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Industrial Workers of the World posterIndustrial Workers of the World

The "Wobblies" were organized in Chicago on June 27, 1905, by opponents of the moderate policies in the labor movement. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), which at the time was the largest labor organization in the country, consisted mainly of craft unions, accepted the capitalist system, and sought benefits for its members within the system. The IWW, however, wanted to bring all workers of each industry into one industrial union, and sought to overturn the capitalist system and set up a socialist government.

In 1903 and 1904, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) led a series of tough campaigns against Colorado employers, and those successes led to the WFM sponsoring a conference in Chicago that called for a new national union. Some of the most prominent labor leaders of the day attended that conference, including William Haywood, from the WFM; Daniel DeLeon, representing the Socialist Labor Party; Eugene V. Debs, former head of the American Railway Union; Mary "Mother" Jones, long-time organizer of coal miners in the East; and Lucy Parsons, the widow of Albert Parsons, who had been murdered during the Haymarket Riots.

The preamble to the IWW constitution stated its goals as: "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." The constitution did not, however, give any direction regarding how those goals were to be achieved, and that lack of definitive direction led to internal differences from the very beginning. In 1908, the IWW split into two factions when the militant group led by Haywood prevailed. That group advocated general strikes, boycotts, and even sabotage to achieve IWW goals.

The first major challenge faced by the IWW began in December of 1905, when Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg was murdered. Because Steunenberg had recently confronted the WFM at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho authorities automatically targeted the WFM as being responsible for the murder. In early 1906 those authorities illegally crossed state lines to arrest WFM officials William Haywood and Charles Moyer, as well as pro-unionist Denver shopkeeper George A. Pettibone. The trial, which ran from May 9 through June 27, 1907, got publicity for the IWW and boosted its membership numbers. Once the three men, who were defended by noted attorney Clarence Darrow, were ultimately acquitted, however, interest in the IWW waned and many who had joined in sympathy no longer felt a need to remain with the organization.

During the first few years of the IWW's existence it organized workers and led strikes from Portland, Oregon, to Skowhegan, Maine. One of the most successful strikes was waged against the textile industry in Lawrence, Massachusetts, from January 12 to March 14, 1912. At its height some 23,000 strikers (about 3/5 of the city's total population) participated, representing over two dozen nationalities and almost four dozen languages. Other successful strikes were staged against the steel industry in McKees Rocks, New Castle, and Butler, Pennsylvania in 1909; the silk textile industry of Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913; the rubber industry of Akron, Ohio, in 1913; and the automobile industry of Detroit, Michigan, in 1913.

For all the successes enjoyed by the IWW, it also suffered some major setbacks. Always determined to boost its membership, IWW organizers often carried their message directly to workers at their workplaces. This tactic, however, was almost always prevented by the businesses. When organizers tried to gather workers together outside of the workplace, they often faced conflict with city officials, who generally required that the IWW get special permits. The IWW responded by staging "free speech fights" across the country, daring municipal officials to arrest participants; the dares were almost always taken, and at times there were more IWW leaders in jails across the country than there were actually running the movement. In 1914, Swedish-born IWW songwriter Joe Hill was arrested for the murder of a Salt Lake City businessman. Despite very flimsy circumstantial evidence, Hill was convicted of the crime, and executed in 1915. In 1917, Seattle supporters of the IWW took the public passenger boat Verona to Everett for a rally in support of local strikers. Armed deputies opened fire on the boat, resulting in over sixty casualties, including a dozen fatalities. In the aftermath, Seattle authorities arrested and tried 74 of the passengers; none of the deputies was ever tried for any crime committed during the incident. And, on July 12, 1917, vigilantes rounded up some 1,200 strikers and their families, loaded them onto cattle cars, and dumped them in the desert. Beginning in 1917, many states passed laws making it a crime to advocate self-government through a labor organization.

While the IWW almost always gained members during a particular strike or other action, its membership ranks usually shrank as soon as that particular conflict was over. Keeping a constant membership was made even more difficult by the fact that a vast number of IWW "members" were migrant workers, who only needed the presence of a union for brief periods at a time. IWW membership stood at about 30,000 in 1912, but fell to nearly half that in each of the next three years. IWW opposition to U.S. participation in World War I further eroded the organization's popularity, and gave the federal government reason to make it even tougher for it to operate. By war's end 166 IWW leaders had been indicted for various crimes against the U.S., and 93 of them had been convicted and given heavy sentences. With most of its leaders in prison, and public sentiment soundly against it, the IWW had ceased to be a major force in the labor movement by the 1920's.

Although its role has changed significantly over the years, the IWW continues to operate to this day. Its official website is www.iww.org.


Eugene Victor Debs
Clarence Darrow
World War I

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This page was last updated on December 21, 2014.

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