The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies) is an international union headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, having much in common with anarcho-syndicalist unions, but also many differences. It contends that all workers should be united within a single union as a class and the profit system abolished. At its peak in 1923 the organization claimed some 100,000 members in good standing, and could marshall the support of perhaps 300,000 workers. Its membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split brought on by internal conflict and government repression. Today it numbers about 1,000 members world-wide, but with a recent renewal of organizing activity membership appears to be rising again.
The IWW was founded in Chicago in June 1905 at a convention of two hundred socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists from all over the United States (mainly the Western Federation of Miners) who were 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 Hagerty , Lucy Parsons, Mary Harris Jones (commonly known as "Mother Jones"), William Trautmann, Vincent Saint John, Ralph Chaplin, and many others.
Its goal was to promote worker solidarity against the employing classes. From the current 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 its promotion of industrial unionism (often confused with syndicalism); they were one of the largest examples of anarcho-syndicalism in action in the United States. They emphasized 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. (Indeed, many of its early members were first- and second-generation immigrants, and some, like Carlo Tresca, Joe Hill and Mary Jones, rose to prominence in the leadership.)
The IWW was condemned by politicians and the press, who saw them as a threat to the status quo. Factory owners would employ means both non-violent (sending in Salvation Army bands to drown out speakers) and violent to disrupt their meetings. Members were often arrested and sometimes killed for making public speeches, but this persecution only inspired further militancy.
The origin of the nickname "Wobbly" is unclear. Some believe it refers to a tool known as a "wobble saw", while others believe it is derived from an immigrant's mispronunciation of "IWW" as "eye-wobble-you-wobble-you". The most likely explanation is that the term was first used pejoratively by San Francisco Socialists around 1913 and adopted by IWWs as a badge of honor. In any case, the nickname has existed since the union's early days and is still used today.
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 DeLeon's Socialist Labor Party 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 his supporters left the organisation.
The IWW first attracted attention in Goldfield, Nevada in 1906 and during the strike of the Pressed Steel Car Company at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania in 1909. Further fame was gained later that year, when they took their stand on free speech. The town of Spokane, Washington had outlawed street meetings, and arrested a Wobbly organizer for breaking this ordinance. The response was simple but effective: when a fellow member was arrested for speaking, large numbers of people descended on the location and forced the authorities to arrest all of them, until it became too expensive for the town. In Spokane, over 500 people went to jail and four people died. The tactic was also used effectively in Fresno, Aberdeen and San Diego.
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 Paterson strike (1913) and the Mesabi range (1916).
Between 1915 and 1917, 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, in railyards and in hobo jungles. During this time, the IWW became synonymous with the hobo; migratory farmworkers could scarcely afford any other means of transportation to get to the next jobsite. Workers often won better working conditions by using direct action at the point of production, and striking "on the job" (consciously and collectively slowing their work). As a result of Wobbly 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, both in the Deep South and the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada, between 1917 and 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 such 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 a role 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.
Wobblies also played a role in the sit-down strikes and other organizing efforts by the United Auto Workers in the 1930s, particularly in Detroit, though they never established a strong union presence there.
Where the IWW did win strikes, such as at 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 elán against employers; In Lawrence, the IWW lost nearly all of its membership in the years after the strike, as the employers wore down their employees' resistance and eliminated many of the strongest union supporters.
The effectiveness of the IWW's non-violent tactics sparked violent reaction by government, company management, and mobs of "respectable citizens". In 1914, Joe Hill (Joel Hägglund) 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. In 1916 at Everett, Washington a drunken mob of deputized businessmen led by Sheriff Donald McRae attacked Wobblies on the steamer VERONA, killing at least five union members (six more were never accounted for and probably were lost in Puget Sound). Two members of the mob were killed, probably by their own side's cross-fire.
Many IWW members opposed the United States participation in World War I, but the organization took no official position on the conflict. Regardless, the employing class and the U.S. Government were able to turn public opinion against the IWW, because of the IWW's refusal to support World War I. This led to vigilante mobs attacking the IWW in many places, including Centralia, Washington in November 1919, where IWW member and army veteran, Wesley Everest , was killed by a lynch mob.
The government used World War I as an opportunity to crush the IWW. An 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." Upon the U.S. declaration of war, however, the organization ceased all anti-war activity and propaganda. 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–even some who had not been members of the union for years–and sentenced to prison terms of up to twenty years. Released on bail, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union where he remained until his death. Communist Party promises to reimburse those who had staked Haywood's bond went unfulfilled.
After the war the repression continued. Members of the IWW were harassed and prosecuted under various State and federal laws and the 1920 Palmer Raids singled out the foreign-born members of the organization. By the mid-1920s membership was already declining due to government repression and it decreased again substantially during a contentious organizational schism in 1924 when the organization split between the "Westerners" and the "Easterners" over a number of issues, including the role of the General Administration (often oversimplified as a struggle between "centralists" and "decentralists") and attempts by the Communist Party to dominate the organization. By 1930 membership was down to around 10,000.
Activity after World War II
The Wobblies continued to organize workers and were a major presence in the metal shops of Cleveland, Ohio until the 1950s. After the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959 by the US Government, which called for the removal 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 1950s, 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 picketing 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 maintains its own internet domain (iww.org).
IWW organizing drives in recent years have included a major campaign to organize 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 industries, 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 the rank and file in 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.
In 2004, an IWW union was organized in a New York City Starbucks, a company notorious for its refusal to allow workers to form unions. In September of 2004, IWW-organized truck drivers in Stockton walked off their jobs and went on a strike. Nearly all demands were met.
Current membership is believed to be about 1,000, with most members in the United States, but many also located in Australia, Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
The IWW in Australia
Australia encountered the IWW tradition very early, with both Chicago and Detroit branches forming in Australia. In part this was due to the local De Leonist SLP following the industrial turn of the US SLP.
The Australian IWW developed in conditions of increasing industrial militancy after 1908. It first shot to prominence by opposing compulsory boyhood conscription in Australia. The early Australian IWW used a number of tactics from the US, including free speech fights.
The Australian IWW was most important, however, in terms of its industrial organising work. The IWW cooperated with many other unions, encouraging industrial unionism and militancy. In particular, the IWW's strategies had a large effect on the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union. The AMIEU established closed shops and workers councils and effectively regulated management behaviour towards the end of the 1910s.
The IWW was well known for opposing the First World War from 1914 onwards, and in many ways was at the front of the anti-conscription fight (this time opposed to manhood conscription). A series of controversial newspaper cartoons, most notably, "Workers follow your leaders", led to notoriety and the attention of Australian Federal intelligence agencies. When a five pound note forgery scandal was followed by a series of arsons and threatened arsons in Sydney, the IWW was declared an illegal organisation by the Commonwealth government and its leadership arrested in NSW.
The IWW continued illegally operating with the aim of freeing its class war prisoners and briefly fused with two other radical tendencies–from the old Socialist parties and Trades Halls–to form a larval communist party at the suggestion of the militant revolutionist and Council Communist Adela Pankhurst. The IWW however left the CPA shortly after its formation, taking with it the bulk of militant industrial worker members.
By the 1930s the IWW in Australia had declined significantly, and took part in unemployed workers movements which were led largely by the now Stalinised CPA. In 1939 the Australian IWW had four members, according to surveillance by government authorities, and these members were consistently opposed to the second world war.(See files in National Archives of Australia)
Today the IWW still exists in Australia, in larger numbers than the 1940s, but due to the nature of the Australian industrial relations system, it is unlikely to win union representation in any workplaces in the immediate future.
"Bump me into parliament" is perhaps the most notable Australian IWW song.
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 parodies of 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 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." Perhaps the most well known Wobbly song is "Solidarity Forever." 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 of the Industrial Workers of the World have included Helen Keller, whose life was recounted in several films, Joe Hill, Big Bill Haywood, Frank Little and Edward R. Murrow. It has long been rumored, but not yet proved, that baseball legend Honus Wagner was also a Wobbly.
- Brissenden, Paul F., The IWW: A Study of American Syndicalism - New York: Columbia University Press, 1919. 438 pages 2nd edition, 1920. Reprinted by Russell & Russell, New York, 1957.
- Kornbluh, Joyce L., ed., Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964, illustrated. 419 pages. Reprinted by Charles H. Kerr Co., Chicago, 1988 with new introduction and essays, ISBN 0-88286-237-5
- McClelland, John, Jr., Wobbly War: The Centralia Story, Washington State Historical Society, 1987, hardcover, ISBN 0-917048-62-8
- Moran, William, Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove, St. Martin's Press, 2002, hardcover, 320 pages, ISBN 0312301839
- Thompson, Fred The I. W. W.: Its First Fifty Years, Chicago: IWW, 1955
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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04