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Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

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 14 - Sabotage a War Measure

I have not given you are rigidly defined thesis on sabotage because sabotage is in the process of making. Sabotage itself is not clearly defined. Sabotage is as broad and changing as industry, as flexible as the imagination and passions of humanity. Every day workingmen and women are discovering new forms of sabotage, and the stronger their rebellious imagination is the more sabotage they are going to invent, the more sabotage they are going to develop. Sabotage is not, however, a permanent weapon. Sabotage is not going to be necessary, once a free society has been established.

Chapter 13 - Limiting The Over-Supply of Slaves

It is my hope that the workers will not only "sabotage" the supply of products, but also the over-supply of producers. In Europe the syndicalists have carried on a propaganda that we are too cowardly to carry on in the United States as yet. It is against the law. Everything is "against the law," once it becomes large enough for the law to take cognizance that it is in the best interests of the working class. If sabotage is to be thrown aside because it is construed as against the law, how do we know that next year free speech may not have to be thrown aside? Or free assembly or free press?

Chapter 12 - Sabotage and "Moral Fiber"

Sabotage is objected to on the ground that it destroys the moral fiber of the individual, whatever that is! The moral fibre of the workingman! Here is a poor workingman, works twelve hours a day seven days a week for two dollars a day in the steel mills of Pittsburg. For that man to use sabotage is going to destroy his moral fiber. Well, if it does, then moral fiber is the only thing he has left.

Chapter 11 - "Used Sabotage, But Didn't Know What You Called It"

Sabotage is for the workingman an absolute necessity. Therefore it is almost useless to argue about its effectiveness. When men do a thing instinctively continually, year after year and generation after generation, it means that that weapon has some value to them. When the Boyd speech was made in Paterson, immediately some of the socialists rushed to the newspapers to protest. They called the attention of the authorities to the fact that the speech was made. The secretary of the socialist party and the organizer of the socialist party repudiated Boyd.

Chapter 10 - "Print The Truth or You Don't Print at All"

Now, what is true of the railroad workers is also true of the newspaper workers. Of course one can hardly imagine any more conservative element to deal with than the railroad workers and the newspaper workers.

Chapter 9 - Putting The Machine on Strike

Suppose that when the engineer had gone on strike he had taken a vital part of the engine on strike with him, without which it would have been impossible for anyone to run that engine. Then there might have been a different story. Railroad men have a mighty power in refusing to transport soldiers, strike-breakers and ammunition for soldiers and strike-breakers into strike districts. They did it in Italy. The soldiers went on the train. The train guards refused to run the trains. The soldiers thought they could run the train themselves.

Chapter 8 - Following The "Book of Rules"

Interfering with service may be done in another way. It may be done, strange to say, sometimes by abiding by the rules, living up to the law absolutely. Sometimes the law is almost as inconvenient a thing for the capitalist as for a labor agitator. For instance, on every railroad they have a book of rules, a nice little book that they give to every employee, and in that book of rules it tells how the engineer and the fireman must examine every part of the engine before they take it out of the round house.

Chapter 7 - Non-Adulteration and Over-Adulteration

Now, Boyd's form of sabotage was not the most dangerous form of sabotage at that. If the judges had any imagination they would know that Boyd's form of sabotage was pretty mild compared with this: Suppose that he had said to the dyers in Paterson, to a sufficient number of them that they could do it as a whole, so that it would affect every dye house in Paterson: "Instead of introducing these chemicals for adulteration, don't introduce them at all. Take the lead, the zinc, and the tin and throw it down the sewer and weave the silk, beautiful, pure, durable silk, just as it is.

Chapter 6 - "Dynamiting" Silk

Let me give you a specific illustration of what I mean. Seventy-five years ago when silk was woven into cloth the silk skein was taken in the pure, dyed and woven, and when that piece of silk was made it would last for 50 years. Your grandmother could wear it as a wedding dress. Your mother could wear it as a wedding dress. And then you, if you, woman reader, were fortunate enough to have a chance to get married, could wear it as a wedding dress also. But the silk that you buy today is not dyed in the pure and woven into a strong and durable product.

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