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Saturday October 22, 2016
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Soapboxers and Saboteurs



Members of the IWW, who became known as "Wobblies" (the exhibit explores the origin of this nickname), initiated over seventy strikes in communities across the United States to protest dangerous working conditions, long hours, and poor pay. Many walkouts spread to other factories in the same city or industry, leading to strikes of tens of thousands. Leaders advocated "sabotage," represented on IWW pamphlets as a black cat or a wooden shoe (sabot in French). Sabotage could mean work slowdowns, machine breaking, or explosives, depending on how radical you were.

Most of the violence in the IWW story, however, is directed at the Wobblies, who often were beaten and jailed and had their offices ransacked. The exhibit tells several stories of Wobblies killed for their activities, including Frank Little, who was pulled from his bed at night and lynched for trying to organize copper miners in Montana. A photograph of his mutilated corpse is displayed along with his story.

Getting arrested was intentional during the "free speech fights" of the 1910s. Company owners demanded arrests of organizers who talked on street corners to passing workers. But when one soapboxer was arrested, another would immediately take his or her place, until the jail was overflowing and First Amendment rights were restored.

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University of Michigan Museum of Arts