The Industrial Workers is organized not to conciliate but to fight the capitalist class. The capitalists own the tools they do not use, and the workers use the tools they do not own.
-- Eugene Debs
At the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of an organization that could represent all workers -- and end major corporations' corruption and exploitation of labor -- came to life.
An Imposing Leader
The man who would become that organization's leader and symbol, William Haywood, was a former hard-rock miner, over six feet tall, more than two-hundred pounds, with a glowering glass eye. Haywood delivered the keynote speech at a 1905 meeting of more than 200 socialists and trade unionists that launched the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), nicknamed the Wobblies. Delegates to the founding convention also included Eugene Debs (the leader of the American Socialist Party), Mother Jones (the legendary fighter for miners' and children's rights), Daniel De Leon (the leader of the Socialist Labor Party), Lucy Parsons (widow of Albert Parsons, one of the Haymarket martyrs), and many other stars in the galaxy of labor politics and activism.
A Union for the Unskilled
The I.W.W. was "a union based on the principles of Marxist conflict and the indigenous American philosophy of industrial unionism," according to historian Joyce Kornbluh. The Wobblies solicited new members among the most discriminated-against groups of the workforce: unskilled workers, non-whites, immigrants, women, and migrant workers. These working people were barred from the skilled workers' unions that formed the American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.), which tended to support white, male, skilled workers. The I.W.W. hoped to to create "one big union" through which workers would own the means of production and distribution.
Uniting People With Differences
The I.W.W. succeeded in organizing a group of workers who on the surface seemed to have very little in common. "Not least among its accomplishments was the erosion of sexual, racial, and ethnic divisions within the working class," wrote Kornbluh. "The I.W.W. local that controlled the Philadelphia docks, the I.W.W. cigar-makers' locals in Pittsburgh, and the I.W.W. lumber-workers' union in the South were racially integrated." This unification across working class and geographic sectors was remarkable, as these "unorganizables" --women, children, immigrants, transients, and others --somehow formed a cohesive political unit with shared goals. Unlike the A.F.L., which organized workers according to their specialized skills, the I.W.W. organized workers by industry.
From the outset, the I.W.W. membership was divided into two camps: socialism and anarchism. The socialists, like Eugene Debs, urged the I.W.W. to get involved in elections and politics, supporting change by working within the system. The anarchists, however, viewed political participation as acquiescence to capitalism, and urged the I.W.W. to advance its cause via "direct action" -- workers' strikes, demonstrations and sabotage. Though internal feuds raged over political action and administrative structure, the I.W.W. managed to adopt a constitution in 1908. In the dramatic language characteristic of its membership, the document read:
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. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system... These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry... cease to work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
For the Wobblies, labor strikes were an important tool. Among the most significant strikes in which the I.W.W. actively participated were the Goldfield, Nevada, Miners' Strike (1906-07), in which workers won an eight-hour work day, the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers' strike (1912), the lumber workers' strikes in Louisiana and Arkansas (1912-13), the Paterson, New Jersey, silk workers' strike (1913), and the Mesabi Range ironworkers' strike (1916).
Songs of Revolt
I.W.W. strikers almost always sang stirring songs of revolt, often in foreign languages. The I.W.W.'s Little Red Songbook made a major contribution to the social life of workers throughout America. Among the musicians and composers who wrote and performed radical music were the legendary Joe Hill, Ralph Chapin, Richard Brazier, Covington Hall, Laura Payne Emerson, and T-Bone Slim. Chapin's "Solidarity Forever" became a kind of national anthem for American labor.
In 1914 the organization began to publish multiple-language editions of leaflets, newspapers and stickers that advocated sabotage. The term had been used to describe a range of tactics: striking, slowing down work, or even property destruction. Historians still debate what the I.W.W. meant by "sabotage." Some believe that the I.W.W. advocated violence and assassination in their push for "direct action," while others believe the I.W.W.'s concept of sabotage was more innocent. In a famed sticker designed by Ralph Chapin, the image of a wooden shoe (sabot in Dutch, the root word for "sabotage") and an I.W.W. sun appear over a quote from William Haywood: "Sabotage means to push back, pull out or break off the fangs of Capitalism." Predictably, the I.W.W.'s sabotage resulted in supression. By 1917 some twenty states had adopted laws which criminalized acts of sabotage or violence with a political end.
In 1916 the I.W.W. formulated its official opposition to World War I, promoting the use of general strikes during wartime. In the next few years this position would be used against the I.W.W. The federal government imprisoned Wobblies, for example, under the Espionage Act of June 1917. Once America entered the war, however, the General Executive Board of the I.W.W. never took an official position on conscription. Indeed, Haywood and others argued it was unrealistic and dangerous to actively oppose the draft, suggesting conscription should be a matter of individual conscience and choice.
Raids and Arrests
Nationally, the I.W.W. began to face vicious repression from a variety of groups, including local vigilantes, the police, and the National Guard. By July 1917, federal troops began to be used to suppress industrial conflicts, to raid I.W.W. halls, to break up meetings, and to arrest Wobblies. I.W.W. organizers were jailed, beaten, and in the cases of Frank Little and Wesley Everest, brutally murdered.
Seen As Traitors
By the end of 1917, hundreds of I.W.W. members had been arrested throughout the country. In the next two years Wobblies and members of the Union of Russian Workers and other labor organizations would be "arrested at their workbenches, held incommunicado, and denied counsel or a chance to contact families and collect belongings," according to historian Alice Wexler. At a time of fear, repression, and anti-radical hysteria, membership in the I.W.W. was seen as traitorous, and became sufficient evidence for deportation.
By 1919, I.W.W. membership had plummeted from 100,000 to 30,000. Internal discord over relations with the growing American Communist movement divided the membership. That same year, at a mass trial in Chicago, 101 I.W.W. leaders were sentenced to federal prison terms for conspiring to obstruct the war effort. As a result of the convictions and desertions, the I.W.W. was both physically and psychologically destroyed.
Small But True
In later decades, the I.W.W. continued to press the rights of workers, free speech and civil rights. Today, the I.W.W. retains a vigorous press and is a magnet for writers, playwrights, oral historians and filmmakers fascinated by the legacy of this vibrant, militant, fist-shaking union.