction of global Capital, which in turn would demand a liberation from work and the condition of being a worker.

No workers’ movement carries such a vision today. And yet, something of the kind remains necessary. And more, the history of past working class revolt is still with us, and it must stay so; not to be memorialised and celebrated, but to call it forth as what still remains alive, present. An injury to one is still an injury to all and to understand and think through the meaning of this statement continues to be an urgent political obligation.

As a journey to a past which still speaks to us, must speak to us, we share Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 powerful documentary, An Injury to One. The film tells the story of the early 20th century lynching of union organizer Frank Little, an I.W.W. union organiser combating injustice against the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Butte, Montana.

We also share below a brief biography of Frank Little from the online I.W.W. archive, as well as the union’s manifesto from 1905.

Wilkerson’s own film work, strongly influenced by the Third Cinema movement of South America, Cuban filmmaker Santiago Álvarez, is notable. We conclude with a short artistic statement by Wilkerson entitled, The Lost Art of Agitation.

Frank Little – A True American Hero

“1/2 White, 1/2 Indian, All I.W.W.”

On August 1, 1917, labor organizer Frank Little was taken forcibly from his boarding house in Butte, Montana, and was lynched from a railroad trestle.

In the summer of 1917, Frank had been helping to organize copper workers in a strike against the Anaconda Copper Company, but it was most likely his stand against World War I that so infuriated his assassins. He argued that all working men should refuse to join the army and fight on behalf of their capitalist oppressors. As he said in the last speech before his death, “I stand for the solidarity of labor.” Frank understood that his stand against the war might get him killed, but even this prospect did not deter him. He was a true revolutionary.

Not much is known about the early life of Frank Little. He was born in 1879 and was active in the 1913 free speech campaigns in Missoula, Fresno, Spokane, Peoria, and elsewhere. Frank was also active in organizing lumberjacks, mineworkers and oilfield workers into labor unions. By 1916, Frank was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World General Executive Board.

The I.W.W. was founded in 1905 by Eugene V. Debs, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and others who believed that workers should be organized into a single industrial union because individual trade unions were likely to be pitted against each other during disputes with the employers. The I.W.W. was founded on the belief that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common and that the historic mission of the working class is to abolish capitalism and replace it with an economic system based upon human need rather than private profit, so that the benefits of the good life could be extended beyond the privileged few.

Frank Little is an American hero, not for the great things he accomplished in his lifetime, but because he remained true to his revolutionary principles until the day he died. Today, those of us lucky enough to be living in the United States and other western countries are living in a period of relatively stable economic prosperity. Some of us may even live our entire lives without ever belonging to a labor union or participating in a strike. It seems as though we have been living in a collective “comfort zone.” Our thoughts are basically constructed for us by our educational institutions and by the mass media, so we have little information regarding the turbulent class struggle that was taking place a century ago. How many of us today even understand the conflict between capital and labor? How many of us think about why we are living the good life while three-fourths of humanity is living in poverty? And how many think about the possible consequences when the stock market finally collapses and the conflict between capital and labor intensifies in the developed countries?

Even those of us who have studied labor history and understand the conflict between capital and labor would be humbled to stand in the same room with a man like Frank Little. He lived in the trenches, teaching and organizing so that his fellow workers could one day enjoy the good life that only the bosses enjoyed. He was not an “armchair revolutionary” but a man who actively put his principles into action on a day to day basis, knowing that he could be jailed on some trumped-up charge or shot by a Pinkerton thug at any time. Even though Frank Little was executed by six masked men in the wee hours of August 1, 1917, his ideas will live on as long as people remember him. And in Butte, Montana, “we never forget….”

(From the I.W.W. archive)

Industrial Union Manifesto

Issued by Conference of Industrial Unionists at Chicago, January 2, 3 and 4, 1905.

Social relations and groupings only reflect mechanical and industrial conditions. The great facts of present industry are the displacement of human skill by machines and the increase of capitalist power through concentration in the possession of the tools with which wealth is produced and distributed.

Because of these facts trade divisions among laborers and competition among capitalists are alike disappearing. Class divisions grow ever more fixed and class antagonisms more sharp. Trade lines have been swallowed up in a common servitude of all workers to the machines which they tend. New machines, ever replacing less productive ones, wipe out whole trades and plunge new bodies of workers into the ever-growing army of trade-less, hopeless unemployed. As human beings and human skill are displaced by mechanical progress, the capitalists need use the workers only during that brief period when muscles and nerve respond most intensely. The moment the laborer no longer yields the maximum of profits he is thrown upon the scrap pile, to starve alongside the discarded machine. A dead line has been drawn, and an age limit established, to cross which, in this world of monopolized opportunities, means condemnation to industrial death.

The worker, wholly separated from the land and the tools, with his skill of craftsmanship rendered useless, is sunk in the uniform mass of wage slaves. He sees his power of resistance broken by class divisions, perpetuated from outgrown industrial stages. His wages constantly grow less as his hours grow longer and monopolized prices grow higher. Shifted hither and thither by the demands of profit-takers, the laborer’s home no longer exists. In this helpless condition he is forced to accept whatever humiliating conditions his master may impose. He is submitted to a physical and intellectual examination more searching than was the chattel slave when sold from the auction block. Laborers are no longer classified by difference in trade skill, but the employer assigns them according to the machines to which they are attached. These divisions, far from representing differences in skill or interests among the laborers, are imposed by the employer that workers may be pitted against one another and spurred to greater exertion in the shop, and that all resistance to capitalist tyranny may be weakened by artificial distinctions.

While encouraging these outgrown divisions among the workers the capitalists carefully adjust themselves to the new conditions. They wipe out all differences among themselves and present a united front in their war upon labor. Through employers’ associations, they seek to crush, with brutal force, by the injunctions of the judiciary and the use of military power, all efforts at resistance. Or when the other policy seems more profitable, they conceal their daggers beneath the Civic Federation and hoodwink and betray those whom they would rule and exploit. Both methods depend for success upon the blindness and internal dissensions of the working class. The employers’ line of battle and methods of warfare correspond to the solidarity of the mechanical and industrial concentration, while laborers still form their fighting organizations on lines of long-gone trade divisions. The battles of the past emphasize this lesson. The textile workers of Lowell, Philadelphia and Fall River; the butchers of Chicago, weakened by the disintegrating effects of trade divisions; the machinists on the Santa Fe, unsupported by their fellow-workers subject to the same masters; the long-struggling miners of Colorado, hampered by lack of unity and solidarity upon the industrial battlefield, all bear witness to the helplessness and impotency of labor as at present organized.

This worn-out and corrupt system offers no promise of improvement and adaptation. There is no silver lining to the clouds of darkness and despair settling down upon the world of labor.

This system offers only a perpetual struggle for slight relief from wage slavery. It is blind to the possibility of establishing an industrial democracy, wherein there shall be no wage slavery, but where the workers will own the tools which they operate, and the product of which they alone should enjoy.

It shatters the ranks of the workers into fragments, rendering them helpless and impotent on the industrial battlefield.

Separation of craft from craft renders industrial and financial solidarity impossible.

Union men scab upon union men; hatred of worker for worker is engendered, and the workers are delivered helpless and disintegrated into the hands of the capitalists.

Craft jealousy leads to the attempt to create trade monopolies.

Prohibitive initiation fees are established that force men to become scabs against their will. Men whom manliness or circumstances have driven from one trade are thereby fined when they seek to transfer membership to the union of a new craft.

Craft divisions foster political ignorance among the workers, thus dividing their class at the ballot box, as well as in the shop, mine and factory.

Craft unions may be and have been used to assist employers in the establishment of monopolies and the raising of prices. One set of workers are thus used to make harder the conditions of life of another body of laborers.

Craft divisions hinder the growth of class consciousness of the workers, foster the idea of harmony of interests between employing exploiter and employed slave. They permit the association of the misleaders of the workers with the capitalists in the Civic Federation, where plans are made for the perpetuation of capitalism, and the permanent enslavement of the workers through the wage system.

Previous efforts for the betterment of the working class have proven abortive because limited in scope and disconnected in action.

Universal economic evils afflicting the working class can be eradicated only by a universal working class movement. Such a movement of the working class is impossible while separate craft and wage agreements are made favoring the employer against other crafts in the same industry, and while energies are wasted in fruitless jurisdiction struggles which serve only to further the personal aggrandizement of union officials.

A movement to fulfill these conditions must consist of one great industrial union embracing all industries–providing for craft autonomy locally, industrial autonomy internationally, and working class unity generally.

It must be founded on the class struggle, and its general administration must be conducted in harmony with the recognition of the irrepressible conflict between the capitalist class and the working class.

It should be established as the economic organization of the working class, without affiliation with any political party.

All power should rest in a collective membership.

Local, national and general administration, including union labels, buttons, badges, transfer cards, initiation fees and per capita tax should be uniform throughout.

All members must hold membership in the local, national or international union covering the industry in which they are employed, but transfers of membership between unions, local, national or international, should be universal.

Workingmen bringing union cards from industrial unions in foreign countries should be freely admitted into the organization.

The general administration should issue a publication representing the entire union and its principles which should reach all members in every industry at regular intervals.

A central defense fund, to which all members contribute equally, should be established and maintained.

All workers, therefore, who agree with the principles herein set forth, will meet in convention at Chicago the 27th day of June, 1905, for the purpose of forming an economic organization of the working class along the lines marked out in this manifesto.

(From the I.W.W. archive)

The Lost Art of Agitation

Travis Wilkerson

What exactly is agitation, anyway? Agitation is about ideas. An agitator presents one or a few ideas to a mass of people. Slogans, placards, and chants are agitation in its most concise form.

Agitation had its initial roots in the rebellion against British colonialism. But it came of age around the crime of slavery. John Brown?s agitation was so forceful that it still resonates today. But the best, the bravest of the agitators were the Wobblies. These were the revolutionary organizers who elevated agitation to an art form.

The Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. or the “Wobblies”) were founded as a revolutionary union in Chicago in 1905. In newspapers, pamphlets, literature, music, graphic art and oration, the Wobblies vision of revolution was equaled by the culture of its agitation. The folk cartoons, which combine savage humor and brave imagery, are the boldest delivery of slogans ever seen in this country. Meanwhile, the slogans themselves are like the whispers of ghosts:

Solidarity forever

Direct action gets the goods.

Labor is entitled to all that it produces

The worst thief is he who steals the playtime of children

What time is it? Time to organize.

Fight for the full product of your labor

The general strike is the key that fits the lock to freedom

Capitalism can?t escape the final move

We never forget

Soapbox agitation was the Wobblies true medium. Organizers would travel to the eye of crisis: strikes, workplace disasters, deportations, lockouts, free speech fights. They were precisely what is meant by the term “outside agitator.” In a strange town choked by open hostility, police bullying and the constant threat of violence, they would take to the stage (or literal soapbox) and deliver a revolutionary view of things. Without microphones or amplification of any kind, they would address crowds often numbering in the thousands. They would harness bellowing voices punctuated by large, dramatic gestures. Sometimes their words could hold the crowds spellbound. And at their very best, they could make revolutionary ideas a material factor in the struggle.

“Big” Bill Haywood began with a flourish in Chicago. He called the founding convention to order by pounding a two-by-four in place of a gavel before proclaiming the purpose of “the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.”

The greatest Wobbly agitators form a kind of pantheon of masters of the lost art. Haywood is joined by the likes of Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, Lucy Parsons, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, and Joe Hill. They took the Wobbly vision into factories, mines, and timber & farm fields. Their names are inseparable from the struggles that marked the era: Patterson, Bisbee, the Iron Range, the Great Central Valley.

The most legendary Wobbly agitator is Frank Little. He arrived in Butte, Montana straight from Bisbee, Arizona, where he?d avoided the notorious deportations by being badly injured in a car crash. In Butte he wouldn?t be so lucky. He arrived in a city suffocating with anxiety, in the wake of a mining disaster and subsequent wildcat strike. The most powerful corporation in the world dominated Butte: Anaconda.

Little made two public speeches in Butte. He is said to have addressed a number of potentially dangerous matters: the history of the present struggle, strike tactics and strategy. But where he really got into trouble was around the war. He said World War 1 was obviously a war between the bosses and that it was time to turn that war against the bosses.

The scene was incredibly dramatic, with the hobbled Little leaning on his cane. According to accounts, at the summit of his speech the clouds darkened and rain began to fall. He ended with a phrase that strangely echoes the future. He implored the miners to win the strike “by any means necessary.” At 3:00 the next morning, he was lynched by “persons still unknown.”

In the aftermath of World War 1, the Wobblies were targeted by the Federal Government and subjected to sharp repression. A mass trial of the I.W.W. leadership effectively crushed the movement. And so as suddenly as they arrived, the Wobblies disappeared from the political landscape. To a great extent, they took the art of radical agitation with them.

The Wobblies fought for change everywhere, at all times. They always made immediate demands: for better wages or free speech or for the rights of immigrants. But they never lost sight of an image of a different kind of world altogether. Nowadays the Wobblies are regarded, if acknowledged at all, as brave fools. The 400 Billionaires love that position. So do both parties of war. But doesn?t it seem obvious that the world is what we make of it?

We need the Wobblies more than ever but instead we have their lessons. The immediate goal is the recovery of radical agitation as an art form. To bring art that much closer to politics, in order that someday politics might look more like art. The long-term ambition is existentially complex. For truly effective agitation always renders itself obsolete.

(From Travis Wilkerson’s website)

The I.W.W. continues. The union’s website can be found here. Travis Wilkerson’s work can be explored at his own website, on vimeo and also at Now! A journal of Urgent Praxis.

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