Shot for Communications for Change's "Documenting Social History: Chicago's Elderly Speak" oral history series. Charles Velsek, a member of the IWW, talks about his experiences as a radical union member in the 1920s and throughout the Great Depression.
0:01Copy video clip URL Charles Velsek talks about his experiences with the IWW (the International Workers of the World). Velsek describes a tactic used by members of the IWW (aka Wobblies) to organize the harvest workers – they would only let card-carrying members of the IWW ride the freight trains, and kick off the non-union workers, which would force those workers to join the union in order to get to the fields. He also says that areas further west, where the IWW had been the most successful, had higher wages and better hours than areas in the east.
07:41Copy video clip URL When returning to North Dakota after working in Illinois, Velsek found out that eighteen IWW members had been jailed for trespassing on a freight train. The Wobblies had been arrested selectively – non-union workers were set free. They started handing out pamphlets critical of the attorney general and the discrimination of union workers, which led to 43 people being jailed, including Velsek. They were eventually sent to Minnesota and set free.
13:33Copy video clip URL Velsek was arrested again two years later in 1927. He agreed to plead guilty for trespassing and served a two-week sentence. While he was still in jail, the Italian anarchists Sacco and Venzetti were executed by the state of Massachusetts. Velsek believes that after the demonstrations following their execution, the government was forced to handle radicals more carefully, since it was further radicalizing the activists rather than subduing them.
19:40Copy video clip URL Velsek says that before the Depression hit, many people who understood how the system worked knew that the prosperity they had experienced could not continue. Workers were hit the hardest, and since there was no government relief at the time, people had to rely on their relatives or sell their assets. Velsek says the situation gradually got better as the government started providing aid, and they finally recovered with the onset of World War II.
24:08Copy video clip URL Velsek describes the “unemployed union” that was started in Chicago by the IWW, which provided assistance to unemployed workers. They provided lodging and solicited food donations for the unemployed workers. The union was successful enough that other branches began to open up throughout the city. Many members of the unemployed union also decided to join the IWW, which was one of the main reasons the IWW had established the union in the first place.
26:33Copy video clip URL Velsek talks about the coming of the “new society,” which he thinks is inevitable, either “through revolution or through evolution.” He thinks capitalism will eventually be replaced by some form of socialism, which will itself be replaced by something better in the future. He believes the purpose of the IWW is to quicken the onset of socialism.
29:14Copy video clip URL End of recording.