For the Toilers of the Sea: Tom Barker's Revolutionary Adventures in Marine Transport


"Many readers will remember Tom Barker, one time of Auckland," reported the Maoriland Worker in 1921:

who, under the pen-name of "Spanwire", used to write Auckland notes for this paper. Since Tom gave up punching tickets and collecting fares on the trams of the Queen City, he has had enough of adventure to satisfy a dozen men... Incidentally he mentions that he is writing a book, "An Industrial Handbook on the Marine Transport Industry".

I discovered the existence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or 'Wobbly') pamphlet The Story of the Sea: Marine Transport Workers' Handbook almost by accident, during a keyword search in the Australian National Library. I was looking for background on early 20th century marine transport workers, and their participation in the IWW. It was one of those serendipitous discoveries that often happen in the obscure and under-researched field of radical working-class history. The author of the pamphlet was not identified, but once I checked the US IWW monthly publications from this era, where the pamphlet was originally published as a series of articles, the pieces fell into place. For the author was none other than the legendary Antipodean Wobbly, Tom Barker.

Thanks in large part to the Australian social historians who rescued the story of the IWW from obscurity in the 1960s, Tom Barker is a well-known figure in radical labour history on both sides of the Tasman. The main source of biographical information available is Eric Fry's published interview conducted in London in the 1960s, and published in pamphlet form under the auspices of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. "Tom Barker and the IWW" was an oral history project that sparked a new interest in the form, and also restored an awareness of the larrikin tradition in the Antipodean working class to the history. Barker's leadership role in the New Zealand Great Strike of 1913 and the anti-conscription battles of the Australian working-class during WW1, are now part of this scholarship, and today Barker is probably the most often-quoted IWW leader in Australian and New Zealand labour history writing. However, very little attention has been paid by scholars to Barker's story after he was deported to South America "by the Warlords and Capitalists of Australia" in 1918, when he became an international delegate and organiser for the Marine Transport Workers Union, firstly as the secretary of the Buenos Aires branch that he helped to found, and then as a syndicalist delegate and wandering activist in Europe in 1920 and 1921.

"It is the purpose of the Industrial Workers of the World", wrote the editor of Industrial Pioneer in the introduction to a series of articles:

"to build the new society within the shell of the old". In order to do that, the workers not only have to get control of industry, they must master its processes as well. They must prepare themselves to be able to run industry smoothly and efficiently... To that end the I.W.W has launched a program for the exhaustive study of the vital industries...

As a preliminary step, it is getting up handbooks describing the different industries.

For anyone interested in Tom Barker himself, or the IWW during its early 20th century heyday, The Story of the Sea, the first of these handbooks to be published, is a fascinating and enjoyable read, written by an erudite self-educated worker with a flair for rhetoric and prose, who believed strongly that the rightness of his commitment to industrial unionism was confirmed by many years' experience as an industrial worker and organiser - a commitment Barker maintained to the end of his life.

Barker's analysis - which is at once history, pedagogy and propaganda, in a classic Wobbly style - contributes significantly to our understanding of the persistence of international class solidarity, and syndicalist practices amongst dockworkers and seamen throughout the 20th century. For my purposes, then, it is a document that tells a story that would otherwise be lost to radical labour history: the consciousness and context of the industrial marine worker in a time of profound and significant socioeconomic change. For underneath the
world war, there was a global class war going on, and the IWW were well aware of this. Furthermore, as Story makes clear, they believed that international marine workers held the key to the global project of building the One Big Union and the ultimate goal of workers control of the industrial system. As Barker himself puts it:

World Transport is the strategic point of international capitalism. The marine transport industry is the most cosmopolitan of all industries. The proletariat can never assume control until it conquers the ocean routes and the ships that follow them. The present state of sectional, national unionism reminds one of so many mosquitoes attempting to push an elephant over.

The reasons for the persistent, and often anomalous, radical consciousness of marine transport workers in the industrialised nations has been a recurring theme of interest to labour historians. With the recent development of transnational labour history, a new understanding of this phenomenon is being explored, and great insight has been gained into the material and socio-economic conditions underlying this tradition. In exploring the particular radicalism of this small yet enormously influential band of international workers and their acute and unique perspective on the state of their world, I hope to contribute to this scholarship. And of course, considering I have such a colourful and irreverent subject, I am having a lot of fun doing so.

Originally published in the Labour History Bulletin (Aotearoa/New Zealand) #60, April 2014, p8-10

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