The IWW legacy


Occupy Wall Street and the other anti-capitalist forces could find no greater inspiration than the Industrial Workers of the World; the IWW, one of the most influential organizations in U.S. history, that was founded in Chicago in 1905 by a band of fiercely dedicated idealists.

The Wobblies, as they were called, battled against overwhelming odds. Their only real weapon was an utter refusal to compromise in a single-minded march toward a utopia that pitted them against the combined forces of government and business.

Their weapon, their goals, the power of their opponents, the imperfect world about them made it inevitable that they would lose. But this is not to say the Wobblies failed because they didn¹t reach their goal of creating One Big Union to wage a general strike that would put all means of production in the hands of workers and transform the country into a Cooperative Commonwealth of Workers.

To say the Wobbles failed would be to misinterpret the history of the Wobbly battle that left the world, as few battles leave it, a little less imperfect.

You need not believe in the simple Marxism and direct action techniques of the Wobblies to appreciate their great contribution to democracy, to union theory and practice, to folk music and literature, to the American idiom.

The IWW was founded by a group of socialists and dissident union organizers as an alternative to the American Federation of Labor, which they saw as an elitist and racist handmaiden of the capitalist class that controlled the economy. They denounced the AFL for ignoring the racially and ethnically mixed mass of unskilled workers in favor of the far fewer skilled and semi-skilled white craftsmen who were organized into separate unions according to their crafts.

The Wobblies would bring all workers, all of them members of the working class, into the One Big Union regardless of their race, nationality, craft, or work skills.

Wobbly organizers crisscrossed the country on freight trains to spread their message. They mounted street corner soapboxes in many cities, often battling police and vigilantes who tried to silence them. They organized lumberjacks, mine workers, farm workers, factory and mill hands. They led strikes.

The speeches, the written statements, and the songs of the Wobblies were powerful, simple, direct, and moving. So were the cartoons, posters, and other material that filled the IWW's tremendous outpouring of publications, among them a dozen foreign-language newspapers that were distributed among the many unskilled immigrants from European nations where unions had goals similar to those of the IWW.

Much of what was said and sung and written is still with us, a century later. Probably most important are the brilliant insights of the IWW¹s chief leaders, Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and the songs of famed IWW martyr Joe Hill, those simple satirical rhymes set to familiar melodies that focused workers on a common body of ideals.

You¹ve probably heard at least one of Hill's songs. Remember?

You will eat, bye and by
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on, hey
You¹ll get pie in the sky when you die

The IWW legacy goes far beyond words and song. There's still much of value that we can draw from its history, sadly including what the IWW¹s ultimate fate tells us about how excessively undemocratic our government can be if left unchecked.

The Wobblies' refusal to support U.S. entry into World War I and their refusal to abandon strikes and other organizational activities during the war were used as an excuse by officials at all levels of government to side with employers. They called out troops and police to attack non-violent IWW strikers and raid IWW offices. They encouraged vigilantism and lynchings and generally raised public hysteria against 'IWW terror' that allegedly hampered the war effort.

After the war ended in 1918, officials seized on the IWW's open support for the Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia as an excuse to crush Wobbly strikes and organizing efforts by mass arrests and imprisonment of strikers and IWW leaders for engaging in "Bolshevik conspiracies."

The IWW was all but destroyed. Membership shrank steeply and steadily, to the point that today the organization has only a relative handful of members, most of them employed at coffee shops, bookstores, and other small businesses, their message spread primarily via websites.

Make no mistake, though. Employers did make some concessions in response to the IWW, and the very example of the Wobblies, their spirit of protest, their tactics, their history, and their courage continue to inspire labor and political activists worldwide.

As author Joyce Kornbluh notes in her magnificent IWW anthology, Rebel Voices, the Wobblies made an indelible mark on the American labor movement and American society, laying the groundwork for later mass unionization, inspiring the formation of groups to protect the civil liberties of dissidents, prompting prison and farm labor reforms, and leaving behind a genuine heritage of industrial democracy.

Photo: IWW flags at an anti-war demonstration in Seattle. Joe Mabel/Wikipedia

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  • I am so glad to see an article on the IWW here in PW. Unfortunately, with the ideological differences of electoral politics as a primary wedge, the Wobs and CP have rarely stood shoulder to shoulder in ther battle for real social change. And that's too bad. It always seemed to make sense when all progressive groups work toward the goals they all hold in common. We can achieve so much more.

    The IWW was largley broken in that first big red scare as they terrified the powers that be who sought to deport all immigrant radicals and simply jail the homegrown ones. Here was an international labor organization trying to institute an end to individualist, sexist, racist and xenophobic craft unionism and welcome in all peoples into their ranks. The IWW also did much of their organizing through the arts! No wonder the forces of reaction tried to shut them down.

    But the IWW never really died out and there has always been an ongoing membership. Currently we have seen renewed interest not just here in the US but all over the world. Many PW readers may not realize that it is ONLY the Wobblies who have been fighting to organize Starbucks workers, a battle which began in NYC and continues on. They actually won an NLRB ruling against the coffee giant. I feel that all activists should not only learn from the Wobs' past but present as well. Please check out their website

    Much thanks to Dick for the article. One quick point of correction: in Joe Hill's "Preacher and the Slave" the lyric with regards to the poverty of the people should not read "live on, hey" but "live on hay"--Hill and the other Wobs were/are a satiric bunch in their tireless activism.

    Posted by John Pietaro, 03/08/2012 2:40pm (3 years ago)

  • The IWW has maintained more of our membership and organizing ability than the parent organization of PW, the Communist Party.

    Posted by Mike, 03/05/2012 6:46pm (3 years ago)

  • Appreciate the article. The IWW did write a very important, actually essential chapter in our nation's labor/American history. The IWW fought for industrial unionism, against racism & were able to be a transitory movement, laying the basis for the CIO in the New Deal period. Some of the best of the IWW joined with many from the left wing of the Socialist Party to form the Communist Party in 1919.

    However, it was not just in response to repression that destroyed the IWW. It was their ideology of anarcho-syndacalism. They did not believe in bldg. real unions, with contracts that had real staying power, instead relying on sponteneonaity, and had huge movements that had no ongoing infrastructure. As well, they were against any type of electoral activity at all, leaving that entire field to the corporate enemy.

    While it is absolutely true that the IWW played an extremely important, groundbreaking role in the maturing, development of our labor movement, there is also a very real reason why they disappeared so quickly and that a stronger, more grounded movement (CIO) emerged to take their place. While some young folks today do identify with the IWW, the shell that remains of that group has NO base in today's labor movement. It is a small anarchist based group today of middle class youth, not at all reflecting the huge movement of workers that was the IWW during the period of the beginning of the previous century. Those anarchist concepts are just as harmful today as the breakthrough ideas of industrial unionism were positive at that brief time.

    Today, we have a REAL labor movement, made up of millions of REAL working folks, and they are under horrible attack. There are clearly REAL concequences to elections, as we see daily in the assualts org'd. by (mainly) right wing Republican, pro corporate hacks. The important positive IWW concepts of industrial unionism and unity against racism were, in fact, adopted by the CIO and today's REAL labor movement. The ideologically wrong and harmful ideas of anachcism, abstainist from electoral work and the failure to build real labor infrastructure and ongoing alliances were harmful then, causing the downfall of that movement. While taking the best from the IWW history, it is important to understand that those negative concepts of the IWW ar e even MORE harmful in today's fight!

    Posted by, 03/05/2012 10:34am (3 years ago)

  • Indeed they are still around and still pioneering innovative tactics. For example, what other union is trying to organize businesses like Starbucks?

    Posted by pinkjohn, 03/02/2012 6:14pm (3 years ago)

  • They are still around, still vital, and still an inspiration--don´t speak of them as if they are long-gone, they´re not!

    Posted by José M. Tirado, 03/02/2012 10:22am (3 years ago)

  • IWW founded by idealists? No, they were already battled-hardened radical trade unionists and Socialists.

    "Simple" Marxism? Maybe. But what have the last 100 years of capitulation to capitalist parties really achieved in the long run. Feels like back to the future to me.

    A thought-provoking article, nonetheless.

    Posted by Tom Gogan, 03/01/2012 3:53pm (3 years ago)

  • Thanks for fine hitorical treatise. Much needed. The IWW's focus on "industrial unionism" was pretty much realized in the CIO and is today the organizational norm for most unions.

    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 03/01/2012 3:40pm (3 years ago)

  • The IWW wrote a more permanent chapter of labor history than was represented in their numbers of their philosophy. They employed satire and song. That is part of the heritage the Occupy Movement has adopted.

    Posted by Eleanor Walden, 03/01/2012 2:59pm (3 years ago)

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