When you get off the elevator on the seventh floor of the U-M Hatcher Graduate Library this month, you may be surprised to hear the insistent strains of "Solidarity Forever" floating from the exhibit room. This space, open to the public for rotating displays from the Special Collections Library, is currently showcasing materials to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. Using photographs, posters, buttons, songbooks, letters, and small-run newspapers from the Labadie Collection of Social Protest Literature, the exhibit tells the colorful, influential, and tragic story of a "radical labor union."

My formal education somehow failed to introduce me to the history of social discontent in this country, but the Labadie Collection has begun to fill in some gaps. I realized I'd heard of IWW member Joe Hill ("I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night . . ."), but otherwise I was clueless. Just an hour at this exhibit, curated by Julie Herrada, is a moving reminder that people have risked — and given — their lives to fight for the rights of the working class.

Most active from 1905 to the end of World War I, the IWW organized some of America's most overlooked laborers, including unskilled miners, mill workers, and loggers. They reached out to immigrants (with newsletters in many languages), blacks, women, and itinerant workers.

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.

Many of the best items in this exhibit belonged to Ralph Chaplin, the "Solidarity Forever" author whose union songs and drawings advanced the IWW as a creative and imaginative group. His gifts to the Labadie Collection in the 1930s include handwritten sheet music and a hand-drawn newspaper he produced while in jail for speaking out against World War I. The title of his paper: The Can Opener.

Soapboxers and Saboteurs is on display through Saturday, November 26.

[Review published November 2005]