Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Last Of The Wobblies

Two days ago my deep friend of a half century, William ("Billie") J. Grogan "blew his brains out," as it was first reported to me earlier today.  He was retired, living on a farm in Wisconsin north of Madison, where he was born of an engineering prof dad, just outside of "Daneco," as he called it (Dane County, which includes Madison), where he viewed them as being too regulatory and telling him what to do on his uber-green farm, very much up on the latest enviro tech and deep study of local ecology (his farm was a masterpiece of endangered species habitat, some of them quite obscure and seriously endangered), sitting on the divide between  the Rock and Wisconsin river watersheds, both tributaries of the mighty Mississippi.

The most immediate cause of his choosing to take his own life, by gun, apparently with the full understanding of his loving wife, a daughter of a participant in the Manhattan Project, who herself holds a PhD in Hindu dance, was that he had been in deep physical pain for many years, and finally simply, as the friend who reported this to me quoted his widow, "He just could not take the pain anymore."

He was a rebel against his academic ancestry, and had a long and complicated work career that involved real industrial worker experience, including at the now defunct Gisholt Machine Factory on East Washington Avenue in Madison, where a long time ago he was in a serious work accident that deeply injured him, causing pains that contributed to his suicide. After a long series of other work experiences his final job was as the IT guy in the physics department at the UW-Madison, where he even helped me out a decade ago in getting a highly technical paper in proper form for publication.

So, what about this Wobblie connection?  For many decades, and until the last time I asked him, he was an actual card-carrying member of the Industrial [I earlier incorrectly said "International"] Workers of the World, the IWW, or "Wobblies."  It seemed like a private joke.  I would occasionally ask to see his membership card, and he would pull it out, all in red, with dues paid up.  He was a notorious Irish wisecracker, who would regularly make up phoney stories about his various idiosyncratic experiences and exploits, many actually real, although you would never know which. But on this matter he never joked.

So, the IWW was founded in 1905, a "universal" (syndicalist) union to be of all workers, who also abjured all governments and were therefore anarchist. They had a violent rep in those days and were strong in isolated labor groups such as lumberjacks, often ethnically, such as the heavily Finnish lumberjacks of Northern Wisconsin, one of whom, the late Gus Hall, would end up as General Secretary of the US Communist Party for many decades.  But, no, Billie was not of that persuasion.

So indeed the Bolshevik Revolution/Coup was the moment of bifurcation for the IWW.  A substantial chunk became the major real working class/labor foundation of the US Communist Party.  The remnant that did  not join the Party became a rump that never really caused any serious future trouble to the Establishment, to be frank and honest. But it was this more idealistic anarchist group that my old friend adhered to most seriously for many decades, even paying his dues.

I can attest, as I followed his long ideological and intellectual meanderings, to the extent one could decipher them (he often spoke cryptically, some of it utter nonsense and some of it profoundly insightful and forward looking), that he retained his anarchist leanings along with his pro-labor leanings.  The former led him to locate in a place where he was minimally regulated (ant taxed) by local government, accurately knowing more about the local ecology than they did.  But I know that his past experiences as an industrial worker who suffered injuries on the job not properly covered for health insurance and all that, left him strongly supportive of the labor movement more broadly, and very much opposed to the increasing inequalities of income and wealth in America.

I may be out of line here in making this observation, as I have not spoken with his widow whom I both deeply love and respect, but, I do not think that it is an accident that this long-term member of a group that barely exists, maybe sort of in New York and Denver at least (latest google check), did himself in on the eve of Labor Day.  While the main motive for his suicide was his serious personal health problems, I think that probably the precise date of his doing himself in was not simply random. I know that he had been planning this for some time, and I honor his memory by noting what I suspect somebody would notice: that this old Wobblie, maybe not the last, but definitely one of the last, that the condition of the working class in the United States of America is not good.  On his death I report this, to honor my old friend as best I can.

Barkley Rosser

Later Addition: When I wrote this last evening, I was listening to a vinyl record Billie recommended to me nearly a half century, John Fahey's "The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death," which I always associated with him.  The curious figure on the front of Blind Joe Death Transfiguring looks rather like him when he was being more obscure than usual, :-).


Peter Dorman said...

Barkley, let me be the first to point out that the correct name is the Industrial Workers of the World. I too was a member once, long ago, but I stopped paying dues when I could no longer abide addressing other human beings as "fellow worker". (Or "woiker".)

Also, the Wobs have taken on a sort of second wind with young anarchist-oriented activists. I've had several as students in recent years, and there's an ongoing group here in Olympia.

Until his death back in 08, Utah Phillips was a great recruiter for the IWW, and he recorded all the best-known "songs to fan the flames of discontent".

Actually, now that I think of it, we had our very own economist-Wobbly in Fred Lee. He's retired from economics but what about Wobblydom?

Sorry to hear about your friend though. Workplace injuries and diseases remain under the radar here in the US, and most middle and upper class types have no idea what a toll they still take.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Thank you Peter for correcting my error, probably brought on by the fact that while I wrote the post I was listening to a record that Billie gave me, "The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death," which seemed appropriate to listen to while I contemplated his death. In any case, I have corrected it, with a [] recognizing my earlier mistake.

It is interesting that there are new IWW-affiliated groups appearing. As I noted in my main post, I googled the group and got mostly fairly minimal appearances. Their official HQ is in Chicago.

Magpie said...

My condolences to your friend's family and to you, from a fellow worker.

Come my time, I hope to have the same fortitude.