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The Black Cat (Sabo-Tabby)

By x344543, August 12, 2011

The Black Cat -- traditionally drawn as angry with claws bared, arched back, and a brushy tail (pictured, right) -- has long been one of the symbols of the IWW.  It was probably conceived by IWW member Ralph Chaplin (most famous for penning the IWW / labor anthem "Solidarity Forever"), who produced many of the IWW's early "slient agitator" graphics which -- themselves -- had a close association with hobo signs (described elsewhere in this gallery of IWW cultural icons).

Although today the cat has a general association with the IWW -- sometimes even as a mascot -- it's original purpose was as a code or symbol for direct action at the point of production, specifically sabotage.  Indeed, the cat may have even been chosen due to the convenient word play, "sabo-tabby" (possibly even an indirect inspiration for Mel Blanc's characterization of Bugs Bunny's often mispronounced "sabotagé"), though, as described in the section on sabotage, it must be emphasized that the latter did not mean destruction of machinery or equipment.  (Indeed, readers are urged to also read the section on Sabotage in this gallery to understand its actual meaning).

Labor folklorist Archie Green has said that "the black cat is an old symbol for malignant and sinister purposes, foul deeds, bad luck, and witchcraft with countless superstitious connections. Wobblies extended the black-cat figure visually to striking on the job, direct action, and sabotage."

According to Ralph Chaplin, "My 'Sab Cat' was supposed to symbolize the 'slow down' as a means of 'striking on the job'," although others in the IWW used the symbol much more broadly.

Perhaps as a result, and due to the inevitable hagiography that arises when history becomes legend, other radical movements and/or organizations that have been inspired by the IWW (or rather their somewhat biased perspectives of it) and adopted the black cat (including many anarchist and radical environmentalist tendencies and organizations) have used the feline to symbolize something much different from direct action at the point of production. 

Earth First!, for example, sometimes used a slight variation on Chaplin's original image (sometimes even with a monkeywrench in one of its paws) to symbolize monkeywrenching by "eco-warriors" -- which is quite different from direct action at the point of production by workers.  Many anarchists have simply copied Chaplin's image to symbolize direct action in general, including mass insurrectionary activity.

The IWW does not condone or endorse such use of the black cat and bears no responsibility for its usage by others, nor does the IWW officially make use of the black cat to symbolize sabotage (indeed, the IWW does not officially endorse or condone sabotage itself).  However, various IWW members, branches, and campaigns (including the recent Starbucks Workers Organizing Campaign) do make use of the black cat, but in general, it is more a mascot and a symbol of general collective working class militancy than anything else. 

Perhaps the ultimate ironic twist is the notion of the proverbial cat having nine lives, due to the tendency of actual cats to hold up well in dangerous situations.  An old IWW slogan declared, "the sab-cat has nine lives and no conscience." Like its furry, four-legged, (usually) green-eyed alter-ego, the IWW seems to also have nine lives and has survived all threats to its existence (thus far).