Industrial Workers of the World

Industrial Workers of the World
Industrial Workers of the World
In the history of U.S. labor, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) has no equal in its revolutionary spirit, its vibrant proletarian and egalitarian culture, and its commitment to fighting the class struggle. Between its founding by working-class militants in 1905 and its mass persecution after World War I, the IWW engaged in hundreds of spectacular strikes from the timberlands of the Pacific Northwest to the textile mills of New England.

For over a decade, the IWW was the most feared labor union in the country, making it the target of an extraordinary level of repression from Pinkertons, vigilantes, police, and militias, or what the Wobblies simply called the “Iron Heel.” “There can be no peace,” states the IWW’s founding document, “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” (Kornbluh).

Attacked by employers, demonized by political leaders, and depicted in the capitalist press as bomb-throwing and un-American aliens, the IWW may have been the most conspired against and conspiratorially minded U.S. social movement of the early twentieth century.

There are many reasons why the U.S. ruling classes saw the IWW as such a threat. Broadly syndicalist and socialist in ideology, the IWW was dedicated to building “One Big Union” of all working people who would use the revolutionary “General Strike” to overthrow capitalism and abolish the wage system. The IWW built its membership out of workers that most unions believed were unorganizable, including itinerant workers, tramps and hoboes, lumberjacks, miners, harvest workers, and factory women.

Unique among U.S. unions at the time, the IWW proudly organized men, women, and even children of every race, nation, and language without prejudice. The IWW imagined itself as the “fighting organization of the working class,” and resolutely refused to build permanent union structures that could become coopted or bureaucratic and thereby lose its revolutionary spirit.

Instead, the Wobblies offered their organizational talents during strikes and taught workers how to organize, make demands, and win concessions for themselves. The Wobblies wrote songs and poems of agitation, including the labor classic “Solidarity Forever.” Their many newspapers were filled with political cartoons and published in dozens of languages.

IWW printing houses were famous for producing inflammatory pamphlets on sabotage and revolutionary strategy, as well as thousands of stickers and buttons known as “silent agitators” emblazoned with slogans like “Joint the IWW and Fire Your Boss,” “Labor Is Entitled to All it Creates,” “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All,” and “Bum Work for Bum Pay.”

The Wobblies also produced some of the most charismatic and committed leaders in the history of the U.S. Left, including the giant, one-eyed William “Big Bill” Haywood, the “Rebel Girl” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, Eugene V. Debs, and Ralph Chaplin.

In short, the IWW inculcated the fiercest radicalism in sectors of the industrial working class that were once the most exploited and degraded in the country, thereby posing a direct threat to the profits of some of the country’s richest and most corrupt corporations.

Choosing to make its stand exclusively on the economic front, the IWW generally saw elections as futile and political institutions as coconspirators with capitalism. Wobbly leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn argued that the state was simply “the slugging committee of the ruling class” and not a real democracy (Dubofsky).

“No Socialist can be a law abiding citizen,” proclaimed “Big Bill” Haywood, commenting on the capitalist nature of the United States; “when we come together and are of a common mind, and the purpose of our minds is to overthrow the capitalist system, we become conspirators then against the United States government” (Preston).

Though Haywood was being critical of the biases of state power with this statement, most political and industrial elites did see the IWW as a subversive “conspiracy” that was out to undermine property, decency, and law and order.

Where the government, business, and press used violence to eradicate the Wobbly “conspiracy,” the IWW defended itself with accusations of a “frameup,” sparking an ongoing rhetorical, legal, and political class struggle over the meaning of “conspiracy.” Committed to nonviolent direct-action protest, Wobbly civil-disobedience often generated violence in return.

During major strikes and confrontations, Wobbly leaders were repeatedly arrested and charged with the crime of “conspiracy.” The first major trial began in 1906 when Big Bill Haywood and two others leaders of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) were tried in Idaho for conspiracy in the murder of the former governor.

Under the direction of infamous Pinkerton James McParlain, Big Bill and his comrades were kidnapped in Colorado and illegally extradited to Idaho to stand trial for their lives. A massive publicity campaign eventually “broke the conspiracy” and Haywood was acquitted.

During the IWW’s “free-speech campaigns” in Spokane, Fresno, San Diego, and elsewhere, Wobbly activists were met with mass arrests, police brutality, and vigilante violence to prevent their constitutional right to hold open-air meetings. During the Lawrence, Massachusetts, “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912, textile mill owners were put on trial for planting a bomb that they intended to blame on the IWW.

In 1915, Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill was executed in Utah in what many believe was a conspiracy to frame a poetic voice of proletarian revolution. More so than any other union in the United States, Wobbly history is full of such examples.

When the United States began to “prepare” for its entry into World War I, the repression of the IWW intensified. Teddy Roosevelt attacked the IWW as disloyal and pro-German, claiming that “every district where the IWW starts rioting should be placed under martial law and cleaned up by military methods” (Dubofsky). Congressmen and business leaders denounced the IWW as “Imperial William’s Warriors” or the “I Won’t Work” and passed new antisedition laws to quash dissent during wartime.

Although the IWW membership was split over support for the war, its newspapers and magazines were banned from the mail and hundreds of Wobblies were persecuted for leading strikes, making speeches, or carrying membership cards. Frank Little, a militant Wobbly leader and opponent of U.S. involvement in World War I, was lynched during a strike in Butte, Montana, by a gang of masked vigilantes who were most likely hired by the copper-mine owners.

Beginning in 1917, the Justice Department unleashed its newly constituted federal police powers against the national leadership of the IWW, leading to the arrests of over 2,000 Wobblies on charges of conspiring to obstruct the war effort. Most were convicted of violating wartime antisedition laws (well after the war was over), and sentenced to long prison terms.

Many years later, one of the indicted Wobbly leaders from Chicago had this to say about the trial: “After we had heard the case for the prosecution we became certain that a real charge of conspiracy had been proven—but not against us. We were sure that the real conspirators were the ones who were trying the alleged conspirators. The government itself had planned the conspiracy, and we were its victims” (Brazier).

During the postwar red scare, one incident in particular marked the violent end of the IWW. On Armistice Day 1919, in the lumber town of Centralia, Washington, several community leaders and members of the American Legion carried out a bloody attack on the local IWW hall. Determined to defend themselves against the mob’s assault, the Wobblies engaged the Legionnaires in a fierce gun battle that left several men on both sides dead.

One Wobbly, Wesley Everest, who was captured in his World War I soldier’s uniform, was later dragged from his prison cell under cover of night and lynched by a mob. This event is widely known in Wobbly literature as the “Centralia Conspiracy.”