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Wobblies

WOBBLIES

WOBBLIES. SeeIndustrial Workers of the World .

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Wobblies

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Wobblies

Wobblies

A radical labor union committed to empowering all workers, especially the nonskilled laborers excluded from the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the so-called Wobblies, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), played a pivotal role in America's labor history. Believing that the nation's most exploited and poorest workers deserved a voice, the Wobblies called for "One Big Union" that would challenge the capitalist system first in the United States and later worldwide.

In 1905 a group of two hundred radical labor activists met in Chicago and formed the IWW. The group was overwhelmingly leftist and called for the ultimate overthrow of capitalism worldwide. Immediately feared by most and despised by AFL leader Samuel Gompers, the Wobblies challenged the status quo and fought for the rights of America's working poor. The Wobblies planned to do what no union had tried before: unite blacks, immigrants, and assembly-line workers into one powerful force.

IWW leaders included some of the most famous names in American labor history, such as Big Bill Haywood, head of the Western Federation of Miners; Mary "Mother" Jones; and Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party. Initially, the ranks of the IWW were filled with western miners under Haywood's control. These individuals became increasingly militant as they were marginalized by the AFL. Traveling hobo-like by train, IWW organizers fanned out across the nation. Wobbly songwriters like Joe Hill immortalized the union through humorous folk songs. The simple call for an inclusive union representing all workers took hold. At its peak, 1912-1917, IWW membership approached 150,000, although only 5,000 to 10,000 were full-time members.

Long before the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia, the courageous and militant Wobblies were calling for a socialist revolution and began organizing strikes around the nation as a prelude to a general worldwide strike among the working class. The strikes often turned bloody, but the Wobblies continued to fight. They were attacked by the newspapers, the courts, the police, and goon squads formed to protect the interests of corporations. The IWW led important strikes at Lawrence, Massachusetts (1912); Paterson, New Jersey (1913); and Akron, Ohio (1913). As the Wobblies battled for free speech and higher wages across the nation, a legendary folklore developed regarding the union because of the violence and mayhem that seemed to follow them everywhere. The Wobblies became the scourge of middle-class America, especially in the highly charged atmosphere of World War I and the postwar Red Scare. The IWW, according to labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky in We Shall Be All, became "romanticized and mythologized." The reality was that the Wobblies mixed Marxism and Darwinism with American ideals to produce a unique brand of radicalism.

As the Wobbly "menace" became more influential, American leaders took action to limit the union's power. World War I provided the diversion the government needed to crush the IWW once and for all. Anti-labor forces labeled the IWW subversive allies of both Germany and Bolshevik Russia; one senator called the group "Imperial Wilhelm's Warriors." President Woodrow Wilson and his attorney general believed the Wobblies should be suppressed. On September 5, 1917, justice department agents raided every IWW headquarters in the country, seizing five tons of written material. By the end of September nearly two hundred Wobbly leaders had been arrested on sedition and espionage charges. In April 1918, 101 IWW activists went on trial, which lasted five months and was the nation's longest criminal trial to date. All the defendants were found guilty, and fifteen were sentenced to twenty years in prison, including Haywood, who jumped bail and fled to the Soviet Union where he died a decade later.

The lasting importance of the IWW was bringing unskilled workers into labor's mainstream. After the demise of the Wobblies, the AFL gradually became more inclusive and political. The Congress of Industrial Organizations, founded in 1935 by another mining leader, John L. Lewis, successfully organized unskilled workers. In 1955 the AFL and CIO merged to form the AFL-CIO, America's leading trade union throughout the second half of the century.

The heyday of the IWW lasted less than twenty years, but in that short span it took hold of the nation's conscience. Nearly forgotten today, the Wobbly spirit still can be found in novels by John Dos Passos and Wallace Stegner, as well as numerous plays and movies. By the 1950s and 1960s, IWW songs, collected in the famous Little Red Song Book, were rediscovered by a new generation of activists fighting for civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War.

—Bob Batchelor

Further Reading:

Carlson, Peter. Roughneck: The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood. New York, W. W. Norton, 1983.

Conlin, Joseph R., editor. At the Point of Production: The Local History of the IWW. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1981.

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

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. New York, Oxford University Press, 1987.

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