Why did Ralph Chaplin leave the IWW?


In reformatting a 1949 master’s thesis by George Pearce titled “The IWW since 1932”, the folowing part was pointed out to me

Ralph Chaplin resigned as Editor of the Industrial Worker in March, 1936. He explained as follows: “This step is unavoidable. Very serious disagreement with the policy and personnel of the newly elected Administration of the I.W.W. has made any other course impossible.” Fred Thompson succeeded him. Mr. Thompson had been elected General Secretary-Treasurer as of March 1.

So what was the disagreement about? No one has really ever explained this to me. Chaplin wrote an autobiography called Wobbly: The Rough-And-Tumble Story Of An American Radical. This came out in 1948, which was 12 years after he left the IWW. By this time he became a born-again Christian, an anti-Communist and spoke for the AFL. Vincent Dunne, one of the leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters strike wrote a pretty scathing (and sectarian) review. In the same way that I wouldn’t read David Horowitz’s ramblings after his right-wing transformation to get a good idea about the 1960s, I’m not sure Chaplin’s autobiography is useful to get to what actually happened. In any case, the book has been long out-of-print and is a bit hard to find.

So it seems that Ralph Chaplin in 1936 was the Industrial Worker‘s editor and ‘business manager’. He identifies as the latter in the January 1936 General Organization Bulletin (GOB), in a delinquent accounts posting.

In January 1936, the General Recruiting Union #3 in New York passed a vote of confidence of Chaplin as editor of the IW. This indicates there was some controversy going on.

In February, Fred Thompson took over as General-Secretary Treasurer (GST). Not sure if this has anything to do with what happens with Chaplin, but I think people underestimate Thompson’s maneuvering and agenda when it came to the IWW, as well as his version of history. While I admire anyone who puts in as much effort in radical organizations and the workers movement as he did, I’ve learned to treat him a bit more suspiciously as I’ve become more familiar with him. However, I’m not sure if this has more to do with what he did or that we would likely be in a disagreement on a lot of issues in the IWW if he was still around or I was around back then.

It is indeed true that Chaplin resigned as editor of the IW in March 1936. The news of this seemed to have circulated in the organization, although not the reason. That same month the Seattle joint branches, the Seattle Lumber Workers Industrial Unon and the Seattle Agricultural Industrial Union passed resolutions asking Chaplin to reconsider and elected a committee to talk to the General Executive Committee (GEB) of the IWW to find out more information on the resignation. The General Membership Branch (GMB) in Port Angeles, WA passed a similar motion, which does indicate conflict between Chaplin and the General Administration.

In April 1936, Fred Thompson, the GST and Charles Velsek, the Chair of the GEB took over as editor of the Industrial Worker, splitting whatever stipend/salary that position had. This would have been in addition to the salaries they were receiving from their elected positions. That same month, the Aberdeen GMB passed a motion requesting the GEB to, barring Chaplin reconsidering, to get a competent editor, rather than Thompson. The Seattle Agricultural Worker Industrial Union passed a similar motion, also again asking for futher information on Chaplin’s resignation. The Seattle joint branches passed a motion to communicate directly with both Chaplin and Thompson on what happened. In May, several NY and NJ bodies of the IWW passed similar motions.

Like I mentioned, Chaplin actually had written a statement and sent it for publication in the GOB, but it was referred to the GEB because it violated the rules of the GOB, which historically (and currently) don’t allow for personal attacks. Also, the GEB thought maybe Chaplin issued it while angry and so apparently allowed time to make sure he didn’t want to retract. However, in between Chaplin issuing this statement and it being published in the GOB, “The Chicago Committee Opposed to Dictators”, who suppadly was an expelled member (Bill Thompson?) and an “associate” circulated Chaplin’s statement along with introduction that accused General Administration of suppressing the reasons that Chaplin resigned, as well as conspiring to oust him.

The statement was finally published in the June 1936 GOB. In it, Chaplin acknowledges that he has received requests for a statement, but doubts issuing one would clarify anything. He mentions a “conspiracy” by “would-be dictators” and claims a member named Bill Thompson was expelled for exposing it. Chaplin seems to call Fred Thompson a “Hitler in the General Office” and condemns the rank-and-file of the IWW for being fooled by “ambitious politicians” in the organization. He then goes on to say he is finished with the IWW and claims that letters for him are being withheld by the General Administration. Also in this GOB are letters from individual Wobblies, advocating that membership get to directly elect the Industrial Worker editor. This is how someone becomes editor now, I wonder if this situation is the root of that change.

I’m still pretty unclear of what happened.

Sources: December 1935-November 1936 GOBs


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