A migrant worker joins the Wobblies - Henry Pfaff

Henry Pfaff tells his story of how we came to join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the 1910s.

Submitted by Red Marriott on July 7, 2006

A Wobbly - a member of the Industrial Workers of the World - tells his story and describes his outlook. "The vision we had was that everyone would have to do a necessary share of social production and everyone would receive all the necessities without the need for money. And we wouldn't have to work eight hours a day. We would eliminate all useless work and all work that is detrimental. We would center our collective efforts on useful things."


A migrant worker joins the Wobblies
(By Henry Pfaff)

From; Solidarity Forever - the IWW: An Oral History of the Wobblies. (Bird, Georgakas, Shaffer; Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1987.)

I came to the United States in June of 1911 after I had finished school in Europe. You were supposed to be sixteen, but I was only fifteen and had to lie. I had an awful time at sea. I couldn't eat or hold anything down. When I arrived in New York, I couldn't stand up going through customs. I had to crouch and then at the embarkation I got measles, which I had avoided all through my childhood. Somehow I managed to just pass through. I went to my father's nephew in Akron, Ohio. He was my sponsor and my guardian, so I had to stay with him. I really didn't know him in the old country, but here I had to toe the mark to him. The first day in Akron, my father's brother, who was also there, took me job hunting. I got employment in a fish hook factory, where I made lead sinkers for seven cents an hour.

I had been on the fish hook job for a couple of weeks when I met some old school chums who were working in a mirror factory making fourteen cents an hour. I didn't think they were worth more than I was, so I had them take me to their foreman. He couldn't talk to me right away, but while I was waiting a foreman from another department spied me and put me to work, which was a good thing. He was a German-speaking man, and he had another German in his department and a Hungarian. I worked there quite a while. Then, one day I made a mistake and he gave me a rubbing down which I didn't like. I quit. When I went home, my cousin was shocked. He and the old type people who thought that if you started on a job you should stick to it for life. He couldn't see that I had already changed jobs for the better. The next morning he took me to the Firestone plant where he worked, and he talked his foreman into putting me on as his helper. That didn't work out very well because I was getting eighteen cents an hour and he, a family man, was only getting half a penny more. His trouble wasn't that he was getting so little, but that I was getting nearly as much as he was. He kept grumbling, so I quit him and the shop and I went on my own.

I soon got work at the Goodrich plant in the tire curing department. I was the only kid there. The rest were grown men, big six footers. One morning I looked out the window and saw this mob of people on Main Street. They stretched for as far as you could see in both directions. I had never heard of a strike, nor had I ever really noticed the police before. We all went to the window for a look. I piped up: "What are they doing out there? Let's go out and help them." I didn't know what I was saying. The others knew and they looked down on me as though I had committed a crime. At noon, the foreman came around and told us to go out the side gate instead of the front and to come back the same way on Monday morning. The strikers had anticipated that move and had surrounded the plant. When we walked out, the strikers started marching and we fused into the line and were led down to Howard Street to a big hall where they had speakers: Haywood, Rhode Fisher, and George Trautman as well as German and Hungarian language speakers. We paid a fifty cents initiation fee. There were so many of us that they didn't have enough membership cards. They just gave us a red ribbon to pin on our lapels. I listened to Haywood for a while. The language he used was way above my comprehension, so I couldn't understand half of it. I went over to the Hungarian speaker, but he was above my level, too. So was the German. But I started to learn. A couple of days later, I was on the picket line and I saw a fellow from my department come out of the factory. I was a kid and very enthusiastic, so I ran over to him and grabbed him by the lapel. I just wanted to talk to him. I didn't understand the position he was in and the position I was in against him. The first thing I knew I was hit across my back by a club. I looked around and then I knew what a policeman was and what a policeman was for.

The main issue in that strike was that the rubber company wanted to cut wages. It went on for several weeks, but I couldn't stay. In those days young people never had enough money to last from one pay day to the next, so I went broke. I went to try my luck in Milwaukee where my mother was then living.

Eventually, I ended up working in New Brunswick, New Jersey. During World War I, I was making battery jars for use in automobilies and submarines. After about six months, I was promoted to an inspector's job, a white collar position with a fixed salary. I was doing good for myself but I was constantly fighting management on behalf of the workers. I decided to give that job up and be a regular worker again. As the war came to an end, the supervisor came around to tell us we would have to work harder if we wanted to keep our wages up. The men decided to think about organizing and I was asked to do some research.

I had no connection with any organization or union, so I decided to talk with the AF of L business agent in the community. I didn't understand the structure of the AF of L or its policy. He told me that "Hunkies" couldn't be organized. "Hunkies" to them meant any unskilled labor. Anybody who wasn't a tradesman or a craftsman was a Hunkie. I wouldn't take his say so. Because of the experience I already had with these men, I knew they could be organized and they needed to be organized.

Next I got in touch with the Socialist Labor Party representative. He promised me a speaker from New York for the following Sunday. On the strength of that, I called a meeting and we had quite a turnout, but no one, not even the local SLP representative, thought the speaker was very good. I tried to get out from under after opening the meeting, but they stuck me with being chairman. Finally, a young fellow, a member of the IWW, stood up. He had just come back from the army and he was a real radical. He was so opposed to the fighting that he had been in the stockade throughout the war. He wouldn't shoulder his gun, and he wouldn't wear a uniform. If they put a gun on his shoulder, he'd drop it. This young fellow's name was Sam Winer. He was an anarchist. After I got to know him, we used to attend doings at the Stelton Colony where the anarchists had their experimental Modern School. At this particular meeting, he had a copy of the Industrial Worker and the IWW preamble. I read off the preamble to the group and asked them what their pleasure was.

The men had the idea that they wanted a union that could deliver the most strike benefits. Here they were - they hadn't even paid any initiation fees or dues-and they were worried about their strike benefits! I hadn't collected any money, because I didn't think we had the right to do that if we didn't have a union. We had long discussions about these things. We got some Hungarians who were IWWs but were not working at this rubber shop to explain things.

In a short time we were able to rent a hall upstairs trom the Socialist Party and call a strike. Some weeks after the strike, one of our Polish members got into an argument with a guy who had scabbed on us. The Polish fellow pulled a knife and stabbed the scab. We went over to the jail to find out about the case and then went back to our hall. When we got there, we saw that the Socialist Party offices had been broken into. Their door was smashed and furniture and literature were all over the floor. We thought some local hoodlums had done it. We went upstairs to see whether we had been broken into, but evidently they didn't know about our hall. Anyhow, we decided I should go to New York to see the American Civil Liberties Union about the fellow worker in jail.

I arrived in New York before office hours and went over to the I W W hall. As I got near the building, I saw the secretary coming to open up. Well, we didn't need any keys. The door was broken, and all our furniture, typewriters, books, and other things were smashed. We still didn't know what had happened, so we went down to get the morning newspaper. There were big headlines about raids on the IWW all over the country. These were the famous Palmer Raids. I decided to go ahead with my original plan to see Roger Baldwin at the ACLU. I told him about our situation. He said that given things as they were, it was better for our man in New Brunswick not be connected with the IWW. He advised me to do nothing, to let it go as a personal fight and in a few months the guy would get paroled. If we made it political by connecting it to the IWW, they could crucify him. We followed Baldwin's advice and it worked out like I thought it would.

Ever since then, 1919, I've been an IWW member. Joining in 1913 didn't make me a real member because I just paid initiation and that was it. I never learned much until I came to New Brunswick and started that union. Before that I was like any other common working man who is mainly concerned with getting more money. The IWW gave me a vision of how we could change America - from a profit motivated society to a cooperative society where no man needs to work for another for his livelihood, but all cooperate together to provide necessities. That was the greatest appeal for me. I never had a penchant for property or money. The vision we had was that everyone would have to do a necessary share of social production and everyone would receive all the necessities without the need for money. And we wouldn't have to work eight hours a day. We would eliminate all useless work and all work that is detrimental. We would center our collective efforts on useful things. Perhaps we would have to start out with four hours a day in the beginning until we got things straightened out. Then we could cut it down to three and before long, to two.

I'm inclined to believe that the IWW saved my life. If I hadn't been swept into it, I would be six feet under the ground long since. I would have probably worked myself to death like a lot of others did, like my brother-in-law who passed several years ago. He was a good slave. He kept on trying to amass wealth and to live for money, whereas I have not. Money was never my god. I have learned, day by day, that my nature is inquisitive, not acquisitive. I could not have gained the knowledge I have gotten through the IWW for all the wealth in the world.