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Welcome Back, Wobblies: Barre’s Old Labor Hall Celebrates the Past

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

posted July 29, 2005

Vermont, the home of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. That’s the history many schoolkids learn year after year, and it’s one that is often invoked by politicians, thinkers, and op-ed writers.

Yet, there is a separate, but distinct, history more than a century after the Allen boys that took shape in and around the granite quarries of Barre — the Italian socialist and anarchist granite workers who were not only unionized, but upon whose backs were spawned Vermont’s major export products.

At the center of this history is Barre’s Old Labor Hall, which sits squarely in what was known as the “Socialist Block.” An illustration of the spirit of the era is best captured in a preserved photograph, which shows a crowd of people inside the hall flanked by wall portraits of Karl Marx. During its heyday, people gathered to eat, dance, and hear the renowned speakers of the day — Samuel Gompers, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Emma Goldman, and Joseph Etter, to name a few.

The union members during the early 1900s were not only civic minded, but politically motivated.

The Italian-dominated neighborhoods of Barre spawned an Italian-language newspaper, which flourished. The anarchist wing of the union movement at the time printed its own publication on a separate printing press.

In its prime, the basement of the Labor Hall housed the union’s cooperative grocery store, and possibly a butcher shop, according to historical accounts. As well, coal was distributed from the building to workers and their families. During strikes, it was common for workers’ families to buy food and other items from the union store on credit. This ensured that no family went hungry on what were often long and arduous strikes. The cooperative even produced its own coins for use by members.

According to the August 1903 issue of the Granite Cutters Journal, the “Barre Co-Operative is built on so sure a foundation that not all the powers of evil can prevail against it.”

The Labor Hall remained a community fixture for nearly four decades, and then, for reasons unknown to historians, went into private hands in 1936. Ownership changed several times until July 28, 1995, when the Barre Historical Society, in conjunction with Barre City, bought the hall. It received extensive renovations — with many unions offering free labor and services — over several years in an effort to restore much of the majesty, and functionality, of the old hall.

This weekend, the Labor Hall will host the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), with speakers, a film, and an art show.

The celebration kicks off Saturday and Sunday, with a panel of historians Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., followed by an open mike night of music and poetry Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m., and concluding with a film presentation Sunday at 7 p.m.

Then and now

The Wobblies, as IWW members are known, called the Labor Hall home in Vermont, and connect Barre to the famed Bread & Roses strike in 1912. Founded in Chicago in 1905, the IWW had an impact that has long outlived its heydey in the 1910s and 1920s.

Their greatest victory was the famous 1912 strike in Lawrence, MA, which brought together immigrants from more than 20 nations who worked in the town’s woolen mills. Their fight for decent wages and better working conditions won the attention of concerned citizens across the United States and around the world, and put Barre on the map as the temporary home of 35 children of the Lawrence millworkers during February and March of 1912. The hall, currently a National Historic Landmark, was the receiving station for the children and the site of a grand celebration in their honor.

In Montpelier, a group of downtown workers who had been organized with the United Electrical Workers, recently voted to become a branch of the IWW instead, and to expand its organizing efforts.

In Philadelphia, the IWW-affiliated South Street Workers Union has members in multi-national chains, franchises, and locally owned businesses along the busy retail/restaurant corridor. The IWW uses a model they call solidarity unionism, which does not require contracts or legal certification, but instead organizes workers to pursue grievances through community and workplace solidarity.

“We look forward to being in the same international labor union as these like-minded organizations,” said Montpelier Workers Union (MDWU) steward Diana Duke. “We intend on learning from each other, to become a strong and united voice of working people throughout Vermont, the U.S., and beyond.”

The union will now organize workers throughout the capital region. To reflect this expansion of its organizing scope, it will now be known as the Montpelier Workers Union. This union is no longer affiliated with the United Electrical Workers or the Vermont Workers’ Center, according to a release issued by the union. The union retains members in shops throughout the capital and has gained members in a number of new shops since deciding to affiliate with the IWW. It will continue the MDWU’s citywide grievance procedure and seek contracts and improvements in working conditions in new shops.

IWW General Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss will meet with members of the Montpelier Workers Union July 31, after speaking the previous evening in Barre as part of a labor history event.

Welcoming the Wobblies

Saturday: Discussion 4 p.m.: Two renowned historians of the IWW, Paul Buhle of Brown University and Joyce Kornbluh of the University of Michigan, will lead off a panel discussion. They will be joined by Jon Bekken, editor of the IWW newspaper The Industrial Worker, Alexis Buss, secretary-treasurer of the IWW, and Greg Giorgio, IWW poet and organizer. Historian Laura Rubenis of Bethel will moderate. Free and open to the public.

Sunday: Film 7 p.m.: The film The Wobblies, will be presented at the Labor Hall, introduced by historian Joyce Kornbluh. The film offers first hand accounts of the labor struggles of the early 20th century. Suitable for all ages. Free admission.

Exhibit: Accompanying these events will be the traveling “Wobbly Show,” a graphic history that includes photographs and cartoons. Well-known cartoonists, including Pater Kuper, Harvey Pekar, Sabrina Jones, and the late Carlos Cortez, contributed artwork. On display in the Labor Hall throughout the celebration, the exhibit will also be open on Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m., Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon through August 14. For more information about the exhibit, call 476-8777.