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The IWW And Earth First!: Part 1 - Establishing Roots

By X344543 - Industrial Worker, May 1988. Dedicated to Franklin Rosemont, Carlos Cortez, and Utah Phillips.

Judi Bari was both an Earth First!er and a Wobbly from 1988 to 1993 and during that time there was a close alliance between the two organizations. Although some assume she brought the two together, the truth is more complex. When Judi Bari joined Earth First! and the IWW in the summer of 1988, Earth First!ers and Wobblies were already discussing the idea of forging an alliance. There are many reasons for this, but the overarching explanation is that Earth First! and the IWW are really different manifestations of thesame revolutionary impulse.

The IWW, founded in Chicago in 1905 by radical working class anti-capitalists from veterans of various movements and struggles, united around the idea of forming One Big Union of the working class. They offered a revolutionary alternative to the classcollaborationist American Federation of Labor (AFL). The IWW pledged to organize all workers—regardless of ethnicity, gender or skill level—by industry rather than craft. Instead of the conservative AFL motto, “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” the IWW sought to abolish wage slavery altogether. No longer would workers collectively enable their own oppression by crossing each other’s (craft based) picket lines, they said. The IWW would organize the working class together. This was summarized by the slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all!”

The IWW set out to achieve this creatively, becoming known as much for its “right brain” artistic contributions to working-class culture as well as its “left brain” organizing activities.

The IWW’s artistic creativity was both visual and auditory. The IWW’s use of clever graphic imagery, especially in cartoons and “silent agitator” stickers conveyed IWW propaganda far more succinctly and effectively to workers (many of whom were illiterate) than any manifesto.

Likewise, the IWW was famous for its voluminous collection of songs and labor hymns, which slyly conveyed the union’s message of class struggle in rhythm, rhyme and meter. The latter resulted not just from the abundance of clever song smiths that joined the One Big Union but also largely out of necessity, to get around arbitrary anti-soapboxing ordinances enacted throughout the Pacific Northwest. These had been specifically designed to prevent IWW members from engaging in street corner oratory.

Such blatant First Amendment violations still exempted the singing of religious hymns, such as those performed by the Salvation Army (who themselves had a particular condemnation of the Wobblies and their call for earthly paradise, instead of “pie in the sky, when you die”). The IWW would write alternate lyrics to these hymns that both argued in favor of class struggle and against religious dogma that enabled the perpetuation of wage slavery.

Perhaps the most lasting of the IWW’s artistic contributions to radical working class culture comes from one person, Ralph Chaplin. It was he who wrote the anthem “Solidarity Forever.” Chaplin also introduced the iconic black cat logo, “Sabo-Tabby,” a clever play on “sabotage,” symbolizing the organized, collective and conscious withdrawal of efficiency by the workers at the point of production.

These cultural icons of the IWW were used extensively during the free speech fights that took place in the Pacific Northwest during the IWW’s heyday in the 1910s and 1920s, many of which were part of the Wobblies’ efforts to organize an industrial union of lumber workers throughout that region. During one such struggle, in Spokane, Washington, several of the songs sung by the members involved in the thick of it were printed on red card stock and sold to the membership at-large to raise much- needed organizing funds, thus giving birth to the Little Red Songbook. As a result, the IWW became known as “The Singing Union.”

Less well-known is that these rich and colorful parts of IWW culture, much romanticized by historians and radicals today, were designed as tactics in the service of advancing strategy at the point of production. Often their practical utility is forgotten, downplayed, or even deliberately hidden in favor of painting a picture of the IWW as a cultural curiosity rather than a union with clever and effective strategies that was at the same time revolutionary and fun.

Indeed, all of these facets coalesced around the IWW-backed Lumber Workers Industrial Union’s winning of the eight-hour workday and improved conditions through their effective “striking on the job” in 1917. Little did anyone realize, however, the effect the IWW’s struggles would have on the future of the environmental movement at the time.

Fast forward to 1980. Five environmental activists, led by Dave Foreman and Mike Roselle, disillusioned with mainstream environmental organizations, started a new group, inspired by Edward Abbey’s best-selling novel, The Monkeywrench Gang. They called their group “Earth First!” They found the mainstream organizations far too willing to make compromises with industrial polluters in exchange for preserving small, ultimately insignificant patches of wilderness for fear of alienating wealthy donors. In doing so, they lost sight of the far more steadfast visions of their founders.

To Earth First! this was not only unacceptable, it was suicidal. The founders believed—and to a large extent science has largely proven—that all living beings on the Earth are interconnected in a singular web of life. Biologically, an injury to one is an injury to all. Those who pushed for compromise argued from the standpoint of “better half a loaf than none at all,” to which Earth First! would respond by first explaining how very much less than “half” of the proverbial loaf had been gained, and moreover saving anything less than the entire loaf portended the eventual loss of the entire loaf. They adopted the slogan, “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!” and called their philosophy, “biocentrism,” as opposed to human-centeredness, or “anthropocentrism.”

Earth First! wasted little time, engaging in many campaigns, often utilizing creative and humorous acts of civil disobedience. The first such major act involved the “cracking” of Glen Canyon Dam, although the “crack” was really a long roll of black paper that was unrolled to create the illusion of a fracture, a sort of “merry prankster” attempt at conveying the message that was nonviolent, but nevertheless militant. From this many other similar actions followed in defense of wilderness and in protest of despoliation by industrial pollution. Earth First! grew quickly as a result, even drawing in Monkey Wrench Gang author, Ed Abbey, in short order.

Inevitably this drew opposition from corporate interests and mainstream environmental groups (no doubt in fear that their thunder—not to mention funding base—would be stolen). The latter merely called Earth First! “irresponsible,” while the former called them “terrorists.” Indeed, Earth First! faced the same stigma assigned to the IWW by the employing class and reformist socialists back in the beginning of the 20th century.

One might assume that these experiences would have led Earth First!’s founders to the same fundamental conclusions reached by the IWW, primarily that capitalism cannot be reformed. At least on some level, it did. In opposing the destruction of the environment, which is an inherent function of capitalist economics (the privatization of wealth, including what we call “natural resources,” andthe externalization of costs to the working class, not to mention all other, nonhuman, species), Earth First!ers constantly found itself in opposition to the employing class by default.

However, Earth First!ers generally didn’t see themselves as being part of “the left” politically. Dave Foreman once described his movement by saying, “We’re not left; we’re not right; we’re not even in front or behind! We’re not even playing the same game!” Foreman’s statement revealed many of the contradictions that were deeply ingrained within this radical environmental movement.

To begin with, Earth First! wasn’t a formal organization. It had no constitution, no officers (other than the editors of its de facto organ, the Earth First! Journal) and no standards for identifying formal membership. Therefore Earth First! had no official policies or internal process. There was only a loose and ephemeral consensus of purpose behind those that identified as Earth First!ers. Yet Earth First! had chapters that met regularly and consistently, and more were forming as its reputation grew.

Furthermore, Earth First!—which had quickly sprouted international chapters—saw little difference between the destruction of the Earth by capitalist corporations and that of so-called “communist” states. While any leftist worth their salt knows perfectly well that what most people call “communism” is actually much closer to capitalism in practice than it is different from it, hence the pollution, Earth First!ers tended to eschew class analysis and political economy as “anthropocentric” concerns, and therefore, not relevant.

That was due, in no small part, to deeply engrained hostility to Marxism among some (though not all) of Earth First!s leading thinkers, particularly Dave Foreman, Ed Abbey and Chris Manes. All three of them had looked to a number of ecological thinkers from the past, including John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, Rachel Carson, and Henry David Thoreau, among others. All of them had advanced tenets of the philosophies of biocentrism, but they had also drawn inspiration from a very dubious source: Thomas Malthus, whose essay “On Population” was not an argument for environmentalism, but a defense of class privilege in reaction to the anarchist ideals of William Godwin.

Earth First!’s animosity towards leftism and anarchism can be partly explained by the fact that Dave Foreman had once been a Goldwater Republican, and though he had jettisoned much of the right-wing political baggage of this prior association, Foreman, like many other ex-rightists, could never completely embrace political theories associated with “collectivism,” even those that were libertarian in nature. As a result, he shunned class analysis and mass-based organizing in favor of individualistic covert guerrilla “eco-sabotage” or “monkey wrenching.” Such thinking patterns lead Foreman to embrace misanthropy.

Although Foreman was not the “leader” of Earth First! he was often identified by outsiders as such, a notion that was enforced by his being editor of the Earth First! Journal for much of the 1980s and his being one of Earth First!’s most outspoken thinkers.

Foreman and his adherents advanced a school of thought that blamed the destruction of the environment not on the inherent economic processes of capitalism, but instead on an over-abundant, over-prolific human population aided by technology. The solution to the problem was a return to pre-industrial society, perhaps even hunter-gatherer existence, with a greatly reduced human population (though no specific process or plan was ever articulated for achieving such a shift), leading Earth First!’s critics—including Murray Bookchin—to suggest that Foreman’s perspectives could be interpreted in any number of less than savory ways, even as an endorsement of fascism.

Foreman, as well as his fellow misanthropes, Ed Abbey and Chris Manes, did not work to dispel such rumors when each of them made statements of their own—some of them taken out of context—which suggested (among other things) that aiding developing nations, giving amnesty to illegal immigrants, and seeking a cure for AIDS interfered with nature’s processes for stabilizing the population.

The vast majority of Earth First!ers did not share these views. While they may have held some mildly misanthropic and Malthusian beliefs, for the most part their actions were far more progressive and class conscious in their intent. Indeed, as we shall soon see, in California’s Redwood region, Earth First!ers routinely made overtures of solidarity to timber workers when the latter had disputes with their employers.

The IWW still existed during that time, of course, and a handful of its members came in regular contact with Earth First!ers. A few IWW members even joined Earth First! and vice versa.

Ironically Dave Foreman, in spite of his misanthropic tendencies, was actually enamored with the IWW. He and his fellow founders actively looked to leftist organizations, including especially the IWW for cultural inspiration—though obviously they had eschewed Marxist and syndicalist economic analysis in doing so. Ralph Chaplin’s sabo cat icon graced the pages of many an Earth First! Journal in reference to ecotage. And, in a clear homage to the IWW, Dave Foreman even compiled various songs written by the copious number of Earth First! musicians into what he called, the Little Green Songbook.

Meanwhile, Ed Abbey—who described himself as an “anarchist,” albeit an individualist one—also spoke favorably of the One Big Union, perhaps because rumor has it at least, his father had been a dues-paying IWW member.

These connections did not go unnoticed by contemporary IWW members. None other than the Rosemonts (Penelope and Franklin), Carlos Cortez, and Utah Phillips all came into regular contact with Earth First!ers. The aforementioned Wobblies spoke favorably towards the new radical environmentalists, which drew a backlash from IWW members critical of it.

Critics pointed to the misanthropy and class ignorance of spokespeople like Foreman, Abbey and Manes. Their supporters countered by noting there were more similarities between the IWW and Earth First! than differences. They pointed out that there was one key difference: while the IWW talked of direct action, Earth First! was actually taking direct action. (That there was a fundamental difference between direct action against industrial activity, and direct action at the point of production, was often ignored, however.)

The debate raged on, under the surface in the IWW, until Franklin Rosemont—who was an editor of the Industrial Worker in 1988—decided to force the issue, quite literally. That year the publication’s editors made the decision to base a majority of each issue on a particular theme. For May, that theme would be “radical environmentalism,” and much of the focus—indeed MOST of it—would be on Earth First! Little did anyone know just how significant that decision would turn out to be.

To be continued...

Next installment: How Pacific Lumber in Humboldt County was yet another historical bridge between the IWW and Earth First!

X343543 (Steve Ongerth) has been an IWW member since 1995 when he was inspired to join the OBU after meeting Judi Bari. He has just written a soon-to-be-published book about Judi Bari to be called, One Big Union: The whole story behind the bombing of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney.