Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

Who Are the Wobblies?

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)." ThoughtCo, Sep. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/iww-history-4150163. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, September 5). Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/iww-history-4150163 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/iww-history-4150163 (accessed October 22, 2017).
Cartoon depicting I.W.W. goals as a labor union
Cartoon depicting I.W.W. goals as a labor union. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is an industrial labor union, founded in 1905 as a more radical alternative to craft unions. An industrial union organizes by industry, rather than by craft. The IWW is also intended to be a radical and socialist union, with an anti-capitalist agenda, not just reformist agenda within an overall capitalist system.

The current constitution of the IWW makes clear its class struggle orientation:

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 the 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 means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

….

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

Informally called the “Wobblies,” the IWW originally brought together 43 labor organizations into “one big union.” The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was one of the larger groups that inspired the founding.

The organization also brought together Marxists, democratic socialists, anarchists, and others. The union was also committed to organizing workers regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or immigrant status.

Founding Convention

The Industrial Workers of the World was founded at a convention in Chicago called on June 27, 1905, which “Big Bill” Haywood called “the Continental Congress of the working-class.” The convention set the direction of the IWW as a confederation of workers for “the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism.”

Second Convention

The following year, 1906, with Debs and Haywood absent, Daniel DeLeon led his followers within the organization to remove the president and abolish that office, and to diminish the influence of the Western Federation of Miners, which DeLeon and his Socialist Labor Party fellows considered too conservative.

Western Federation of Miners Trial

At the end of 1905, after confronting the Western Federation of Miners on strike at Coeur d’Alene, someone assassinated the governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg.  In the first months of 1906, the Idaho authorities kidnapped Haywood, another union official Charles Moyer, and sympathizer George A. Pettibone, taking them across state lines to stand trial in Idaho.  Clarence Darrow took up the defense of the accused, winning the case at the trial from May 9 to July 27, which was widely publicized.  Darrow won acquittal for the three men, and the union profited from the publicity.

1908 Split

In 1908, a split in the party formed when Daniel DeLeon and his followers argued that the IWW should pursue political goals through the Social Labor Party (SLP). The faction which prevailed, often identified with “Big Bill” Haywood, supported strikes, boycotts, and general propaganda, and opposed political organization.

The SLP faction left the IWW, forming the Workers’ International Industrial Union, which lasted until 1924.

Strikes

The first IWW strike of note was the Pressed Steel Car Strike, 1909, in Pennsylvania.

The Lawrence textile strike of 1912 began among the workers at the Lawrence mills and then attracted IWW organizers to help out. The strikers numbered about 60% of the city’s population and were successful in their strike.

In the east and Midwest, the IWW organized many strikes. Then they organized miners and lumberjacks in the west. 

People

Key early organizers of the IWW included Eugene Debs, “Big Bill” Haywood, “Mother” Jones, Daniel DeLeon, Lucy Parsons, Ralph Chaplin, William Trautmann, and others. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn gave speeches for the IWW until she was expelled from high school, then she became a full-time organizer.

Joe Hill (remembered in the “Ballad of Joe Hill”) was another early member who contributed his skill in writing song lyrics including parodies.  Helen Keller joined in 1918, to considerable criticism.

Many workers joined the IWW when it was organizing a particular strike, and dropped membership when the strike was over.  In 1908, the union, despite its larger-than-life image, had only 3700 members. By 1912, the membership was 30,000, but was only half that the next three years.  Some have estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 workers may have belonged to the IWW at various times.

Tactics

The IWW used a variety of radical and conventional union tactics.

The IWW supported collective bargaining, with the union and the owners negotiating over wages and working conditions. The IWW opposed the use of arbitration – settlement with negotiations run by a third party.  They organized in mills and factories, railroad yards and railroad cars.

Factory owners used propaganda, strike-breaking, and police actions to break up IWW efforts. One tactic was using Salvation Army bands to drown out IWW speakers. (No wonder some IWW songs make fun of the Salvation Army, especially Pie in the Sky or Preacher and Slave.) When the IWW struck in company towns or work camps, employers responded with violent and brutal repression. Frank Little, partly of Native American heritage, was lynched in Butte, Montana, in 1917. The American Legion attacked an IWW hall in 1919, and murdered Wesley Everest.

Trials of IWW organizers on trumped-up charges was another tactic. From the Haywood trial, to the trial of immigrant Joe Hill (the evidence was slim and then disappeared) for which he was convicted and the executed in 1915, to a Seattle rally where deputies fired on a boat and a dozen people died, to the 1200 Arizona strikers and family members detained, put in railroad cars, and dumped in the desert in 1917.

In 1909, when Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested in Spokane, Washington, under a new law against street speeches, the IWW developed a response: whenever any member was arrested for speaking, many others would also begin speaking in the same place, daring the police to arrest them, and overwhelming the local jails.

  The defense of free speech brought attention to the movement, and in some places, also brought out vigilantes using force and violence to oppose street meetings.  Free speech fights continued from 1909 through 1914 in a number of cities.

The IWW advocated for general strikes to oppose capitalism in general as an economic system.

Songs

To build solidarity, the members of IWW often used music. Dump the Bosses Off Your Back, Pie in the Sky (Preacher and Slave), One Big Industrial Union, Popular Wobbly, Rebel Girl were among those included in the IWW’s “Little Red Songbook.”

The IWW Today

The IWW still exists.  But its power diminished during World War I, as sedition laws were used to put many of its leaders in prison, totaling almost 300 people. Local police and off duty military personnel forcibly closed IWW offices.

Then some key IWW leaders, immediately after the Russian Revolution of 1917, left the IWW to found the Communist Party, USA.  Haywood, charged with sedition and out on bail, fled to the Soviet Union.

After the war, a few strikes were won through the 1920s and 1930s, but the IWW had faded to a very small group with little national power.