Wobbly workers' words of wisdom


Fanning discontent's Flames: Australian Wobbly Poetry, Scurrilous Doggerel and Song, 1914-2007

Corrosive Press, 2007

43 pages, $2

Email Entropy4@gmail.com

"He claims to be the bosses foe. On workers friendship doting. He says 'Don't fight on the job, But do it all by voting.'

Written in 1916, this line comes from a song entitled "Hey Polly" criticising the pro-capitalist Australian Labor Party and its reliance on parliament. It is one of many songs and poems in the pamphlet Fanning Discontent's Flames written by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Founded in the US in 1905, the IWW was formed with the aim of organising all workers into one big union in order to take control of the means of production and overthrow capitalism. In Australia, preaching their message to people through street meetings, articles, songs and poems in their newspaper Direct Action, the Wobblies were vocal in their opposition to the First World War, seeing it as a means to divide workers of different countries against each other for the benefit of rival capitalists seeking to make more profits. When war was declared in August 1914, an anti-war sticker printed by the Wobblies started appearing on the streets of Sydney with the following message:

"To Arms! Capitalists, Parsons, Politicians, Landlords, Newspaper editors and other stay at home patriots. Your Country needs you in the trenches!! WORKERS Follow your masters."

By 1916 this anti-war propaganda had begun to strike a chord with many Australian workers beginning to be disillusioned with the slaughter that was occurring. When the ALP-led government of Billy Hughes tried to introduce conscription in 1916, the Wobblies played a leading role in the campaign against it. On the eve of the first referendum Direct Action published a poem entitled "Beware".

"The way for Prussian tyranny, Conscription will prepare. O! as treasure freedom BEWARE, BEWARE, BEWARE!"

The government was so worried about the influence of IWW propaganda that on the eve of the first referendum in October 1916, 12 of their leaders were framed up for various crimes by the authorities and railroaded to prison. However, the Australian people rejected conscription. The pro-conscriptionists in the ALP, including Hughes, split and formed a nationalist government. By 1917 the government had made it illegal to be associated with the IWW.

Despite the suppression of the IWW, conscription was again defeated in December 1917 and a successful release campaign for the 12 imprisoned leaders resulted in their eventual
release from jail in 1920.

In 2006 a song was written by a Wobblie in response to the Australian Wheat Board Iraq kickback scandal entitled "Once an Aussie Bagman": "Once an Aussie bagman, Travelled to the Middle East, Under the name of the AWB, And he sang as he put the money in their moneybags, 'I don't remember a thing says he.'"

This collection spanning from 1914 to the present day gives a good idea of the colourful ways the Wobblies have used to convey their ideas. With continuing attacks on workers' rights by the Howard government, and an ever rightward-moving ALP and the continuation of an illegal and unpopular war in Iraq, this pamphlet may continue to help fan discontent's flames.