Leftist Unity: Lessons from the Wobbly Kitchen in Detroit

wobbly kitchen

tachae profile largeby Tachae D.

Invited by a friend and as an act of solidarity, I accepted the opportunity to work with The Wobbly Kitchen of Detroit in Cass Park on a blistery, December evening. I was amazed at the sense of community presence, and cooperation of the people to join together to engage in a community meal. The U.S. normative, hierarchal structure of volunteerism I had grown weary of was absent. A sense of heroic intervention in the lives of the “less fortunate” was not present; so, with my spirits lifted, yet humbled I inquired about this event to the friend who had invited me, and was introduced to Jim Rehberg, who graciously took time out to become acquainted with me. Fast forward to January 1st, and I have stayed in contact with Jim, and informed him about this very blog. Originally, this piece was sparked by a question as to how The Wobbly Kitchen was started, and how Jim came to work with them; however, I noticed that a more fundamentally important message was given, in regards to leftist-revolutionary unity, and how mobilization to create change is possible through action. Enjoy!

by Jim Rehberg

The Wobbly Kitchen has been around around for almost fifteen years. There would be no Wobbly Kitchen if had not become a member of the Industrial Workers of the World [a union founded in 1905 with a rich history of struggle], also known as the Wobblies. I signed on to the IWW because of a group of young people at the Trumbull House back in the late nineties. I was and still am a member of the UAW [United Auto Workers], but had grown tired of their fights with other unions. The kids offered me a way to be in two unions. So when I wanted to support a group of workers in a conflict with management, a strike, or whatever it may be I would go as a Wobbly, and not have to answer to what the UAW was doing to this or that union. I also was impressed with the knowledge the kids had on the IWW and other struggles workers and anarchists had been involved in over the years. So despite the fact I thought I knew a thing or two, I found myself learning from kids half my age! Then again, they were students sucking up all the knowledge they could get there hands on and I was just an old factory hand who believed in the Union.

Now I will back up a little bit. I was active in my union and during the newspapers strike, I got involved in the Friends of Labor Kitchen, mostly with IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] members. The driving force in that Kitchen was Kevin Mackey, who you may know and is still active. Now that Kitchen fed a thousand or more at the beginning of the strike and organized a lot of direct actions. Some of the money raised went toward bail as a result of some of the more militant actions. I still have great friends from those days and some are at Cass Park, where twice a month we feed Homeless and Forgotten workers, to help there. As the strike/lockout dragged on, the dinners got smaller and smaller and opportunities to cook in that Kitchen got to be few.

It was around this time that I started the Wobbly kitchen, as a small group that started offering support to others in struggle. The Wobbly Kitchen started out small and still is mostly smaller affairs. A strike, a lockout, a cause, a fundraiser for legal relief or for sick and needy support. Younger people have always been a part of the kitchen. I think we are the only Wobbly branch to cook hand and hand with Food not Bombs [a decentralized, cooperative free-food movement] whenever possible. While the IWW branch has some say so in who we cook for, I have been stubborn and less than democratic in who I cook for. For instance, after years of providing food for the MLK march I was told by a fellow worker that Wobblies don’t cook for Stalinists! I am well aware of the conflicts of the left and have taken great pains to never let that stop me when there is a need. That event was our yearly chance to cook and work with Food not Bombs while they were still active and something I always enjoyed.

Something about the left in Detroit is that we pretty much do things together or we find each other at the same place sooner or later. The talkers have a harder time, but activists who actually DO things have less of a problem. Well over the years we have cooked for hundreds of events. Old school unions to the young radicals. When I say we cooked that means whoever cooks with me. Sure lots of Wobblies join in but it depends on who wants what. If I can fit it in I try to and those that want the event can and should help.

My five favorite moments in Wobbly Kitchen History:
1…cooking for the U. S. Social Forum. 4 days of cooking for 400 with mostly daily volunteers from Food not Bombs and other activists. All young, all an inspiration to me. The reason I am in Cass Park is because at the beginning it was a solidarity action to show support for Orlando Food not Bombs. One of the best kitchen hands at the USSF was from Orlando, it was my way of returning the favor.
2…Supporting the Lansing 13, a new younger IWW in Detroit came out of that something this old man needed.
3…Yearly food for MLK day, always a pleasure.
4…Occupy Detroit, met some of my favorite people there. All young and always an inspiration to me that a better world is possible. Jessica and Kayla are two that I look up to the most. I had a great time at the Mid West Occupy conference. Go to the Wobbly Kitchen FB albums for photos. Its called “a week in the kitchen.”
5… twice a month in Cass Park with the Homeless and Forgotten Worker. The best thing I ever got involved in.

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