Comrades and Wobblies
>Today we often think of the Midwest as politically and socially conservative, the “Heartland” of traditional Americanism. But the region was at the heart of something quite different from the 1880s through the 1930s.
Many of the radical movements that challenged the power of corporations and traditional political parties issued forth from Middle America. States like Kansas and Nebraska propelled the Populist movement to national prominence in the 1880s and 1890s demanding, among other things, government ownership of railroads and telegraph systems. In the first decades of the 20th century, the Indiana Socialist Eugene Debs ran for U.S. President five times without success. Despite this failure on the national level, midwesterners elected Socialists as mayors, city council members, and in one case a U.S. Representative.
Socialists and other radicals were part of a contentious and loosely organized international movement not unlike the contemporary movement to reform globalization. Although they disagreed on tactics, they sought to reformulate the global political economy in terms more favorable to wage workers, farmers, and consumers. Immigrant workers and communities were crucial to this movement, providing the human and intellectual links in a global conversation about how the benefits of modern industrial society would be shared between workers and employers. This conversation wove together activists in the region’s metropolises and its tiny mining, railroad, and timber camps; and sometimes it bridged divides of language, race, and ethnicity.
Chicago occupied a special place in this conversation. It was home to some of the most profitable, and antiunion, employers. As a railway hub, it was also a transit point for speakers and activists. Chicago had been at the center of agitation for the 8-hour Day in 1886, and the radical movement venerated the four anarchists hanged in the wake of the bombing in Haymarket Square. In 1894, federal troops occupied the city to crush a militant national rail workers union. In 1905, Socialists, anarchists, and militant unionists came to Chicago to form the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the “Wobblies, which they hoped would organize workers in mass production industries and abolish what they called “wage slavery.” Even the city’s mainstream trade union federation made common cause with progressives and socialists in efforts to organize stockyards and steel workers. And in 1919 the city was the site for founding of the Communist Party of the U.S.
This was the context for the Dill Pickle Club and its irreverent brand of entertainment.