Introduction to the 1997 Web Edition
Memories of the Industrial Workers of the World

by Eugene W. Plawiuk

The twentieth century labour movement in North America produced a unique orator and union organizer; a 16 year old girl, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The 'rebel girl' as she was known, became a 'star' in a constellation of well known labour organizers and orators; Big Bill Haywood, and Emma Goldman to name just two. The American Labour movement of the nineteenth century had produced several famous women orators such as Lucy Parsons, Mother Jones, etc. but most of them were more mature than Flynn.

In this day and age of 14 year old girls becoming overnight country singing sensations, and with youthful television and movie superstars, it is hard to imagine the impact this Flynn had. There were no radios, no TVs, no computers interfaces, back then. Labour organizers had to be able to not only talk to individuals but address whole audiences, sometimes crowds of several thousand would throng to hear an un-amplified speaker.

That such a young girl could hold thousands spellbound was no minor feat, and the admiration for her abilities stayed with her for years after. That she could, in 1962, hold a class of university students spellbound while reminiscing, without the use of a prepared speech or notes, shows the power and ability that gave Elizabeth Gurly Flynn her fame.

She became a major campaigner for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a voice for the oppressed and exploited in America. It was a vocation she continued even after the IWW was eclipsed.

Her memories of the IWW are not with out errors due to her age, nor the taint of the political ideology she espoused, but even with these caveats they remain honest and direct. Her voice speaks directly to the reader, as if the events she described happened only yesterday rather than over 80 years ago. Although limited by the printed page, even when reading, one can imagine her voice as an orator.

Born August 7, 1890, in New York City, Flynn grew up a member of an Irish family of socialists and labor activists. She joined the IWW in 1905, the year it was formed. In 1906 at the age of 16 she gave her first speech on behalf of the Wobblies. She became one of their most popular orators, during the Lawrence and Paterson Silk strikes of 1912 and 1913.

It was during these struggles she met and worked with Helen Keller who was also a member of the Socialist Party, Emma Goldman, the anarchist agitator and orator and Margret Sanger, the birth control activist and social reformer, around these early labor struggles.

With Goldman and Sanger, Flynn shared an early belief that some of the poverty the working class suffered came from the fact that women did not have the right to birth control information and techniques. She was a feminist as well as Socialist and Wobbly.

It is important to remember that from 1905 until the mid 1920's the IWW was not a single homogenous organization but in many ways a blended organization containing a wide representation of socialist and labour organizations. Its membership reflected a wide variety of politics; Anarchist, Marxist and Socialist. It was the out of this crucible that the American Socialist and Communist Parties, and also the later American Trotskyist movement leadership evolved from.

A correction must be inserted here, in her introductory remarks in this article Flynn claims that the IWW was an American movement. This is true, it was predominately American, however the IWW had branches in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Britain and several other countries. Its Canadian, Australian and South African branches were very strong, and faced the same 'anti-red' repression as did the American movement. The IWW in Canada in particular helped create the conditions for our own indigenous One Big Union (OBU), as it did in Australia.

By the time of the red scare in the 1920's Flynn was active in helping form the non partisan Workers Defense League and later the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU. In her presentation Flynn outlines the fact that American labour has faced red scares not just once but since the very beginning of the labour struggles in the century. There was the first red scare during the WWI, and again in the 1920's with the Palmer raids, and again in the 1940's and finally during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950's.

I will not review the early red scares, she does that amply. Flynn, was subject to the later anti-red campaigns of the 1940s, which began with her purging from the board of directors of the ACLU.

" Even the American Civil Liberties Union, set up specifically to defend the liberties of Communists and all other political groups, began to wilt in the cold war atmosphere. It had already started in this direction back in 1940 when it expelled one of its charter members, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, because she was a member of the Communist party. In the fifties, the ACLU was hesitant to defend Corliss Lamont, its own board member, and Owen Lattimore, when both were under attack. It was reluctant to defend publicly the Communist leaders during the first Smith Act trial, and kept completely out of the Rosenberg case, saying no civil liberties issues were involved. "

Excerpt from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, covering the period 1945-1960 New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980

Corliss Lamont, wrote The Trial of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn by the American Civil Liberties Union defending Flynn. The book contains original extracts from her 'trial' by the ACLU board of directors. The original minutes and directors papers are currently stored in the Special Collections at Central Michigan University, Clarke Historical Library, Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

In 1953, Flynn was charged and tried under the Smith Act, even before the Hiss or Rosenberg cases. Flynn declined a federal judge's offer to deport her and 12 others to the Soviet Union on conspiracy charges. "We have no desire to enjoy the fruits of socialism in a land where we did not work for it." she told the Judge. As a result Flynn and her comrades received three-year jail sentences and fines of $6,000 dollars apiece. In 1957 while in jail Flynn received a message of solidarity from her old friend Helen Keller, belying the cowardice of cold war anti-communism that had been embraced by American liberals and New Dealers.

In 1961 at the age of 71, Elizabeth Gurly Flynn became the first woman Chairman of the Communist Party of the United States. She still faced harassment and red baiting by the American government even in 1962, at the time of this presentation. That year, in California, KPFA (Pacifica Radio) broadcast a Women's History program on Flynn and Dorothy Healey. After that broadcast the station was investigated by the United States government for posible 'communist infiltration'

For Flynn, the great orator, the fight for free speech was the battle that defined her life. She died September 7, 1964 in Moscow after finally being allowed to visit the Soviet Union as a Communist Party representative of the United States.

August 1997