I am currently reading volume four of Philip Foner’s History of the Labor Movement in the United States, on the history of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the “Wobblies,” which was, in the period before the US’s entry into the First World War, the most colorful and radical labor movement in this nation’s history-and this June is the 110th anniversary of the IWW.
In June 24, 1905, a convention of the nation’s leading radical labor activists gathered in Brand’s Hall in Chicago to organize a labor movement that would be an alternative to the conservative craft-based union organizing of the American Federation of labor (AFL). Under Samuel Gompers, the AFL focused on organizing according to craft, which meant that several unions would be in the same factory, with differing contracts that would expire in different times, and if one union went out on strike the other unions in the factory would remain on the job, thus weakening the workers’ bargaining power. These craft unions concentrated on white, native-born workers, neglecting the Black, female, and immigrant workers that would be used in the mass-produced manufacturing jobs that required little skill, thus making the craft unions and their specialized members irrelevant.
Also, Gompers, apparently trying to make his labor movement socially acceptable to the corporate titans dominating the economy and therefore the country, pretended that the goals and aspirations of both labor and management were one and the same, and there was no real class conflict.
Assembling for such an alternative to the conservative craft unionism of the AFL were such leading radicals as Mary Harris “Mother” jones, the legendary organizer of mine workers; Eugene V. Debs, organizer of the American Railway Union, and perennial candidate for President under the Socialist Party of America; Daniel De Leon, Socialist theorist and leader of the Socialist Labor party; and William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, legendary organizer of mine workers and Secretary-Treasurer of the Western Federation of Miners, who presided over the convention.
Haywood began the convention, “Fellow workers, this is the Continental Congress of the working-class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism. The aims and objectives of the organization shall be to put the working-class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters.”
This was the long-term goal of the IWW, the organization that came out of this convention-organize the workers according to their industry, without regard to race, nationality, or gender; then, when the workers are organized, they would go out in a great general strike, and collapse the capitalist system and have a society run by the workers through their unions, the idea called Anarcho-Syndicalism, of which the IWW was the greatest exponent in the United States, scorning the AFL’s belief in trying to negotiate with the coroprate moguls of the era and in political campaigning.
The depth of the IWW’s militancy is found in the Preamble of 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 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.
The history of the IWW is filled with dedicated activism towards organizing unskilled workers, immigrants, African-Americans workers, and female workers-workers which the old AFL would not bother with. The IWW fought to organize workers in the lowest-paid and oppressed occupations of that time, like lumber workers and agricultural workers, who were recruited by employment agencies, or “sharks,” who for a fee would send migrant workers to lumber camps or farms which had poor toilet facilities, poor food, and bunkhouses filled with lice.
The IWW made its name with the “free speech fights” in the western lumber and agricultural cities, where their activists got on soapboxes to speak to workers and citizens, and as soon as they started with “Fellow workers and friends,” they were grabbed by police and enraged “respectable” citizens-who formed vigilante gangs or served as “special police”- and were hauled to local jails, where the IWW activists continued their protests, which included singing spirited protest songs, and the fire department would turn the fire hoses on them. At that, the IWW office sent the word out to all their available members to go to these cities, attempt to speak on the street corners, get arrested, and continue the protest in jail, causing a burden for the jails and the courts. These workers, shunned by the AFL and scorned by respectable people, felt pride in themselves, uniting in a great revolutionary cause.
Part of the IWW’s legacy, along with their demonstrations and strikes, are the songs they sang, sung to the tunes of the popular songs of the day, and of the religious hymns played by the Salvation Army bands, paid by the capitalists to drown out the IWW street speakers. Joe Hill, one of the IWW’s greatest activists, was also its greatest songwriter, writing such great protest songs for the IWW as “Rebel Girl” (in honor of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, on of their most famous activists), “The Preacher and The Slave” (to the tune of “In The Sweet By and By”), and “Casey Jones The Union Scab.” Charged in Utah with the murder of a grocer over the man’s wife, Hill was the focus of a worldwide campaign to exonerate him, the charges being an excuse to remove a prominant agitator. HIll was executed by a firing squad in November 2015; before his death, HIll wrote to Bill Haywood, “Goodby, Bill, I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste time mourning, organize.” (The story was that Hill himself ordered “Fire!” to the firing squad, indeed dying like a true rebel.)
Another great IWW martyr was Frank LIttle, a veteran of the Free Speech Fights in the west. Little was active in organizing lumberjacks, oil field workers, fruit pickers, and metal miners, once arrested in Spokane for reading the Declaration of Independence. A member of the IWW’s General Executive Board, Little vocally opposed the United States’ entry in to the First World War, and he was also active in organizing copper miners in Butte Montana, and was beaten and lynched on August 1917, with notes pinned to his clothes warning other workers; Pinkerton detectives and possibly city police were involved in Little’s murder.
Among the greatest triumphs of the IWW was the great strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. Thousands of workers- underpaid, living in deplorable slums, despised for coming from Eastern European countries and called “wops,” “polacks,” “hunkies,” and other ethnic slurs-went on strike over pay cuts-no small matter for underpaid workers-and other issues, effectively shutting down the textile mills of the city. The IWW sent in their finest organizers-Bill Haywood, Joe Ettor, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (the legendary “rebel girl”)-to guide this strike comprised of 22,000 unskilled workers, comprised of dozens of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups.
The main strength of the IWW was its ability for spectacular protests and demonstrations, spirited songs, and dedicated activists willing to risk their lives to help workers attain a better future; but its main weakness was its inability to sustain its victories, to form a cohesive structure to run a union and handle its health and welfare system and enforce contracts with employers. The IWW, ideologically opposed to dealing with the state and considering the government, with its police, courts, and military an enforcer for the corporate masters-which it was-counted on the solidarity of workers, rather than formal contracts, to fight off oppression from the capitalist of that day. (Solidarity among workers is wonderful, but having friends in political office certainly helps.)
When the United States entered the First World War, corporations and the government found the excuse to repress the IWW and other radical movements, especially after the Russian Revolution; the fear and possibility of social uheaval in the United States were real among corporate and governmental elites. Although Haywood, then IWW Secretary-Treasurer, and most of the IWW leadership wanted to maintain a low profile about the war, federal, state, and local law enforcement, along with company detectives and freelance vigilanties (including the re-forming Ku Klux Klan) sought to destroy the IWW, with federal agents (including future FBI director J. Edgar Hoover) raiding IWW halls, seizing the union’s records and publications, and vigilanties assaulting and killing IWW members.
One such case was the Centralia (Washington) Massacre, when in 1919 members of the newly-formed American Legion raided the IWW hall and the Wobbies inside shot at the raiders in self-defense; one fo the IWW members, Wesley Everest, was a lumberjack and veteran of the First World War, and he was oooverpowered by the mob, hauled to the local jail, was turned over to a lynch mob, and was hanged and shot.
During the First World War, over a hundred of the IWW’s leading officials and activists, including Bill Haywood, were put on trial in Chicago, for 10,000 for each of the defendants. After a long show trial worthy of the old Soviet Union, Haywood and the other IWW defendants were convicted of “conspiracy” and sentenced to 20 years in prison each. Many of them were sent to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, along with other radicals and dissenters such as Mennonite pacifists.
With the founding of the Soviet Union and the forming of the Communist Party USA, several prominent Wobblies, like Haywood, took up the offer to defect to the new state, in hopes of helping to build the first state of, by, and for the workers. The fledgling Communist party promised to pay the bail money for Haywood and the other defectors, but he party reneged on the deal. After a campaign for amnesty by the IWW’s supporters, Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin College released the imprisoned Wobblies; but the union was divided by whether or not they should accept clemency and stay pure in their revolutionary intent, and whether or not to ally with the Communist Party.
The IWW is now a small radical faction; but its legacy of demonstrations, songs, and militancy lives on.