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Folk Singer John O’Connor To Perform Stories And Songs About The Wobblies In Washington State

Everett Public Library
A memorial poster that appeared in the Industrial Worker newspaper commemorating the people killed in the 1916 Everett Massacre

If you mention anarchists, people these days probably think of May Day protests, but anarchism has deep roots here. On Saturday, folk singer John O’Connor will tell the story of the anarchist labor union Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, and perform songs from that time. 

He'll perform his show "Hold The Fort: Stories And Songs Of The Wobblies In Washington State" at the Seattle Union Hall of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. On Friday night, he'll perform his own music at Keystone Church in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood.

O’Connor is a musician who has long been fascinated by the history of the IWW, which was founded in 1905 with a grand vision.

"They had a radical idea that there would be one big union," he said. "They called it one big union the world round, and it would be international – everybody in the world would belong to the same union."

O’Connor said they also wanted to take control of the workplace. That message caught on with itinerant workers traveling to the Pacific Northwest to work in lumber camps or on the docks.

`Nothing To Lose'

"They reached for something that was radical because they had nothing to lose," O'Connor said. "People were not making a lot of money back then."

The history of the Wobblies in Washington state was sometimes violent. Perhaps most famous was the Everett Massacre, when police opened fire on some IWW members who had come by boat to support shingle mill workers on strike.

But there are also just fun stories of them thumbing their nose at authority. In Spokane, Wobblies came from far and wide to protest an ordinance against street demonstrations. Their aim was to get arrested and fill up the jails and they succeeded.

"The Wobblies were really out there," O'Connor said. "They loved theater, they loved making trouble and they just drove the city fathers nuts."

O’Connor said officials went after the Wobblies in the 1920s and they lost influence. But even today their legacy of civil disobedience lives on in movements such as Black Lives Matter. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.