The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly nicknamed the “Wobblies,” has stood out as one of the best-known yet most misunderstood labor organizations in American history. It has also stood out, historically, as one of the originators of modern industrial unionism—characterized by organizing workers by industry rather than by craft, a mode of organization that made it possible for the many unskilled workers left out of the craft-based model of organizing to have the protections of unionization. As such, it became one of the most inclusive labor organizations in history, organizing women, immigrant, and African American workers when other unions would not, and striving toward the goal of “one big union” that would include all workers. The IWW was (and remains) unabashedly militant and uncompromising in its dedication to workers’ rights.
The Industrial Workers of the World was founded on June 27, 1905, in Chicago, and its first and only president was William B. “Big Bill” Haywood. Although there had been some efforts at industrially based organizing following the demise of the Knights of Labor, mainly through the efforts of Eugene V. Debs's American Railway Union, the IWW stood out as the most assertive rejection of the increasingly narrow, craft-based, “pure and simple” trade unionism of the American Federation of Labor. The founding of the IWW was assisted by activists from the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance of the Socialist Labor Party, the Western Federation of Miners, the Socialist Party of America, and the remnants of the International Working Peoples’ Association. During its second convention in 1906, the IWW became divided between conservatives and radicals, resulting in the departure of one of the IWW's largest constituent union, the Western Federation of Miners, and at the 1908 convention the union was further divided between political activists and those who favored direct action, costing the IWW its supporters in the Socialist Labor Party.
Despite these early divisions within the organization, the IWW was noted for its strong presence among native-born miners in the West as well as among immigrant industrial workers in the Northeast. One of the union's most famous and successful labor actions was the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that featured the call for “Bread and Roses”; other notable IWW strikes during this decade include those mounted by the textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, and the silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey. During World War I, the IWW took a lead in organizing unemployed workers, and in 1915 it became a leader in the antiwar movement. During this period, the IWW acquired its first and most famous martyr in activist Joe Hill, who was executed on a dubious murder charge in Utah at the instigation of the “copper bosses” and subsequently became celebrated in song and legend. Other IWW labor actions during this period included a number of miners’ strikes, most notably at the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota.
The Red Scare failed to crush the IWW. Rather, the IWW's organizing efforts continued and increased into the 1930s, supporting the miners in the famous Harlan County Coal Strike and, with the onset of the Depression, again taking a lead in organizing the unemployed. During the first Roosevelt administration, the IWW attempted to organize autoworkers and Works Progress Administration (WPA) construction workers, and in the mid-1930s the Wobblies joined in the Popular Front's antifascist activism. Although the IWW enjoyed some organizing successes during the 1930s and 1940s, the advent of the Cold War led to a serious decline in the organization's fortunes. In 1949, the IWW was placed on the government's list of “subversive organizations,” and the Wobblies’ refusal to sign onto the Taft-Hartley anti-Communist affidavits contributed to the organizations’ decline to the point that, by 1955, the IWW came closer than it ever had in its history to dying out on its 50th anniversary.
Yet the IWW rebounded during the 1960s and played an important role in the radical activism of that decade. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Wobblies replaced a national administration with regional organizing committees and diversified their organizing field. In the 1980s, the IWW also attempted to build a labor-environmentalist alliance, and the IWW formed IWW-Earth First!, which attempted to bring support for both workers in the environmental movement and broach issues of the environment. The dual mission strained the alliance, yet the IWW's environmental efforts continued into the 1990s with the “Redwood Summer,” a campaign that made alliances with the timber workers and was only partially disrupted by an attack on the IWW activists and subsequent attempt to frame the leaders of the campaign in the highly contested pipe bombing of Judi Bari's car. In 1995, the IWW entered the Internet age as only the second union, and the first international union, to have its own website. And as the twentieth century has given way to the twenty-first, the IWW organizing efforts in the United States and abroad have continued to increase; currently the IWW has branches in the United States, Canada, western Europe, and Africa. In recent years, the IWW has attempted to organize workers at many well-known consumer chains, most famously Starbucks. The IWW also has, most recently, become an active and vocal supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In its long history, the Industrial Workers of the World has stood out as a militant, populist radical union that has remained utterly beholden to neither employers nor mainstream political parties. It has played a major role in promoting the idea of industrial unionism, even when its inclusiveness and its militancy placed it at the margins of the labor movement. In recent times, the IWW has been a leader in promoting the idea of “open-source unionism”—organizing workers rather than workplaces and not waiting for certification to act on behalf of the workers it organizes. The IWW's endurance into the twenty-first century, especially amid an otherwise declining American labor movement, is evidence of its durability as an essentially populist organization. It has also remained an important contributor to labor and working-class arts and culture.
Susan Roth Breitzer
See also: American Federation of Labor ; Environmentalism ; Gompers, Samuel ; Knights of Labor ; Populism ; Progressivism ; Producerism ; Red Scare of 1919
Buhle, Paul, and Nicole Schulman. Wobblies!: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of World. London: Verso, 2005.
Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Joseph A. McCartin. We Shall All Be: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
The Judi Bari Website. http://www.judibari.org/ . Accessed January 7, 2013.
Thompson, Fred, John Bekken, and Utah Phillips. The Industrial Workers’ of the World: Its First 100 Years: 1905 through 2005. Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 2005.