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wonderer & wanderer __________________________________ navigating post-analog worlds of art & publishing __________________________________ occasionally here: www.laura-joakimson.com _____________________________________ "I have to add this. You talk about the darkest, scariest, creepiest time of night. That's when I dance. Really. I dance at that time to charge up the night. The deepest, darkest time. I just get into it." --Josephine Ortez


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SEPTEMBER 7, 2009 10:53AM

bread and roses too: chatting with elizabeth gurley flynn

Rate: 17 Flag




I found the above song on YouTube, a song written by Joe Hill for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. I remember reading that Hillary Clinton when she was feeling frustrated and stunted by her role as first lady in the 1990’s would have conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m not sure if they were actual séances or just mental chats. But in honor of Labor Day, and at this rather bleak moment for American workers, I decided to try channeling a sort of forgotten folk hero of the American labor movement, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.


DF: Elizabeth, is it okay if I call you that? You led an adventurous and inspiring life. You were the daughter of two middle class socialists, and you gave your first socialist speeches at the age of 15. You helped to organize the Lawrence and Paterson mill workers strikes, and you went on to organize iron ore minors on the Mesabi Range in Minnesota and lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest. You helped to create the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies, and later you became a founding member of the A.C.L.U. Herbert Hoover kept briefings on your comings and goings because you were considered that dangerous to know! In the 1930’s, after the I.W.W. had been weakened by the imprisonment and deportation of its leadership, you became a member of the American Communist Party. You would later become the first woman chair of the Party. During the 1940’s you were expelled from the A.C.L.U. for being a member of the communist party, which really surprised me, and in the 1955, during the McCarthy era, you went to prison for two years for being a member of the communist party. You wrote a memoir about the early part of your life, and another memoir about your life in prison. You visited the Soviet Union and met Khrushchev. You attended conferences in Moscow, and observed the Sino-Soviet split as it happened. You dated a bad boy anarchist named Carlo Tresca who, while living with you, had a baby with your sister. You were an advocate of free love, of birth control, of day care centers for working mothers, and prison reform before any of these things became fashionable. You had a son, and an American folk songwriter, Joe Hill, wrote a famous song about you, called the Rebel Girl. Is that all or at least most of it?

EGF: Well, I come from generations of Irish fighters and revolutionaries. It’s in the blood. We learned from fighting the English.

DF: Here are a couple of quotes by you that I like: “Do I believe in free love? What is the other alternative? Slave love? Then I believe in free love at all costs. The home built on the rock of love is the only one I can conceive of during Socialism or any other time.”

EGF: Why shouldn’t women live as full human beings with the opportunities to work, to marry, to divorce, to motherhood as a community instead of being trapped in the isolation of the home? It wasn’t 1960’s style free love we were advancing, but the opportunity for women to live as full-blooded human beings!

DF: And this one, “I spoke at the funerals of men and women shot down on the picket line and the iron entered my soul. I became and I remain a mortal enemy of capitalism. I will never rest contented until I see it repealed by a government of the people, led by the working class, where private ownership of the means of life and the profit system is abolished.”

EGF: I saw so many deaths and so much violence. Frank Little, an I.W.W. worker was lynched in Butte, Montana in 1917. John Rami was bayoneted in Lawrence in 1912. Modestino Valentino was shot in the back at Paterson in 1913. Fifteen women and children were suffocated by a fire set by the militia working for corporate interests at Ludlow, Colorado. In 1917, 164 men died in a mine disaster when their escape hatches were cemented shut so the company could save costs in maintenance. When you see all that, you become an enemy of the system that takes so many lives.

DF: Do you keep up with current events?

EGF: Am I aware that the so-called real unemployment is now at 16.8%? That one third of workers under the age of 35 now live with their parents because they can’t afford to get housing on their own? That more than one million school children are now homeless because their parents have lost their jobs? That the Wall Street capitalist money system, instead of lending to small businesses and creating a healthier economy, is now gambling on bundled life insurance policies? I keep up, but I don’t sleep any easier if you know what I mean.

DF: Yikes.

EGF: And I read Krugman’s piece in the New York Times.

DF: I find it pretty fun that you read the New York Times. So what did you think?

EGF: Well, first let me say I was surprised by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the changing of the USSR into a market based economy.

DF: I bet. It’s been a while since you’ve had a chance to talk about any of that, but it must have been a shock. Your niece once said that you only became a communist because America didn’t have a labor party like there was in Britain.

EGF: There’s truth in that.

DF: Your life work could almost be divided into two parts. In the first part you organized workers and led strikes and worked for better working conditions for people who led very difficult lives, mine workers and garment workers, and so forth. But in the second half of your career you had to spend a lot of time bailing people in your movement out of jail, and raising funds for their expensive legal defense. You tried to help people from Joe Hill to Sacco and Venzetti from being wrongly executed. And they were executed despite your efforts. It culminated in you serving time in prison yourself.

EGF: Yes. I would have much, much rather spent my life organizing workers and trying to protect the rights of workers. Walmart, for example, I would have loved to live long enough to spend time with Walmart and Sam’s club workers. McDonalds workers. Now those would have been some great fights.

DF: But you got caught up in the legal defense work instead. Obviously Joe McCarthy played a huge role in that, at least in the later part. And its unjustified that any Americans of any political beliefs were and are imprisoned for practicing free speech. But is there anything, looking back, you or your organizations could have done differently in order to be more successful at, um,—staying out of prison?

EGF: Yes. Now that I have observed the fall of the USSR and the Soviet bloc in Europe, I realize that workers in these countries faced their share of struggles too. We believed in the revolution, but the revolution did not develop the way we expected it to. Maybe the best work we did in pushing for a revolution was, aside from incremental improvements in working conditions, was to force capitalism to woo workers by softening a few of its harsher edges. I will never be a capitalist or believe in the capitalist money system. But when the Soviet Union fell, the world thought, “capitalism has won” and without the so-called free market competition of ideas that Marxism provided, capitalism no longer saw the same need to charm voters or anyone at all. So you can observe for yourself, working conditions for many of the lower class workers have been getting harder, with lower pay, and fewer benefits. Without a healthy competition of ideas, capitalism has had the freedom to return to a few of its despotic roots, the way we knew it, and Marx knew it. People are just getting a small taste of it right now so maybe they can begin to understand what we were up against in those days.

DF: Do you, when you were a member of the American Communist Party, regret modeling yourself too closely on the international communist movement? Or, when asked if you would like to go to the Soviet Union, saying it was “like asking a Christian if he wanted to go to heaven right away”?

EGF: Yes, though that was a great line! It got a lot of laughs. We should have more closely followed our own path, although we were never, despite what some thought, funded or given orders by Moscow. But we might have stayed out of prison if we had been more pragmatic in our defense, defending our right to free speech in this country. Instead, many in our movement saw trials as a place to showcase our political beliefs. It was a tactical error that hurt the real lives of many working people. For example, when I worked with the I.W.W., prosecutors offered deals that would have let many of our workers out of prison, but the I.W.W. leadership (and keep in mind that I was the only woman in the I.W.W. leadership) preferred to not take the deals. They thought the trials would build popular sympathy for the movement. But the real lives of many of the workers involved were ruined. Many were deported or executed. Any symbolic gains were pyrrhic, as the I.W.W. never recovered its strength.

DF: The Wobblies interest me more as a movement than the Communist Party does. Would the I.W.W. be interested in organizing maquiladora workers or in some of the so-called free trade zones overseas that are virtual free-for-alls when it comes to workers’ rights?

EGF: The Wobblies are still around, and they’re doing exactly that kind of work. They’re trying to organize seafarers and garment workers in Nike factories (that aren’t called Nike factories anymore but if you sneak in through the unlabeled door you can see the swoosh label being attached to tennis shoes—I watch them all the time now). But the movement is smaller in numbers and support, obviously, than it once was.

DF: You were going to tell me your thoughts on Paul Krugman?

EGF: Yes. The Nobel prize they gave him has gone to his head, but he has some interesting ideas. I found his discussion of fresh water and saltwater economists fascinating. But he doesn’t mention the fact that capitalism could lose some of its true believers if the “market recovers” translates into the CEO’s buying new Hummers, while the guy who used to work at Circuit City still is living with his mother and can’t find any real way to support himself.

DF: You really do keep up! And I’ve been dying to ask you what you think about President Obama.

EGF: Hope and change?? You have no idea how hard I laugh when they call him a socialist. I’m a socialist, I know socialists, and Obama is no socialist. Look at how weak-kneed he’s been on the so-called public option in health care. According to Krugman, Obama has Keynesian economists on his staff. I’m not an economist, but even I can see that there’s a world of distance between Keynes and Marx. Maybe the Neo-Cons should read up on Keynes, except that red-baiting is still such good sport for them after all of these years. Even after the fall of the USSR and the Berlin wall. In fact, I’m going to read up on Keynes too, after reading that article. Maybe Keynes has it better than Marx did on one or two points. I just don’t think the lower classes should be trampled by the upper classes in the name of economic growth. If that makes me a revolutionary, I’m proud to be one.

DF: We have to wrap this up soon although it’s been fun. Advice for American progressives today?

EGF: Don’t mourn, organize. That’s what Joe Hill suggested. If you aren’t in Washington, organize at the local level. Organize for worker' rights, for women’s rights, for day care credits for working parents, and if you can’t have a revolution, at the very least don’t leave the world like it is. Don’t isolate yourself, connect with your communities. Finally, don’t forget workers in the progressive agenda. In fact, what is the progressive agenda when you’re letting that faux plumber man be a shill for corporate interests? Will the real plumbers please stand up? Maybe it’s time for an American labor party. And whatever you do, stop calling yourselves, or letting others call you “consumers.” You’re “citizens.” That’s a nobler and truer word. Don’t ever forget it!

DF: A speech you gave in 1917 you wrote, “Is it not much better to even die fighting for something than to have lived an uneventful life, never gotten anything and leaving conditions the same or worse than they were, and to have future generations go through the same misery and poverty and degradation? The only people whose names are recorded in history are those who did something. The peaceful and indifferent are forgotten: they never knew the fighting joy of living.”

EGF: The fighting joy of living. I had that right. Bread and roses for American workers. It’s injustice to starve the body or the heart and the mind.





Disclaimer and credits: Flynn died peacefully in 1964. The Flynn portion of this interview is a work of speculative fiction based on Flynn’s memoirs, and Helen Camp’s biography, Iron in Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left. And The Rebel Girl is performed above by Hazel Dickens, a bluegrass singer who is the eighth child of an eleven child West Virginia mining family. The voice speaking as well as the images in the beginning are Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

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this one for labor day....and I'm surprised how many labor day histories "forget" to include her. It makes me crazy...
This is superb and deserves and EP and the cover! Very well done! xoxo
This is great. So many names and events that were important to me from about '66 onwards. I have been a capitalist wobbly (more like a wobbly capitalist ever since. The only Big Name missing in this hidden history is Gen. Smedley Butler.

The hollow sound in HS history classes is the missing stories of early 20thc labor oppression.

All that said, and risking irking you: the IWW deserved its radical diminishment. Stalinist apologists ran the neo-marxist communities in Manhattan and Brooklyn until as late as the 1980s, and it is just as wrong to remain mum about Stalin as it is to ignore the murder of Chinese railroad workers in Wyoming 100 years ago.

Stalin was, and remains, an evil unalloyed, down their with and in respects lower than, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot. He ruined communism for all time.

Requiring its reinvention? Yes, perhaps. As an entrepreneurial, well-regulated socialism/capitalism hybrid. But then it would not be Marxist.

We of the left blew it. We made the perennial mistake: turning a blind eye. Mistaking the hate of wrong and battle against injustice in one's own place as a kind of great "brain enhancer", making all our judgments true. We thot ourselves sufficiently qualified to allow a free pass for our "friends" elsewhere.

Even when they were mass murderers.

Don't mistake me for some cliched anti-communist. Stalin was a monster, and the left must finally acknowledge that, stem to stern, if we are to be viable in the US on behalf of workers.
cartouche thank-you so much. ep from you makes my day.

greg: don't apologize...I was hoping for exactly this kind of discussion. I based my interpretation of Flynn on the understanding that she was appalled and sickened when Stalin's crimes came out.

Are you saying that there are both capitalist and marxist wobblies? I find information about the wobblies not that easy to come by. But they intrigue me. If they were stalin aplogists as late as the 80's that truly sucks because in some ways some relief for workers internationally is what's needed, because every time labor organizes in one country, capitalists just move locations. It's nearly pointless, and with the free trade zones, even more pointless.

I'm not committed to one particular political ideology, but like Flynn I am interested in grassroot details. She was a radical too though, even hunting through her own organization for "stool pigeons" during the McCarthy era (and there were stool pigeons aplenty on the government payroll).

Thank-you for coming by and I love the fact that you're a wobbly, whether its a wobbly capitalist or a capitalist wobbly (the name is irresistable).
and you're right that the labor oppression of the early 20th century is missing from history text books...at least the ones I read. I have a B.A. in history and I had to discover Flynn and the Wobblies on my own. Which is why I'm putting this out there.
although I've tarted up this post with a video and I'm tempted to add photos too, I fear labor organizing is just not a hawt topic, even on labor day....
This is a very good article. I find many points of interest and agreement in both voices.

EGF: Well, I come from generations of Irish fighters and revolutionaries. It’s in the blood. We learned from fighting the English.

Having read Uris' "Trinity" when I was 14, I went through my revolutionary phase a bit younger than most. I have read that the Irish also prompted the American Revolution, warning colonists of the Brit's true intentions.

I agree that even if I disagree with some of what most would call radical leftism, it can find some influence for the betterment of workers.

This struck a chord: "Walmart, for example, I would have loved to live long enough to spend time with Walmart and Sam’s club workers. McDonalds workers. Now those would have been some great fights."

A few times over the years, I have been stuck waiting at a WalMart check stand waiting for somebody to bring the cashier change for a hundred. If I wait too long I ask if I can help speed things up by shouting "Union!" For some reason, they usually don't smile.

The Progressives do need to relearn the art of working class appeal. There is a general sentiment in inattentive America that thinks that policy should be drawn "from both sides," and that doesn't help, but can be overcome if the Progressive menu has working class economic populism as an appetizer. The other legitimate complains and even the rage-against-the-machine-type issues would at least get a hearing if that primary concern were addressed first and foremost.

Good post.
Paul: thank-you so much for commenting. That's interesting about the Irish and the American revolution. I can see that.

"there's a general sentiment in inattentive america that policy should be drawn from both sides..." and there's the crux of the problem. all you have to do in that case is to shift the two sides radically in one direction and a lot of people are locked out. where did the "two sides of the story" idea come from anyway. There are usually more than two sides to a situation even if there are only two people in it.

But I'm going to use your "labelbabbling" concept to try to avoid the silliness that seems to go around anything like "socialism." I presented Flynn's views here as maybe not as far to the left as she was, based on the idea that she might have shifted as well in reaction to the modern fall of communism...which since she had a kind of pragmatic streak, I think could have happened.

anyway, maybe this is complex stuff for a holiday. I wish if nothing else, someone would organize unions at walmart and mcdonalds just to show it could be done. And it would probably be a lot more fun to shop there if the workers didn't look so downtrodden & harried.
best Labor Day post yet
Thank you for introducing me to a woman I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know! We even watched a documentary about the Wobblies a while back, but I don’t remember any mention of Elizabeth. And the Irish connection! (We’re behind at metaness, so we haven’t had a chance to respond to your comment about Boland, but I am always thrilled to meet a fellow fan!)

I think you did a marvelous job of channeling. Thanks again for the rousing post.

A Wal-Mart location in Quebec did unionize in 2005.
Rather than deal with union (and presumably the precedent), Wal-Mart shut down the entire store and left town.

I really, really, really enjoyed this post...now I must go listen to some Pete Seeger....
Right on, Sister! A reminder of people -- and ideas -- I don't want to forget.

The idea that organized open protest can change ideas, can change behavior, can change governments is one of the most exciting, energizing ideas that people have ever come up with. Unfortunately, I think that's the new definition of terrorism.

Great post! Thank you.
thank you for doing this post. found you through Love Grandma. glad I did and feel lucky to have read this.
thank you for doing this post. found you through Love Grandma. glad I did and feel lucky to have read this.
thank you for doing this post. found you through Love Grandma. glad I did and feel lucky to have read this.
thank you for doing this post. found you through Love Grandma. glad I did and feel lucky to have read this.
thank you for doing this post. found you through Love Grandma. glad I did and feel lucky to have read this.
thank you for doing this post. found you through Love Grandma. glad I did and feel lucky to have read this.
thank you for doing this post. found you through Love Grandma. glad I did and feel lucky to have read this.
thank you for doing this post. found you through Love Grandma. glad I did and feel lucky to have read this.
roy thank-you for saying that. I think this is my least read post ever though. labors of love can sometimes be that way on open salon though so it's okay.

melissa--no need for shame. I majored in history (and poetry) and I've never heard of her either. I discovered her on my own, and not in histories of the wobblies either. I found out about her when I was researching millworkers' strikes. She's extraordinary. But I've also noticed that women frequently get "forgotten" in histories of the labor movement. Which is ironic because many of the people the wobblies organized were women and black people because neither group was allowed into the other AFL CIO etc until fairly recently. Also, when you think about it, the working conditions for women of all races, for people of color are usually the worst and need the most union help to improve them. You probably know that the Wobblies were famous for their organizational efforts with "unskilled" labor. (although that term also always strikes me as off somehow....)

hiddenthing--thanks for correcting me. I'd forgotten that. So they moved out of town? Nice. That reminds me that I've head that there are increasing numbers of abandoned walmart stores around the country because they upgrade to a larger box store and leave the other one empty (often nearby or in an adjacent lot). But they retain rights to the property so the community can't just allow a kmart to move in for example (walmart contracts with communities specifically legally forbid this).

kestralwing, thank-you for commenting. the truth is that we never know our own power, that's for sure.

and rolling, so glad you came by and appreciated this. I love discovering and sharing my discoveries about amazing people in history who a lot of people have never heard of. I have more up my sleeve, so stay tuned. =)
thank-you Kathy and bear_feet.
I read and rated this days ago. That last paragraph really resonated with me: Is it not much better to even die fighting for something than to have lived an uneventful life, never gotten anything, and leaving conditions the same or worse than they were?

I know how to fight and get mad, but it never really solves anything. How do you fight and solve problems? This was an amazingly thought-provoking post. I had not heard of this woman before, so thank you for enlightening me.
This is a keeper to assimilate as an important history lesson. This era the Main Stream Media focus on the 1930's bobbed-hair that really gets the attention of goat nincompoops. The Fox no-news show jam-sessions report on slumber parties and pretend they aren't Texan steers, Japanese gangsters? huh? Yakuza! huh? That's a racketeer.
The corporate owned Media hire vain women who cut their hair and act like Saloon dancehall flappers. Oy, the hellish bobbed hair style and spit curls?
Remember Clara Bow's bob hair cut?
The girls went to overnighters to cut!
Fox news crew should wear dust cap!
I really enjoyed the twang music part.
Ladylike decorums always good heart.
Remember the Walla Walla good rebel?
Maybe we can revisit the Roaring Twenties?
That's real fine? Ya turn Ya 40- in for 2- 20's .
That's a Mennonite Sunday School story I heard.
You become 60? Ya get to turn Ya old wife in too?
I'd get two 30's? tease. I am happy this downloaded.
Now, I shush up.
apologies if I go on and on? I suffer the old lame aged goat.
If Ya still runnin' 'round and bar-hopping at my age Ya dead.
Thanks. I miss many great post. This will be saved for flapper.
Annabella is 5 -years old. She's a ballet dancer. She's graceful.
latethink: so glad you came back. Regarding your recent post--I come from a family of yellers too. Anger lives in me no doubt due to this upbringing. But I also have the question of how anger can be channeled into something bigger. I know that working together a lot of progress can be made, but it's the working together part that seems hard in our individualistic culture...also all the media messages telling us that we can't. that our only options are to buy or not to buy.

Arthur: I'm so happy that you're here! Feel free to go on anytime on my blog. I'm so glad you enjoyed the music. Me too. It's amazing how many amazing people can be forgotten if we're not careful to remember them. cheers to a comeback of the roaring twenties. Particularly if it involves a comeback of flapper hair.
I'm shocked by the extent of my own ignorance - I knew NOTHING about these women and my first instinct was to back away from this post and keep my shameful secret

But I loved the interview...it was very creative...absolutely original and of course, to me, wonderfully educational

And I've learned something valuable thanks to you.

And I'm a work in progress...be patient....I'll get there yet, I swear

Thanks for this
rated with both eyes opened a little wider
angus, don't blame yourself. america has a history of having a short memory for history. (I majored in history and never heard of EGF or the wobblies that I can remember...) but glad you liked learning about flynn, and thank-you for commenting.
Very thoughtful and informative piece. I learned a lot. Thank you for sharing.