Labor Movement: Industrial Workers of the World

Figure 1.--Here we see Bina Flynn promoting the IWW about 1915. Bina was the younger sister of Elizabeth Flynn, an important IWW organizer. I am not sure where the photograph was taken. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

The labor movement itself was split. Some radical unions were organized. Eugene V. Debs and other Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, as well as others organized the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) (1905). The IWW was not committed to collective barganing, but rather with direct action and radical social change. The IWW was also known as the Wobblies. It was founded in America, but now an international union with a headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The destinctive IWW principle is that all workers should be organized within a single union. At the time the most important unions in America were independent trade unions. The IWW goal was much more radical, seeking the end of the class and wage system. The IWW attracted a considerable following, especially after World War I. The membership peaked at 100,000 men, but infuenced many more (1923). The IWW declined aftwards both because of its lack of commitment to collective bargaining, represive Government actions, and internal divisions.


A Convetion of trade unions was held in Chicago (June 1905). The participants included socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists from around the United States. The central force was the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Mine workers tended to be among the most radical because of the terrible working conditions and the represive measure mine users used to break the unions. The WFM objected to the more moderte policies persued by the main American trade union movement organized by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Some of the principle leaders who organized the IWW included Ralph Chaplin, Eugene V. Debs, Thomas J Hagerty, Big Bill Haywood, Mary Harris Jones ("Mother Jones"), Daniel De Leon, Lucy Parsons, William Trautmann, and Vincent Saint John.


The IWW or Wobblies as they became known differed from the trade union movement dominated by the AFL. (No one knows the origins of the term Wobblies although there are several theories.) The IWW promoted industrial unionism which became the basis for the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO). The IWW was the most important example of anarcho-syndicalism in the United States. This form of union organization was more pronounced in Eyrope. The IWW put more emphasize on rank-and-file organization than did the main-line unions who relied more on the work of elected leaders to bargain with employers. The IWW was socially progressive for turn of the-20th century America. They allowed al workers to join, including women, foreigners, blacks and immigrants ( Mexicans and Asians). The membership was heavily composed with immigrants or second-generation immigrant families. Some of the most famous included Carlo Tresca, Joel Hägglund (Joe Hill) and Mary Jones.


The IWW was sharply attacked both by industrialists as well as political leaders and the press. Most newspapers at the time were anti-union, reflecting the conservative views of their owners. The IWW as oe of the most radical unions was a partcular target for press attacks. IWW meetings are even speakers were commonly targeted by both non-violent and violent means. Thus were often hired to disrupt meetings. IWW speakers might be arrested. Some were even murdered.


The IWW rejected the goal of collective barganing promoted by the AFL. IWW leaders were cnvinced that industrialists would never comsent to bargain in good faith. Until the New Deal, there was considerable validity in this view. IWW leaders had various view as to how to achieve their goals. the IWW split only a few years after its foundation on this issue (1908). Daniel DeLeon organized the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and believed the IWW should support the SLP's political program.The mainstram of the IWW, however, led by Vincent Saint John, William Trautmann, and Big Bill Haywood were cinvinced that direct action using strikes and boycotts would be more effective. They were opposed to both the AFL's efforts at collective bargaining and DeLeon's promotion of political affiliation.

IWW Actions

IWW actions at Goldfield, Nevada (1906) and the Pressed Steel Car Company strike at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania (1909) received considerable attention. Various means were used to limit union organizing. The town of Spokane, Washington for example banned street meetings. Town police arrested IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. The IWW then rushed to Spokane. The town began to arrest them, but found it a very expensive prposition. Authorities were not gentle. Four of those who were arrested died. The IWW used the same apprpach in other cities, including Fresno, Aberdeen and San Diego. IWW membership grew and reached 50,000 members (1912). The IWW was especially effective in the Northwest (dock workers) and in the central states (agricultural workers). On a more geographically dispersed basis the IWW also became important in the textile and mining industries. The IWW helped organize more than 150 strikes which proved very costly to mill and mine owners. The best known strikes were the Lawrence textile strike (1912), the Paterson strike (1913) and the Mesabi Range strike (1916). Perhaps the IWW's most important achievement was the work done by the Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO) (1915-17). The AWO organized huge numbers of migratory farmworkers and there were notable improvements achieved in working conditions. The IWW's Lumber Workers Industrial Union (LWIU) also achieved improved conditions in both the Northwest and the South. The IWW lumber strike of 1917 in particular achieved an 8-hour day. Some of the achievements are difficult to assess. Some authors, for example, refer to progressive industrialists, but of course the potential threat of a costly IWW strike undoutedly incouraged industrialists to be more reasonable. The IWW's Marine Transport Workers Union (MTWU) was also important. Although repressed in the 1920s, the IWW or individuals influenced by the IWW played a role in the subsequent success of the International Longshoremen's Association. The IWW was also involved in the San Francisco General Strike (1934). The IWW was also influential in the (CIO) and its effort to unionize auto workers (1930s).

Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926)

Eugene V. Debs is the most notable American socialist leader. He focusd on industrial orgnizatin. He was firsst arrested as a result of the Pullman Strike (1895). He was a founding member of the IWW (1905). He was a committed pacifist and was arrested during World War I for violating the Espionage Act (1917). He ran for president five times.

Carlo Tresca (1879-1943)

Carlo Tresca immigrated from Italy. He was an anarchist who was active in various radical causes such as the IWW and subsequently the anti-fascist movement. Tresca met Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) (1912). Flynn was acive in the movement. She was an effective labor organizer and orator. She was active in both the IWW and Communist Party. Tresca and Flynn were close for 15 years. Tresca in addition apparently had a relationship with Sabina ("Bina") Flynn, Elizabeth's youngest sister. Their son, Peter Martin, founded the famed City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Bina married Romulo Bobba. Bobba was arrested by Federal agents in the sweep against the IWW (1917). He was confined at Fort Leavenworth. Tresca was assassinated in 1943.


The IWW's principal weakness was its basis distrust for collective bargaining. The IWW did win some strikes such as the Lawrence textile workers (1912). IWW leaders and organizers had an almost missionary zeal class struggle. Often the workers just wanted a decent wage and reasonable working conditions. The IWW was unable to maintain its membership in the face of bitter hostility from the indistrialists.

Governent Repression

The IWW also faced attacks by a range of legal and quasi legal actions. The IWW primarily persued non-violent actions like strikes and boycotts. These actions, however, proved costly to the industrialists affected. Political officials were often closely liked with industrialists. Thus IWW organizers often faced arrest as welll as attacks by company-hired thugs. One of the most famous incidents was the arrst of Joe Hill. He was accused of murder and found guily despite the lack of any real evidence (1914). The state of Utah executed him (1915). Hill at least got a trial. A mob lynched Frank Little in Butte, Montana. Sheriff Donald McRae led a mob in Everett, Washington which killed IWW members (1916). The turning point forvthe IWW was robably World War I (1914-18). The IWW was strongly pacifist. They thus did not support the war effort even After america enteed the War (1917). The press labeled the IWW as disloyal whichg strongly colored public opinion. The U.S. Department of Justice agents conducted coordinated raids on 48 IWW meeting halls (September 1917). This resulted in the arrest 165 of the IWW's most important leaders. They were tried for violating the Espionage Act. ; one hundred and one went on trial before Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis oversaw the trial of 101 of thise arrested (1918). All were found guily and the judgements included prison sentences of up to 20 years. Haywood jumped bail and fled to the Soviet Union. Afyer the War both state and Federal agencies targetted the IWW, especially foreign-born leaders. The Palmer Raids resulted in the arrest of many-foreign born members (1919-20).

Internal Divisions

The IWW split on a range of issues with a Eastern and Western faction. The IWW was also impacted by Communist Party efforts to gain control. The membership declined to a mere 10,000 members (1930).


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Created: 2:52 AM 11/19/2005
Last updated: 6:02 AM 8/3/2009