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Industrial Workers of the World
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Industrial Workers of the World

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies) is an international union movement headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, having much in common with anarcho-syndicalist unions, but also many differences. It believes that all workers should be united within a single union as a class and the profit system abolished. It has few members and is concentrated in the US, but historically it has had a more significant role.

Table of contents
1 Founding
2 Political action or direct action?
3 Organizing
4 Government suppression
5 Activity after World War II
6 Folk music and protest songs
7 Notable members
8 Related articles
9 External links
10 Further reading


Founded in Chicago in June 1905 at a convention of two hundred socialistss, anarchistss, and radical trade unionists from all over the United States (mainly the Western Federation of Miners) opposed to the policies of the American Federation of Labour. Its first leaders included Big Bill Haywood, Daniel De Leon, Eugene V. Debs, Thomas J Haggerty, Lucy Parsons, Mary Harris Jones commonly known as "Mother Jones", William Trautmann, Vincent Saint John, Ralph Chaplin, and many others. The IWW was differentiated by its promotion of industrial unionism (often confused with syndicalism), the acceptance of all skilled and unskilled workers and of immigrant workers (many of its early members were first and second generation immigrants, some rising to prominence in the leadership like Carlo Tresca, Joe Hill and Mary Jones.)

Its goal was to promote worker solidarity against the employing classes. From the Preamble to the IWW Constitution:

"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. ... Instead of the conservative motto, 'A fair day's wage for a fair day's work', we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system'."

The Wobblies differed from other union movements of the time by emphasizing rank-and-file organization as opposed to empowering leaders who would bargain with employers on behalf of workers. They were one of the few unions to welcome all workers including women, foreigners and black workers. Wobblies were condemned by politicians and in the Press who saw them as a threat to the status quo. Factory owners would employ both non-violent (sending in Salvation Army bands to drown out speakers) and violent means to disrupt Wobbly meetings. Wobblies were often arrested and sometimes killed for making public speeches, and this persecution only inspired a further militancy among its members. Wobbly organizing was considered to be one of the largest examples of anarcho-syndicalism in action in the United States.

Political action or direct action?

Like many leftist organizations of the era, the IWW soon split over policy. In 1908 a moderate group led by Daniel DeLeon argued that political action through socialist groups and the trade union movement was the best way to attain the IWW's goals. The more radical faction, led by Vincent Saint John, William Trautmann, and Big Bill Haywood, believed that direct action in the form of strikes, propaganda and boycotts was the correct path; they were opposed to arbitration and to political affiliation. Haywood's faction prevailed and De Leon and their supporters were expelled or left the organisation.


The IWW first attracted attention in Goldfield, Nevada in 1906 and the strike of the Pressed Steel Car Company at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania in 1909. The Wobblies gained further fame later in 1909 they took their stand on free speech. When a member was arrested for speaking, the Wobbly tactic was for large numbers of people to descend on the location and force the authorities to arrest all of them until it became too expensive for the town. Over 500 people went to jail and four people died during such a maneuver in Spokane, Washington.

By 1912 the organization had around 50,000 members, concentrated in the Northwest, among dock workers, agricultural workers in the central states, and in textile and mining areas. The IWW was involved in over 150 strikes, including those in the Lawrence textile strike (1912), the Patterson strike (1913) and the Mesabi range (1916).

The Lawrence textile strike involved over 20,000 employees. Their demands involved wage increases and work condition improvements. The unskilled workers, mostly new immigrants received no help from the craft unions. Wobblies Joseph J. Ettor and Big Bill Haywood answered the call. In the end, victory lay with the workers.

Between 1915-17, The IWW's Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO) organized hundreds of thousands of migratory farm workers throughout the midwest and western United States, often signing up and organizing members in the field, and in railyards and hobo jungles. It was then that the IWW's reputation for being synonmous with the hobo became legendary (because migratory farmworkers could scarcely afford any other means of transportation to get from one jobsite to another). The IWW workers often won better working conditions by using direct action at the point of production and striking "on the job" (by consciously and collectively withdrawing efficiency in their work, forcing employers to meet their demands). As a result of the IWW's organizing, conditions for migratory farm workers improved enormously.

Building on the success of the AWO, the IWW's Lumber Workers Industrial Union (LWIU) used similar tactics to organize timber workers in the Deep South and the Pacific Northwest of the Unites States and Canada between 1917 - 1924. The IWW lumber strike of 1917 led to the eight-hour day and vastly improved working conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Even though mid-century historians would give credit to the US Government and "forward thinking lumber magnates" for agreeing to these reforms, an IWW strike forced these concessions.

In the late 1910s through the mid 1930s, the IWW's Marine Transport Workers union, led by Ben Fletcher, organized predominantly African-American longshoremen on the Philadelphia and Baltimore waterfronts, even gaining industry control in Philadelphia for over a decade before the Great Depression. The IWW also had a presence among waterfront workers in Boston, New York City, New Orleans, Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Eureka, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and Vancouver. IWW members played an important part in the 1934 San Francisco General Strike and the other organizing efforts by rank-and-filers within the International Longshoremen's Association up and down the West Coast.

IWW members also played a role in the sit-down strikes and other organizing efforts by the United Auto Workers in the 1930s, particularly in Detroit, even though they never established a strong union presence there.

Where the IWW did win strikes, such as Lawrence, they often found it hard to hold onto their gains. The IWW of 1912 disdained collective bargaining agreements and preached instead the need for constant struggle against the boss on the shop floor. It proved difficult, however, to maintain that sort of revolutionary elan against employers; as an example, the IWW lost nearly all of its membership in Lawrence in the years after the strike as the employers wore down their employees' resistance and eliminated many of the strongest union supporters.

Government suppression

The prominence of the IWW brought about concentrated action by the government. In 1914, Joe Hill (Haaglund) was accused of murder and, despite only circumstantial evidence, was executed by the state of Utah in 1915. Frank Little, another senior IWW member was lynched in Butte, Montana.

Many IWW members opposed the United States participation in WW I, but the organization took no official position on the conflict. Nevertheless, the employing class and the US Government were able to stir up jingoist hysteria against the IWW, because of the IWW's refusal to unquestioningly support World War I. This led to vigilante mobs attacking the IWW in Everett, Washington in 1916 and again in Centralia, Washington in 1919, where a third IWW organizer, World War I veteran, Wesley Everest, was killed by a lynch mob.

The government used World War I as an opportunity to undermine the IWW. The IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, wrote just before the declaration of war: "Capitalists of America, we will fight against you, not for you! There is not a power in the world that can make the working class fight if they refuse." In September 1917, U.S. Department of Justice agents made simultaneous raids on forty-eight IWW meeting halls across the country. In 1917, one hundred and sixty-five IWW leaders were arrested for conspiring to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes, under the new Espionage Act; one hundred and one went on trial before Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1918.

All of them were convicted. Released on bail, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union where he remained until his death.

After the war the repression continued. Leaders of the IWW were harassed and prosecuted, and the Palmer Raids singled out the foreign-born members of the organization. By the mid-1920s membership was already decling due to government repression, and it decreased again substantially during a contentious organizational schism in 1924. The organization split between the "Westerners" and the "Easterners" over the issue of political action versus economic action (often oversimplified as a struggle between "centralists" and "decentralists"). By 1930 membership was down to around 10,000.

Activity after World War II

The Wobblies continued to organize and represent workers, especially in metal shops in Cleveland, until the 1950s. After the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959 by the US Government (which essentially legalized purges of leftist union leadership), the IWW experienced a loss of membership as differences of opinion occurred over how to respond to the challenge. The Cleveland IWW metal and machine workers wound up leaving the union, resulting in a major decline in membership once again.

The IWW membership fell to its lowest level in the 1960s, but the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests, and various university student movements brought new life to the IWW, albeit with many fewer new members than the great organizing drives of the early part of the 20th Century.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the IWW had various small organizing drives.

In the 1990s, the IWW was involved in many labor struggles and free speech fights, including Redwood Summer, and the picket of the Neptune Jade in the port of Oakland in late 1997. IWW members built their own Internet server from spare parts and ran it out of a member's bedroom for two years before moving it to its current home in a San Francisco office. The IWW now has an entire network of Internet servers located around the world, maintains its own internet domain (iww.org), and uses its online presence to organize new members as well as educate people about the IWW's colorful past.

IWW organizing drives in the 1990s included a major campaign against Borders Books in 1996, a strike at the Lincoln Park Mini Mall in Seattle that same year, organizing drives at Wherehouse Music, Keystone Job Corps, the community organization ACORN, various homeless and youth centers in Portland, Oregon, and recycling shops in Berkeley, California. IWW members have been active in the building trades, marine transport, ship yards, high tech industry, hotels and restaurants, public interest organizations, schools and universities, recycling centers, railroads, bike messengers, and lumber yards.

The IWW has stepped in several times to help workers fight against mainstream unions, including saw mill workers in Fort Bragg in California in 1989, concession stand workers in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1990s, and most recently at shipyards along the Mississippi River.

Current membership is believed to be about 1,000, with most members in the United States, but many also located in Australia, Canada, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, Sierra Leone, and Sweden.

Folk music and protest songs

One feature of the Wobblies from their inception is song. To counteract management sending in the Salvation Army band to drown out Wobbly speakers, Joe Hill wrote alternate lyrics to Christian hymns so that union members could sing along with the Salvation Army band, but with their own purposes (e.g. "In the Sweet By and By" became "There'll Be Pie in the Sky When You Die (That's a Lie)"). From that start in exigency, Wobbly song writing became legendary. The IWW collected its officials songs in the Little Red Songbook and continues to update this book to the present time. In the 1960's, the folk music revival in the United States brought a renewed interest in the songs of Joe Hill and other Wobblies, and seminal folk revival figures such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie had set a pro-Wobbly tone. The IWW's Little Red Songbook is still in print and a major document in American folk music. Among the protest songs in the book are "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum", "Union Maid", and "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night." The songs have been performed by dozens of artists, and Utah Phillips has performed the songs in concert and on recordings for decades.

Notable members

Notable members of the Industrial Workers of the World have included Helen Keller, whose life was recounted in several films, Joe Hill, Big Bill Haywood, and Frank Little.

Related articles

External links

Further reading

See also:
labor history, art and culture