by Bob Zecker
In reactionary times it is good to recall the progressive achievements of those who came before us. “A Road to Peace and Freedom” (Temple University Press) tells the story of the International Workers Order, a consortium of workers’ self-insurance societies that once enrolled 188,000 members striving to build better lives for all Americans. From 1930-1954 the IWO brought together Slavic, Italian, Jewish, African American, Hispanic – even Arabic – members to enjoy access to medical and dental care, life insurance, and cultural facilities not often available in Depression America. But from its founding in 1930 and for decades thereafter, the IWO was much more than a mutual benefit society, forcefully pushing for racial and economic justice.
Asserting in 1933 that the Depression could not be overcome through self-financed accident and sickness policies, the Order’s leaders argued “The workers must meet [the crises] by fighting for a full measure of Social Insurance … They must meet it by fighting against unsanitary and unsafe working conditions in the mills, mines and factories. They must meet it by fighting for a condition in which the life and the welfare of the worker will be the guiding principles of government policies and not the profits of the capitalists as are now.”
In anthracite Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, the IWO fought to improve the lives of miners. As early as 1931 lodges nationwide mobilized to raise $6,000 in funds for striking miners. New York lodges competed to provide the most boxes of food, milk and other necessities for strikers’ families, with “the comrades … who collect the greatest amount … given a trip to the strike field.” (Later, when the IWO was in the government’s red-baiting crosshairs, the Order was still unrepentant. “We have given food to the children of IWO striking miners,” the Italian sections declared. “Is this a crime?”) Scranton and Wilkes-Barre aided strikers and organized a Depression Hunger March to demand social insurance from the government. The Hungarian lodges in 1933 fought for the “release of frozen funds in the bank” to aid unemployed people in Easton, Allentown and Bethlehem, and was organizing laid-off steel workers and miners in a campaign to demand federal unemployment insurance.
The IWO proved an effective union recruiter for miners. Slovak organizers were sent to eastern Pennsylvania coal country, and they organized miners, steel workers and others during the CIO drive a few years later. African American organizer Louise Thompson confirmed political consciousness and commitment to unions was endemic to the Order, so that black and Latino IWO organizers aided miners’ unionization drives. In company towns, too, not only was the IWO hall the only social center for members, it was often the only place to hold union meetings or discuss politics freely. In one Pennsylvania town a “little Bohemian guy named Joe” in the IWO was able to get the first 100 steel workers to sign union cards. This was “typical of all these little mining towns that you went through.”
The IWO advocated universal health care, and also championed a mine-safety bill. The general secretary wrote Congressman Vito Marcantonio, himself an IWO vice president, urging his support for a Federal Mines Safety and Inspection Act. He noted the Order, which enrolled thousands of miners, “is vitally concerned in the passage of legislation by Congress which will prevent such tragedies.” Grassroots IWO members lobbied for the bill, too. Victor Pŏverk of Yukon, Pennsylvania, lobbied Marcantonio. “As a coal miner and conscious of the grim fact that we have had two disastrous mine explosions in the last few months,” Pŏverk wrote, “I sincerely hope that you would do all in your power for the Federal Mine Inspection Bill.” The miner enclosed a resolution supporting the bill passed by Yukon’s lodge.
The Anthracite District IWO consistently combined calls for workers’ justice with advocacy of racial equality and civil rights. In 1940, the Anthracite District convention meeting in Scranton adopted a resolution demanding enactment of a federal anti-lynching bill. Lodges organized baseball teams – Hazleton was Eastern District IWO champs in 1939. But teams were racially integrated eight years before Jackie Robinson joined Brooklyn, and petitions were circulated during games, demanding the big leagues follow suit.
For its unrepentant advocacy of working-class and racial justice, the International Workers Order was in 1954 hounded out of existence by the government, branded “a moral and political hazard.” Still, the IWO endures as an example of working people organizing across racial, ethnic, regional and occupational lines to build better lives for all citizens. Such activism remains possible in the 21st century for those determined to chart “a road to peace and freedom.”
Bob Zecker is professor of history at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Before entering academia he foisted journalism on an unsuspecting public in his native New Jersey. His interest in immigration and labor history was first spurred listening to his grandparents’ stories. His grandparents and great-grandparents participated in the 1926-27 Passaic Textile Strike. “A Road to Peace and Freedom” is his fourth book.