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Mistaken Identity: the Tortured History of Sabotage, Part 1

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, March 3, 2016

The IWW has long been associated, for better or worse, with the tactic of "sabotage", so much so that it has become an essential part of the Wobbly lexicon (even though the tactic predates the IWW by at least a century). As I have detailed elsewhere1, the radical environmental movement, initiated principally, though not exclusively, by Earth First!, beginning in the very late 1970s in the United States, drew much cultural inspiration from the One Big Union (and to a much lesser degree, some of its economic critique of capitalism). One of the most celebrated such "borrowings" was the strategy of direct action.

A classic IWW slogan, which appeared on many of the IWW's literature and imagery, reads "direct action gets the goods". The black cat or the wooden shoe (otherwise known as a "sabot"), often associated with the IWW, symbolizes "sabotage," and these same symbols and slogans would later appear in Earth First! literature and iconography.

Earth First! cofounder, Dave Foreman popularized "monkeywrenching" (sometimes also called "ecofefense"), a series or class of tactics involving small bands of anonymous guerillas entering into wilderness areas slated to be developed or have their resources extracted and vandalized the equipment that was to be used in the process or set traps that would hamper the same equipment from smooth and timely operations. This has often been called sabotage (or sometimes ecotage).

However, sabotage and monkeywrenching are not the same thing. In fact, many who practice, or at least preach, using the latter do not understand the difference, and economic conditions which led to the adoption of the former by workers. Indeed, may of them don't understand sabotage at all, and that's no coincidence. What most people have heard or read about the IWW and "sabotage" is fairly inaccurate, and most accounts are more romantic fiction than historical fact.

Chapter 25 : Sabo Tabby vs. Killa Godzilla

By Steve Ongerth - From the book, Redwood Uprising: Book 1

"Between 1914-18, when the IWW openly advocated ca’canny (better known as “sabotage”), it often used the symbol of an angry black cat, with claws borne, fur standing on end, and a bottlebrush tail, as visual code. Indeed, the “sabo-cat”, (which may have originally been a tabby to provide a visual play-on-words, i.e. “sabo-tabby” for “sabotage”) designed by none other than Solidarity Forever songsmith and IWW organizer Ralph Chaplin [1], is still used today by the IWW, Earth First!, and the admirers of both—sometimes to specifically encourage direct action, but generally as a totem. [2] And though the IWW and Earth First! may have openly advocated sabotage at different times during their existences, as Earth First!er George Draffan had pointed out, in actual fact, it was the timber workers themselves who actually practiced it more than anyone else. [3] While this was often welcomed by the members of Local #1, at the same time, it also potentially caused problems as well.

"As opposition to Corporate Timber grew, North Coast activists anticipated a backlash. Already Earth First!ers in Arizona had been set up and framed for “terrorist” acts they didn’t commit. It was only a matter of time before something locally would get sabotaged, blown up, or burned down and the North Coast activists would likely get the blame. Indeed, there were some hints that it had possibly already happened. Take the case of the mysterious burnings of the Okerstrom feller-buncher logging equipment.

To Wrench Or Not To Wrench: Another IWW EUC Member's Opinion

Above: IWW Member and ELF arsonist Marie Mason with her Sabo-tabby

By X343464 - November 22, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

As one of the founders of the IWW EUC, I think we should not condemn nor condone arson or insurrectionary ecology. In our provisions we state:

Capital Blight: To Wrench or Not to Wrench, a Response

By x344543 - October 29, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

A few days ago, I read To Wrench or Not to Wrench: A Brief History of Direct Action in the Environmental Movement and its Potential Consequences, Ethical Implications, and Effectiveness, by By Jeriah Bowser, of the Hampton Institute with particular interest, because it deals with a subject with which I have a good deal of familiarity. Having worked alongside Judi Bari and her fellow Earth First! - IWW Local #1 organizers, I learned a good deal from listening to the ongoing and evolving discussions and debates over strategy and tactics within both Earth First! and the IWW, and so Bowser's article immediately caught my attention.

To be certain, I wanted to make sure I read his piece very carefully, because the subject he covers is particularly contentious and--in my humble opinion--often misconstrued in any number of frustrating ways. I found some things to agree with in Hampton's piece, but there are some glaring errors and oversights in his argument, not to mention some very dangerous and damaging mistakes as well.

For starters, Bowser establishes a false dichotomy between environmental (or other) groups which "engage in direct action" and those that "stick to the democratic process". There are many that do both and see no contradiction in doing so. There is an old debate about "working within the system" versus "tearing the (rotten) system down". Certainly the IWW advocates the later in regards to capitalism ("capitalism cannot be reformed") philosophically, but as a matter of day-to-day survival the IWW is not adverse to working within established systems to make small gains, knowing full well that ultimately the IWW's intended end, the abolition of wage slavery and the establishment of a cooperative commonwealth (that lives in harmony with the Earth) cannot be achieved within the context of capitalism, no matter how much one tries to reform it. Often times, the IWW alsoadvocates working outside the system through direct action, specifically at the point of production. Most times, the IWW favors the latter, but sometimes the boundaries aren't entirely clear. The same holds true with radical environmentalists.

On the flip side, Bowser either naively or even dangerously lumps all forms of "direct acton" together and all groups that engage in a whole range of direct action tactics into a single grouping. Specifically he conflates Earth First!, Earth Liberation Front (ELF), and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) into one category. I suppose that's essentially accurate on a certain level, and it's been a good long time since I have been an "active" Earth First!er (however that is defined), but when I was active in Earth First! (1995-98), we never engaged in or advocated some of the tactics commonly associated with either ALF or ELF, including, especially arson. Arson was not only not condoned, the Earth First! groups I worked with specifically eschewed such tactics as counterproductive and self destructive. To my knowledge, that is still the case, even if Earth First! favorably reports on the activities of ELF and ALF.

Bowser also makes few distinctions between the veritable aresnal of direct action tactics that exist, simply labeling "tree sitting, blocking logging roads, and street protests" as "passive, non-violent" civil disobedience, then mentioning "tree spiking, or driving huge nails into trees" as an escalation of Earth First!'s militancy. He then goes on to declare that the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF) escalated those tactics by "defacing" billboards (although, perhaps "culture jamming" would be a more accurate term, because simple defacement and repurposing the message into an anti-capitalist or ironic satire is substantially more meaningful) followed by "burning" (or) "cutting them down". I know of no proven examples of the latter, but I'll accept that I don't know everything and take the author at their word. However, the author then goes on to state that "arson slowly emerged as the preferred method of resistance, however, and was co-opted by other emerging environmental and animal rights groups- most notably the ELF and ALF," as if there were a logical and linear progression from one to the other, which is a dubious argument.

The Evolution of ELF After "Operation Backfire"

By an anonymous IWW Member - ca. 2010