By Mike Pesa
“The future of the world rests on a Wobbly foundation”, declared Jasaga, a spoken word artist and IWW member, as he performed for a crowd of cheering IWW members and supporters at the Zodiac in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Several other IWW musicians would follow his set in an energy-packed show that was headlined by IWW General Secretary-Treasurer Joe Tessone and his talented band, the Rust Belt Ramblers. This concert was just one part of a weekend of workshops, discussions, networking and fun called Wobfest 2010.
Wobfest was organized by the Baltimore General Membership Branch of the IWW as a way of bringing together IWW members and supporters from across the East Coast and beyond. The event took place from March 26-28 and drew attendees from as far away as Chicago and Ottawa, Canada. Altogether, about 50 people from at least 7 cities showed up to share their knowledge, ideas, talents and camaraderie.
The weekend began on Friday with an IWW film marathon at the Baltimore Free School, a project of the IWW-affiliated Red Emma’s Bookstore and Coffeehouse collective. After watching documentaries about IWW history, the Starbucks campaign and the ISC’s 2008 trip to Haiti, many wobblies headed down to Baltimore’s Washington Monument to take part in a Critical Mass bike ride. The bike ride ended at the Black Cherry Puppet Theater where a group called Heels on Wheels performed a queer-femme cabaret/drag show.
The next morning everyone gathered at 2640, a church building that has been partially converted to an organizing and performance space. After enjoying a light breakfast, participants split up to attend a series of workshops. While the IWW’s International Solidarity Commission (ISC) reported back from their recent delegation to Palestine and announced the formation of a new IWW “Friends of Palestine” committee, the Red Emma’s collective led a discussion on effective meeting facilitation and group decision-making, an issue that many branches and committees are struggling with. After breaking for lunch (aided and abetted by a massive quantity of rice and bottled water provided by the Central New Jersey branch), the second session of workshops began. In one room a Baltimore-based group of low wage workers called the United Workers Association explained their innovative model of leadership development and discussed their efforts to establish a “human rights zone” for exploited workers in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Meanwhile, in the next room, IWW Starbucks Workers Union founder and published author Daniel Gross spoke about labor law as it pertains to rank and file workers and organizers.
Following these workshops, the Gender Justice collective led a unique anti-oppression training specially tailored to help the IWW better support the rights and equality of women, transgendered people, people of color and other oppressed and marginalized groups, both on the shop floor and within the union itself. The presenters (including a local IWW member) challenged members to step outside their own identity and think about how the working class is being divided by prejudice, discrimination and inequality.
After the training, Baltimore IWW member John Duda spoke about his new book, “Wanted: Men to fill the Jails of Spokane”, a fascinating collection of first-hand accounts of the important but little-understood IWW Spokane Free Speech fight. Fellow Worker Duda used a slide show of newspaper clippings, photos and cartoons to show how the IWW used humor, courage and ingenuity to win a hard-fought battle against censorship and the dishonest recruitment strategies of the “job sharks” of the American West. Later, at dinner time, participants engaged in a serious round-table discussion of the IWW’s strengths and weaknesses and how we can build the One Big Union in 2010.
After a day packed with workshops, lectures and discussions, everyone was ready to let loose. A crowd of people gathered at the Zodiac music venue to dance, drink and listen to an impressive lineup of bands and artists, many of them members of the IWW. From traditional labor folk songs straight from the Little Red Songbook to bizarre dance mixes about spooning, there was something for everyone. The music continued late into the night and many wobblies continued to celebrate at the homes of their hosts.
Sunday was much more relaxed. Folks gradually flocked to the Red Clover collective house for a day of barbecuing, games and hanging out. Meanwhile, some members carpooled to an old warehouse across town to help the United Workers Association make puppets and other props for a massive workers’ rights/human rights rally called Our Harbor Day, which will be held on May 1st at the Inner Harbor. The UWA organizers were very appreciative and the Baltimore IWW plans to continue working with them on this important event.
As the sun began to set, it was at last time for everyone to go their separate ways and for us in Baltimore to say goodbye to our guests. We hope that everyone found Wobfest 2010 as fun and meaningful as we did. If folks left with a little more knowledge, a few new comrades and a renewed passion for building the One Big Union, then we have done our jobs.