Industrial Workers of the World

views updated May 23 2018

Industrial Workers of the World

United States 1905


At the turn of the twentieth century American laborers had been generally unionized by organizations such as the Knights of Labor and smaller organizations. The most formidable union was the 25-year-old American Federation of Labor (AFL), but it still excluded many workers from membership. Typical working conditions, particularly in industrial workplaces, were poor and dangerous. Unskilled workers, often seen as interchangeable, replaceable commodities, were at peril.

The goal of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was to organize all United States workers into "one big union." Unlike other unions of the day, this union's creators did not care about race, gender, or ethnic background. What they wanted was an end to capitalism with just, equitable working conditions for all working-class people. The IWW also espoused concepts that were alien in blue-collar America, chiefly an eight-hour work day and a 40-hour week.

The creation of the IWW set into motion a vocal debate about the value of work and workers in the United States. It also drew attention to the importance of marginalized workers—African Americans, new immigrants, women, and unskilled laborers—in the national economy.


  • 1885: Indian National Congress is established. In the years that follow, the party will take the helm of India's independence movement.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1895: Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière show the world's first motion picture—Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory—at a café in Paris.
  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish-American War. As a result, Cuba gains it independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.
  • 1901: U.S. President William McKinley is assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president.
  • 1903: Russia's Social Democratic Party splits into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks and the hard-line Bolsheviks. Despite their names, which in Russian mean "minority" and "majority," respectively, Mensheviks actually outnumber Bolsheviks.
  • 1904: Russo-Japanese War, which lasts into 1905 and results in a resounding Japanese victory, begins. In Russia, the war is followed by the Revolution of 1905, which marks the beginning of the end of czarist rule; meanwhile, Japan is poised to become the first major non-western power of modern times.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905 occurs. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1905: Albert Einstein presents his special theory of relativity.
  • 1905: In the industrial Ruhr region in Germany, 200,000 miners go on strike.
  • 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded by W. E. B. Du Bois and a number of other prominent black and white intellectuals in New York City.
  • 1914: On the Western Front, the first battles of the Marne and Ypres establish a line that will more or less hold for the next four years. Exuberance is still high on both sides, but will dissipate as thousands of German, French, and British soldiers sacrifice their lives in battles over a few miles of barbed wire and mud. The Eastern Front is a different story: a German victory over Russia at Tannenberg in August sets the stage for a war in which Russia will enjoy little success, and will eventually descend into chaos that paves the way for the 1917 revolutions.

Event and Its Context

Alternative to AFL Sought

At its founding, the IWW was one of three key labor organizations. The others were the AFL and the Socialist Party of America. Those who were ignored by the AFL—such as immigrants, minorities, and unskilled workers, and those disenchanted with the organization—typically gravitated to either the Socialist Party or IWW. The socialists were a political party rather than a labor union, but labor was one of the party's key platforms.

A significant contrast existed between the unionism of the AFL and that proposed by the IWW. The AFL was keen on organizing skilled workers by their specific craft. The IWW accepted all workers and planned to organize them by industry. The IWW fomented subversion of capitalism, whereas the AFL worked within the capitalist system.

A prime reason for the formation of "one big union" was to overcome the fragmentation caused by the divisions of trades into smaller unions. The IWW, in one of its informational pamphlets, gave the example of 56 unions in the 1903 Chicago packing house industry alone. The IWW advocated one single union for workers, not fragmented by craft, race, or gender. As a result, the IWW openly accepted workers who had been snubbed by the AFL. The AFL also represented only about 5 percent of American workers. Among those industries targeted by early IWW organizers were mining, timber, and shipping industries.

Another factor that contributed to the genesis of the IWW was that there had been no solidarity among existing radical groups. William "Big Bill" Haywood was the head of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), which had survived the violent Colorado mine strikes. It was in that bloody string of confrontations that the idea of creating a single large union was born. Haywood thought there had to be a way to unite disenfranchised radicals from various active organizations in the United States. He saw it as an opportunity to unite not just those who promoted trade unionism, but politicians and activists as well. Others agreed with him.

The Continental Congress of the Working Class

Acting on a 1904 mandate from the WFM, Haywood contacted various radical leaders to ask for their support in the creation of a single union. Also in 1904 six labor leaders gathered in Chicago to discuss how to launch a new, progressive union movement based in that city. At this meeting, they decided to invite 30 different prominent radicals—including socialists and reformers—to meet in Chicago on 2 January 1905.

The agenda of this "secret conference" was "to discuss ways and means of uniting the working people of America on correct revolutionary principles." The 20 participants created an Industrial Union Manifesto. They extended an invitation to those who supported the concepts outlined in the document and who were intent on realizing them to join them for another meeting Chicago in June. Their hope was to create a new labor organization.

Brand's Hall in Chicago was the meeting place on 27 June 1905 for an estimated 200 delegates who had responded to the invitation. Attendees at the founding meeting of the Industrial Workers of the World held vastly differing viewpoints. The crowd consisted predominantly of socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists. Noted labor historian Melvyn A. Dubofsky called the gathering "a weird congregation of individuals and organizations." Workers from Haywood's WFM, in fact, formed the core of the gathering, which was attended by representatives of about 43 other labor organizations.

Haywood called the gathering "the Continental Congress of the working-class." In his opening address, he said the meeting would serve "to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism." Haywood articulated the aims of the new organization as granting the working class possession of "economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to the capitalist masters." The IWW preamble is often viewed less as a charter for a union than as a call for class warfare. It clearly stated that workers and employers had no common ground.

On the speakers' platform with Haywood were Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, Daniel De Leon, a Marxist considered by some the father of Industrial Unionism, and Mother Mary Jones, an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America. Other speakers at the conference who were key in founding the IWW were Lucy Parsons, an anarchist widow, and Father Thomas Hagerty, a Catholic priest friendly to labor. The delegates elected Charles O. Sherman, from the WFM, as the first IWW president. The Chicago meeting lasted until 8 July 1905.

In a 10 July 1905 address in Minneapolis, De Leon called the creation of the IWW "an epoch in the annals of the labor movement of America … a turning point in the history of the land." The text of this address—"The Preamble of the I.W.W.," which explained the organization and its ideals—was later reissued as a pamphlet under the title "Socialist Reconstruction of Society." Haywood reportedly wrote De Leon and lauded the content as "clear and convincing. I wish that a copy of it could be placed in the hands of every man and woman of the working class in this country."

One important principle of the IWW was direct action. Often, this is interpreted as going hand-in-hand with violence. However, direct action is worker-initiated, unmediated negotiation. As defined in early IWW literature, "The worker on the job shall tell the boss when and where he shall work, how long and for what wages and under what conditions." In addition to direct action, the tools IWW members commonly used to educate and encourage workers to rally against employers included propaganda that the organization published in pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines. They also instigated boycotts and strikes.

Women and the IWW

At this time there were indeed women working in a variety of professions. Women were commonly employed as teachers and in the textile mills, laundry operations, and other factories throughout the United States. Despite this, the AFL did not allow women in its ranks. Mother Jones, one of the prime forces in the creation of the IWW, was certainly familiar with the plight of working women.

Jones gathered and organized women to participate in mining strikes. She frequently went into workplaces to record conditions as well as to organize. She once observed women working in breweries as being "condemned to slave daily in the wash-room in wet shoes and wet clothes, surrounded with foulmouthed, brutal foremen." Jones noted the prevalence of rheumatism and consumption among women workers, and the overbearing power of the foreman over the workers' minute-to-minute activities, including time allotted to bathroom breaks. The women, many of whom had no parents or other support system, often had to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves on a weekly salary of three dollars.

Mother Jones's presence on the dais at the 1905 convention was no mistake, nor was that of Parsons. The IWW was the first union to discuss housework and to recognize that women had jobs both inside and outside the home. The IWW was also the first union to organize domestics and sex workers. One of its earliest organizing efforts was in the textile industry. An estimated half of that industry's workers were women. Parsons edited The Liberator, an IWW paper, which enabled her to publicize issues of importance to women. Considered radical at the time, these positions included supporting a woman's right to divorce and to gain access to birth control. In addition to advocating for women, Parsons also lobbied for inclusion of Mexican migrant workers and other minorities in the IWW.

Politics Divides Philosophy

The IWW would become known as an anarchist-syndicalist trade union. Syndicalism encompasses both politics and economics. Its adherents believe that workers should control the means and processes of production and like anarchists believe in the abolishment of any form of state. Syndicalists advocate direct industrial action. The IWW was formed by leaders with diverse and often conflicting radical opinions, which from its inception contributed to problems and ultimately to its demise. One need only look at the IWW leadership to see how diverse the ideologies within the group must have been: Haywood espoused syndicalism, De Leon was a Marxist, Mother Jones was a staunch trade unionist, Lucy Parsons advocated anarchism, and Debs insisted on nonviolence.

Even in the 1900s, Americans thought of anarchism and socialism as synonymous. As explained by Stewart Bird, "Wobblies,"—as the union members were known—"were attracted to those anarchist currents that stress non-authoritarian structures such as cooperatives, collectives, federations, innovative schools, and decentralized industrial unions. They were hostile to more individualistic anarchists with whom they often had bitter disputes. They also came to a total rejection of Marxism-Leninism."

The primary ideological division was between Marxists and the anarchists and syndicalists. The Marxists were typically involved in either the Socialist Party of America or the Socialist Labor Party. Because its members held common views and they were founded the same year, the Socialist Party was closely allied with the IWW. Some of the leading socialists within the United States were keen on affecting change from within the AFL rather than a new organization. Neither organization, however, sent formal representatives to the founding convention.

In 1906 there was conflict about how politics fit into the union platform. There were those who thought democracy would trump direct action in bringing about meaningful change. There was also a core within the union, however, that thought direct action could be the "embryo of the new society and the revolutionary instrument for achieving it," according to Patrick Renshaw. The goal was to instigate strikes that would eventually escalate into a single, national general strike that would topple capitalism. The IWW majority was vociferously opposed to political action, which engendered controversy. The first point of contention between the Socialist Labor Party and the IWW surfaced in 1906 when the IWW started advocating the deletion of political rhetoric from the organization's preamble.

The political infighting and ideological differences may be moot, as Renshaw observed, "mainly because the Wobblies failed in their revolutionary aims." At the time, the key debate was which faction would prevail within the union. The question was one of political power: If there was to be revolution in the United States, who would lead it? Given world events—notably the coming revolution in Russia—it was reasonable for those within either the SLP or IWW to believe that united workers might be able to affect sweeping societal changes. They hoped they might be able to bring about a revolution against capitalists in the United States.

By 1908 politics were considered no longer essential to the union agenda. Because De Leon espoused Marxism and advocated political action, he and his supporters were essentially expelled from the IWW in 1908. At the 1908 convention De Leon was not seated as a delegate. He and those allied with him walked out. The union transformed into essentially a militant union that was known for prounion propaganda distributed through lectures, debates, newsletters, newspapers, and pamphlets, and for agitating strikes. Later in its existence, Samuel Gompers, then president of the AFL, was among those who spoke openly against the union by decrying the IWW as "destructive in theory and practice." While this infighting persisted, precious little organizing occurred.

The IWW suffered even from its nicknames. There are numerous explanations as to how the term wobblies originated. Among the most plausible is that it was derived from the wobble saw. The union was often incorrectly called the International Workers of the World. Wits played on the acronym to create derogatory monikers such as "I Won't Work" or "I Want Whiskey."

The IWW also inspired numerous writers who portrayed the union favorably. Upton Sinclair is thought to have been the first to do so in a play called Singing Jailbirds. Among others who wrote about the IWW were John Dos Passos, Eugene O'Neill, Theodore Dreiser, and William Carlos Williams.

The IWW typically had an estimated 150,000 members at any given time, although numbers would swell appreciably during strikes. Estimates run as high as one million workers who were members at some time between 1905 and 1915. The IWW called approximately 150 strikes during its heyday. Although the union did organize in other parts of the world, it was strongest in the United States. IWW organizers happily courted workers typically snubbed by the AFL. The IWW had its greatest successes within agriculture and textile industry.

Key Players

Debs, Eugene Victor (1855-1926): A life-long unionist, Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was an official in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) and the American Railway Union (ARU) before helping to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He became a Socialist Party presidential candidate. Debs left the union because its values clashed with his. He espoused nonviolence. Debs was later seen as a dangerous wildcard and was feared by union leaders.

Hagerty, Father Thomas J.: A Catholic priest friendly to labor, Hagerty was one of the IWW founders who wrote the union's preamble. He was editor of the Voice of Labor, the publication of the American Labor Union. He has been described as "a big black-bearded scholarly man." He worked as an organizer during a six-year leave from his church duties.

Haywood, William Dudley (1869-1928): Haywood was a labor leader and radical who was best known for his part in the founding of the IWW. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and became a miner and union member as a teen. He was first involved with the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). His experiences in the Colorado mine strikes between 1903 and 1905 reinforced his belief that it was essential for the future of working people in the United States to form a single national union. After the 1905 convention, Haywood became the country's best-known labor radical.

Jones, Mother Mary Harris (1830-1930): Born in Cork, Ireland, Jones immigrated in 1838 to Toronto. She was a dressmaker, wife, and mother. After the deaths of her husband and children in a yellow fever epidemic, she started a career as a labor organizer among the miners. She was present at the founding of the IWW but later distanced herself from the organization, perhaps because she found the Wobblies too radical.

Parsons, Lucy González (1853-1942): Although much of her early life is not well known, Lucy González married Albert Parsons in 1871. Upon moving to Chicago, they both became active in politics including the Workingmen's Party (WPUSA) and Socialist Labor Party. Widowed by her husband's execution in 1887 following the Haymarket Riots, Parsons was an anarchist who was instrumental in the founding the IWW.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Knights of Labor; Socialist Party of America; Syndicalist Movement; Western Federation of Miners.



Bird, Stewart, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer. Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW.Chicago: Lake View Press, 1985.

De Leon, Daniel. Socialist Reconstruction of Society. New York: Socialist Labor Party, 1912..

Dubofsky, Melvyn A. Big Bill Haywood. New York: St.Martin's Press, 1987.

Murolo, Priscilla and A. B. Chitty. From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States. New York: The New Press, 2001.

Murray, R. Emmet. The Lexicon of Labor. New York: The New Press, 1998.

Renshaw, Patrick. The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1967.

Taft, Philip. Organized Labor in American History. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964.


IWW. One Big Union of the I.W.W. (pamphlet) Chicago:International Workers of the World, (n.d.).


"Eugene V. Debs: A Union Leader." Eugene V. Debs Foundation Web Site [cited 7 August 2002]. <>.

LeFevre, William. "In the Shadow of I.W.W." Wayne State University, Walter P. Reuther Library. 2001 [cited 7 August 2002]. <>.

Industrial Workers of the World Web Site [cited 7 August2002]. <>.

—Linda Dailey Paulson

Industrial Workers of the World

views updated May 18 2018


INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD (IWW) had a major impact on the American labor movement, despite its rotating membership and controversial methods. The activities of its members, called "Wobblies" for the "W" in its acronym, entered the folklore of an underclass of hoboes and migratory labor.

The unprecedented American economic development in the late nineteenth century expanded the factory system and mechanization. The new kinds of industries subsumed the labor previously performed by skilled craftspeople and required an increase in the hired workforce. To meet the need for workers, industries relied heavily on migration from rural America and massive immigration from overseas. Proponents of American labor organizations faced a complex and layered workforce in an industrial environment that had outgrown the existing form of unionism. By the early 1880s, the Knights of Labor had organized hundreds of thousands of workers of all sorts into a fraternal, cooperative order that lacked a clear focus on the workplace. By 1886, skilled workers who had such a focus formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was preoccupied with the defensive protection of "craft unionism" and its privileges.

As the panic of 1893 created conditions conducive to unionization, three notable currents adamantly urged what was called "industrial unionism." First, ideologically motivated working-class radicals launched the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (STLA), hoping to follow the success of the German social democracy in organizing new unions. Second, working conditions on the railroads, arguably the most important industry of the age, convinced growing numbers of engineers, firemen, brakemen, switch-men, conductors, porters, and others that they needed to replace or supplement their craft organizations with the common American Railway Union (ARU). In the harsh and often violent circumstances of the Far West, local unions combined into the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). While the STLA largely degenerated into a propaganda vehicle for the Socialist Labor Party, the local, state, and federal authorities intervened with troops to break the ARU in the 1894 Pullman Strike and over the next few years clashed with armed WFM members in bitter disputes at Cripple Creek and Leadville, Colorado, and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Blaming the fraternal and defensive AFL for protecting membership concerns rather than expressing class interests, the tough-minded miners attempted to form the nucleus of a rival general association of workers in conjunction with the Western Labor Union (1898) and the American Labor Union (1902), but those efforts came to naught. Based on the prestige of having led a series of tough campaigns against Colorado employers in 1903 and 1904, the WFM sponsored a January 1905 conference in Chicago that called for a new national union.

On 27 June 1905, the convention gathered in Chicago's Brand Hall. The more than two hundred delegates included Daniel De Leon, the reorganizer of the Socialist Labor Party and the inspiration for the STLA; Eugene Debs, the once-imprisoned president of the old ARU and at the time of the convention the most prominent national spokesperson for the new Socialist Party; the white-haired and aged "Mother" Mary Jones, long an organizer of coal miners in the East; and Lucy Parsons, the mulatto anarchist widow of Albert Parsons, who was judicially murdered only blocks away from Brand Hall almost twenty years earlier over the Haymarket affair. This gathering, which William D. "Big Bill" Haywood of the WFM called

"the Continental Congress of the working-class," launched the IWW.

The AFL, the Knights of Labor, and numerous other unions had started with resolutions discussing a class struggle between capital and labor, but the new movement discussed the subject as a matter of course. "We are here," said Haywood, "to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism." The preamble to the constitution of the IWW stated bluntly: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life."

The founders of the IWW were vague about how they might achieve their goals and made no commitment regarding politics. The seriousness of those omissions became evident at the second convention in 1906. There, in the absence of Haywood, Debs, and other prominent founders, De Leon led a successful movement in opposition to what the socialists called the conservative WFM leadership, though, in fact, Vincent St. John and other WFM leaders backed the opposition as well. The movement not only ousted President Charles Sherman but abolished the office itself, assigning William Trautmann as their "general organizer."

Meanwhile, the WFM faced a major crisis. In the closing hours of 1905, someone assassinated the Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, who had confronted the WFM at Coeur d'Alene. During early 1906, Idaho authorities illegally crossed state lines to kidnap the WFM officials Haywood and Charles Moyer and the prounionist Denver shopkeeper George A. Pettibone. As the WFM debated the factional battle that transformed the IWW, its leaders prepared for a trial (9 May–27 July 1907) that made them an international cause célèbre defended by the famed criminal attorney Clarence Darrow. Their acquittal publicized the new union without resolving its studied ambiguities about politics and power.

In its first years, the IWW organized workers and led strikes from Portland, Oregon, to Skowhegan, Maine. Determined to organize unskilled workers regardless of sex, ethnicity, or race, the IWW rarely won a strong, permanent membership capable of withstanding reversals in many of these communities. Many workers joined to strike and left with its completion. Where other unions had sought to lead, the IWW was led by its own sense of principle and duty to take up workers' grievances. That same mistrust of would-be leaders that had turned out the Sherman regime in 1906 seemed to mandate a repudiation of De Leon's doctrinaire "socialist industrial unionism" at the 1908 convention. The IWW had defined itself by deciding what it was not, embracing a broad spectrum of currents initially and then removing selected ones. By 1908, this process had reduced the membership in the organization to 3,700.

Nevertheless, the IWW was a distinctive labor movement. Under St. John (1908–1915) and later Haywood (1915–1918), the union became what the latter called socialism "with its working clothes on." This new kind of unionism advocated the overthrow of capitalism not at the ballot box, which it mistrusted, but through "direct action" on the job. Rooted in the North American experience, the IWW developed a distinctive version of what was coming to be called "syndicalism" in Europe. It sought to organize all workers into "one big union," a new, democratized, and self-governing power, through the ongoing quest for a consensus in practice. Its version of a labor movement was "the frame of the new in the shell of the old." Using progressively stronger methods of "direct action," workers broke through the shell of capitalist ownership in production and distribution. The process precluded the kinds of legal recognition and contract agreements essential to the "pure and simple" unionism of the AFL.

The IWW approach became a touchstone for the radicals who later gained prominence in socialist circles. Adhering to the IWW vision, William Z. Foster nevertheless insisted on "boring from within" the established AFL unions to win them to socialism. Many young radicals, like James P. Cannon, alternated between functioning as a Wobbly and as a member of the Socialist Party. In the flush of success after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Foster, Cannon, John Reed, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and a number of others associated with the revolutionary goals of the IWW founded the Communist Party, USA, although the party expelled Cannon for criticisms of the Soviet regime rooted in his IWW preoccupations with the democratic standards essential to a future working-class self-government.

Small but militant, the IWW determined to organize some of the most disadvantaged of the unorganized, particularly the unemployed or the marginally and often-migratory employed workers. Farm laborers and other migrant workers regularly traveled by freight train and gathered in the large markets near the rail yards. IWW organizers sought to carry their message of unionism to these workers in the yards and in the railroad cars themselves.

At the time, municipal governments struggled to regulate public life, imposing requirements for special permits to hold meetings and establishing armed police departments to enforce such ordinances. Accusing authorities of placing an admission price on the use of the Bill of Rights, IWW speakers had no alternative but to defy these restrictions, and they faced arrest when they did so. The otherwise powerful IWW base found its real strength in numbers here. As the authorities seized one after another IWW speaker, they found hundreds of un-employed people filling their jails to capacity. The IWW pursued this approach deliberately, waging impressive "free speech fights" at Missoula, Montana (1909); Spokane, Washington (1909–1910); Fresno, California (1910–1911); Aberdeen, South Dakota (1911–1912); San Diego, California (1912); and Kansas City, Missouri (1914).

Wobblies brought the same kind of militancy into its strikes. Perhaps the most successful strike waged by the IWW came in the textile industry in Lawrence, Massachusetts, from 12 January to 14 March 1912. The estimated twenty-three thousand strikers not only represented, with their dependents, about three-fifths of the city's population, they also represented over two dozen nationalities and nearly four dozen languages. Their success despite the odds brought the IWW to national attention.

The IWW doubtlessly began the process that enabled the Congress of Industrial Organizations to successfully establish industrial unions in the 1930s. The IWW organized drives and strikes in steel at McKees Rocks, New Castle, and Butler in Pennsylvania (1909); in silk textiles at Paterson, New Jersey (1913); in rubber at Akron, Ohio (1913); and in automobiles at Detroit, Michigan (1913). Significantly, in 1911–1912, southern veterans of the IWW efforts in the Northwest returned to the Louisiana-Texas border, sparking a series of labor struggles characterized by a distinctive interracial solidarity.

After 1912–1913, IWW activity tended to refocus on the West. The union inspired the "riot" of farm labor at Wheatland, California, in 1913, and miners elbowed the IWW into prominence within the intensely unionist town of Butte, Montana, in 1914 and on the Mesabi Range north of Duluth, Minnesota, in 1916. Activities among the lumberjacks of the Northwest created a large following in western Canada and Washington. These endeavors saw local surges of interest in the IWW that receded after the struggle's close. Membership officially reached around thirty thousand in 1912, but fell to nearly half that in each of the next three years. Wildly fluctuating membership and a base largely among the most transitory workers inspired speculation that as many as 60,000 to 100,000 workers passed through the organization.

Violent repression characterized the history of the IWW. In company towns or work camps, employers ruled under their own law and ruthlessly met any move toward unionization, particularly by an organization that denied their claim to profit. Some city governments sometimes grudgingly conceded unionism a platform due to the moral suasion of the free speech fights. San Diego and other municipalities frankly sought to defeat the free speech fights by sanctioning beatings and torture of jailed unionists who would exercise free speech. Authorities at Salt Lake City arrested and convicted the Swedish-born IWW songwriter Joe Hill of a murder based on so little substantive evidence that it disappeared after his trial. Despite an international defense campaign, Hill was executed in 1915. In Washington State, when Seattle supporters took the public passenger boat Verona to Everett in 1917 for a rally in support of local strikers, armed deputies opened fire on the boat, resulting in over sixty casualties, including a dozen fatalities. Subsequently, Seattle authorities arrested and tried seventy-four of the passengers. So many Wobblies were behind bars together at different points that their hunger strikes and other means won concessions in often unheated and overcrowded jails. Vigilantes assailed not only strikers but their families. In Bisbee, Arizona, twelve hundred men, women, and children were illegally detained, loaded onto cattle cars, and dumped in the desert on 12 July 1917.

Governments at every level turned a blind eye toward extralegal assaults on the IWW, though in the proper progressive fashion, they soon assumed that function themselves. Beginning in 1917, states passed unconstitutional "criminal syndicalist" legislation that made it a crime to advocate self-government through a labor organization. By then the federal authorities had determined to preclude any discussion of the merits of its decision to bring the United States into World War I. On the day after President Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war but before that declaration had been passed, on 3 April 1917, local police escorted "off duty" military to close the IWW headquarters in Kansas City. The action inspired similar attacks in Detroit, Duluth, and other IWW centers. A "mob" in Butte lynched the part-Indian organizer Frank Little from a railroad trestle on 31 July 1917. As in other industrial nations, officials in the United States, frustrated by the constitutional, legal, and cultural checks on their authority, found extralegal means to remove from public discourse those who had broken no law but who disagreed with government policy.

Modern war among similar industrial nations required government involvement in the economy, including the labor movement. The IWW's refusal to participate in contractual wage agreements in this context made it appear treasonable. Aided by what became the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the government arrested, imprisoned, and eventually tried a considerable number of the IWW's leadership. Those behind bars in Chicago; Sacramento, California; Wichita, Kansas; and Omaha, Nebraska, totaled nearly three hundred. Alongside the mechanisms of government, state-sponsored vigilantism continued, as when the American Legion assaulted the IWW hall in Centralia, Washington, on 11 November 1919, murdering Wesley Everest, a distinguished war veteran as well as an IWW member.

The IWW survived the repression, though clearly it did not and could not have done so as the sort of organization that had existed before. The radical unionism of the IWW reemerged briefly in the massive postwar strike wave in 1919, but other organizations had displaced the IWW. Out of jail on bail, Haywood fled to Russia. In some localized industries, notably the docks of Philadelphia, the IWW survived through the 1920s and 1930s by negotiating contracts and functioning as a trade union. As a small group urging more militant unionism and the necessity of "one big union," the IWW survived. The Wobblies' faith in social transformation through class solidarity and their demonstrations of that power provided a legacy that outlasted the later illusions in Soviet Russia.


Bird, Stewart, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer, comps. Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW. Chicago: Lake View Press, 1985.

Conlin, Joseph Robert. Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1974.

———, ed. At the Point of Production: The Local History of the IWW. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981.

Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Foner, Philip S. ed. Fellow Workers and Friends: IWW Free Speech Fights as Told by Participants. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981.

Hall, Greg. Harvest Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World and Agricultural Laborers in the American West, 1905–1930. Corvalis: Oregon State University Press, 2001.

Werstein, Irving. Pie in the Sky: An American Struggle: The Wobblies and Their Times. New York: Delacorte, 1969.

Mark A.Lause

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; American Railway Union ; Knights of Labor ; Labor ; Lawrence Strike ; Socialist Labor Party ; Steel Strikes ; Strikes ; Trade Unions ; Western Federation of Miners .

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

views updated May 17 2018


Founded in 1905 by the leaders of 43 labor organizations, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was a radical labor union. The IWW pursued short-term goals via strikes and acts of sabotage and a long-term agenda to overthrow capitalism and rebuild society based on socialist principles. One IWW organizer proclaimed that the "final aim is revolution." Though small in numbers because of their extremist views and tactics (its membership probably never exceeded 100,000), the IWW members, called "Wobblies," attracted national attention. Railroad labor organizer and socialist Eugene Debs (18551926) endorsed the organization's anti-capitalist agenda and became one of its leaders.

Unlike the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the IWW organized skilled and unskilled workers by industry rather than by craft. Founded and led by miner and Socialist William "Big Bill" Haywood (18691928) and mineworkers agitator Mary "Mother" Jones (18301930), the IWW aimed to unite all workers in a camp, mine, or factory for eventual takeover of their employer's industrial facility. The union organized strikes in lumber and mining camps in the West, in the steel mills of Pennsylvania (1907), and in the textile mills of New England (1912). The leadership advocated the use of violence to achieve its revolutionary goals and opposed mediation (negotiations moderated by a neutral third party), collective bargaining (when worker representatives bargain with an employer), and arbitration (when a third party resolves a dispute). The group declined during World War I (191418), when the IWW led strikes that were suppressed by the federal government. The organization's leaders were all arrested and the organization dissolved. Haywood was convicted of sedition (inciting resistance to lawful authority), but managed to escape the country. He died in the Soviet Union.

See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL), Knights of Labor, Textiles

Industrial Workers of the World

views updated May 14 2018


The Industrial Workers of the World—also known as the IWW, or the Wobblies—is a radical labor union that had its beginnings in Chicago in 1905.

An outgrowth of the Western Federation of Mines, the IWW was created by william d. haywood, eugene v. debs, and Daniel DeLeon. Its membership was open to all work-ers, skilled or unskilled, with no restrictions as to race, occupation, ethnic background, or sex. The Wobblies opposed the principles of capitalism and advocated socialism.They followed the tenets of syndicalism, a labor movement that evolved in Europe before world war i.The syndicalists sought to control industry through labor organizations. In their view the state represented oppression, which had to be replaced by the union as the essential element of society. To achieve their goals, the syndicalists advocated practices such as strikes and slowdowns.

The Wobblies adopted many of the ideologies of syndicalism and employed direct-action methods, such as propaganda, strikes, and boycotts. They rejected more peaceful means of achieving labor's goals, such as arbitration and collective bargaining.

From 1906 to 1928, the IWW was responsible for 150 strikes, including a miners' strike in Goldfield, Nevada, from 1906 to 1907; a textile workers' strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912; a 1913 silk workers' strike in Paterson, New Jersey; and a miners' strike in Colorado from 1927 to 1928.

During World War I, the IWW began to lose much of its strength. Its members were against the military, and many were convicted of draft evasion, seditious activities, and espionage.In addition, many members left the organization to join the Communist party. By 1930, the IWW was no longer regarded as an influential labor force. Nevertheless, it still exists today.

Despite its radicalism, the IWW was responsible for several gains for organized labor. It brought together skilled and unskilled workers into one union; it achieved better working conditions and a shorter work week in many areas of labor, particularly in the lumber field; and it set a structural example that would be followed by future labor unions.

Industrial Workers of the World

views updated May 18 2018

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) US trade union; also known as the “Wobblies”. The IWW was formed in Chicago by Daniel DeLeon, Eugene Debs, and William D. Haywood in 1905. It was designed to combine both skilled and unskilled labour in one organization. The group, which advocated a socialist society and employed militant tactics, supported strikes by textile workers (1912) and silk weavers (1919) in e US. The IWW split up after World War I.

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