Workers of the World
following excerpts were taken from "The Socialist Challenge,"
Chapter 13 of A People's History of the United States, by Howard
morning in June 1905, there met in a hall in Chicago a convention of two
hundred socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists from all over
the United States. They were forming the I.W.W. -- the Industrial Workers
of the World. Big Bill Haywood, a leader of the Western Federation of
Miners, recalled in his autobiography that he picked up a piece of board
that lay on the platform and used it for a gavel to open 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 objects of this
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 the capitalist masters.
On the speakers' platform with Haywood were Eugene Debs, leader of the
Socialist party, and Mother Mary Jones, a seventy-five-year-old white-haired
woman who was an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America. The
convention drew up a constitution, whose preamble said:
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 all the toilers
come together on the political as well as on the industrial field, and
take and hold that which they produce by their labor, through an economic
organization of the working class without affiliation with any political
party . . . .
of the IWW pamphlets explained why it broke with the AFL idea of craft
The directory of unions of Chicago shows in 1903 a total of 56 different
unions in the packing houses, divided up still more in 14 different
national trades unions of the American Federation of Labor.
What a horrible example of an army divided against itself in the face
of a strong combination of employers . . . .
IWW (or "Wobblies," as they came to be called, for reasons not
really clear) aimed at organizing all workers in any industry into "One
Big Union," undivided by sex, race, or skills. They argued against
making contracts with the employer, because this had so often prevented
workers from striking on their own, or in sympathy with other strikers,
and thus turned union people into strikebreakers. Negotiations by leaders
for contracts replaced continuous struggle by the rank and file, the Wobblies
believed. They spoke of "direct action":
Direct action means industrial action directly by, for, and of the workers
themselves, without the treacherous aid of labor misleaders or scheming
politicians. A strike that is initiated, controlled, and settled by
the workers directly affected is direct action. ... Direct action is
One IWW pamphlet said: "Shall I tell you what direct action means?
The worker on the job shall tell the boss when and where he shall work,
how long and for what wages and under what conditions."
idea of anarcho-syndicalism was developing strongly in Spain and Italy
and France at this time -- that the workers would take power, not by
seizing the state machinery in an armed rebellion, but by bringing the
economic system to a halt in a general strike, then taking it over to
use for the good of all. IWW organizer Joseph Ettor said:
If the workers of the world want to win, all they have to do is recognize
their own solidarity. They have nothing to do but fold their arms and
the world will stop. The workers are more powerful with their hands
in their pockets than all the property of the capitalists . . .
San Diego, Jack White, a Wobbly arrested in a free-speech fight in 1912,
sentenced to six months in the county jail on a bread and water diet,
was asked if he had anything to say to the court. A stenographer recorded
what he said:
The prosecuting attorney, in his pleas to the jury, accused me of saying
on a public platform at a public meeting, “To hell with the courts,
we know what justice is.” He told a great truth when he lied,
for if he had searched the innermost recesses of my mind he could have
found that thought, never expressed by me before, but which I express
now, “To hell with your courts, I know what justice is,”
for I have sat in your court room day after day and have seen you, Judge
Sloane, and others of your kind, send them to prison because they dared
to infringe upon the sacred rights of property. You have become blind
and deaf to the rights of man to pursue life an happiness, and you have
crushed those rights so that the sacred right of property shall be preserved.
Then you tell me to respect the law. I do not. I did violate the law,
as I will violate every one of your laws an still come before you and
say “To hell with the courts,” . . .
The prosecutor lied, but I will accept his lie as a truth and say again
so that you, Judge Sloane, may not be mistaken as to my attitude, “To
hell with your courts, I know what justice is.”
was an immensely powerful idea. In the ten exciting years after its birth,
the IWW became a threat to the capitalist class, exactly when capitalist
growth was enormous and profits huge. The IWW never had more than five
to ten thousand enrolled members at any one time; people came and went,
and perhaps a hundred thousand were members at one time or another. But
their energy, their persistence, their inspiration to others, their ability
to mobilize thousands at one place, one time, made them an influence on
the country far beyond their numbers. They traveled everywhere (many were
unemployed or migrant workers); they organized, wrote, spoke, sang, spread
their message and their spirit.
They were attacked with all the weapons the system could put together:
the newspapers, the courts, the police, the army, mob violence. Local
authorities passed laws to stop them from speaking; the IWW defied these
laws. In Missoula, Montana, a lumber and mining area, hundreds of Wobblies
arrived by boxcar after some had been prevented from speaking. They were
arrested one after another until they clogged the jails and the courts,
and finally forced the town to repeal its anti-speech ordinance.
In Spokane, Washington, in 1909, an ordinance was passed to stop street
meetings, and an IWW organizer who insisted on speaking was arrested.
Thousands of Wobblies marched into the center of town to speak. One by
one they spoke and were arrested, until six hundred were in jail. Jail
conditions were brutal, and several men died in their cells, but the IWW
won the right to speak.
Fresno, California, in 1911, there was another free speech fight. The
San Francisco Call commented:
It is one of those strange situations which crop up suddenly and are
hard to understand. Some thousands of men, whose business it is to work
with their hands, tramping and stealing rides, suffering hardships and
facing dangers -- to get into jail . . . .
In jail they sang, they shouted, they made speeches through the bars to
groups that gathered outside the prison. As Joyce Kornbluh reports in
her remarkable collection of IWW documents, Rebel Voices:
They took turns lecturing about the class struggle and leading the singing
of Wobbly songs. When they refused to stop, the jailor sent for fire
department trucks and ordered the fire hoses turned full force on the
prisoners. The men used their mattresses as shields, and quiet was only
restored when the icy water reached knee-high in the cells. When city
officials heard that thousands more were planning to come into town,
they lifted the ban on street speaking and released the prisoners in
That same year in Aberdeen, Washington, once again laws against free speech,
arrests, prison, and, unexpectedly, victory. One of the men arrested,
"Stumpy" Payne, a carpenter, farm hand, editor of an IWW newspaper,
wrote about the experience:
Here they were, eighteen men in the vigor of life, most of whom came
long distances through snow and hostile towns by beating their way,
penniless and hungry, into a place where a jail sentence was the gentlest
treatment that could be expected, and where many had already been driven
into the swamps and beaten nearly to death. ... Yet here they were,
laughing with boyish glee at tragic things that to them were jokes .
. . .
But what was the motive behind the actions of these men? ... Why were
they here? Is the call of Brotherhood in the human race greater than any
fear or discomfort, despite the efforts of the masters of life for six
thousand years to root out that call of Brotherhood from our minds?
were also beatings, tarrings and featherings, defeats. One IWW member,
John Stone, tells of being released from the jail at San Diego at midnight
with another IWW man and forced into an automobile:
We were taken out of the city, about twenty miles, where the machine
stopped. ... a man in the rear struck me with a blackjack several times
on the head and shoulders; the other man then struck me on the mouth
with his fist. The men in the rear then sprang around and kicked me
in the stomach. I then started to run away; and heard a bullet go past
me. I stopped. ... In the morning I examined Joe Marko's condition and
found that the back of his head had been split open.
In 1916, in Everett, Washington, a boatload of Wobblies was fired on by
two hundred armed vigilantes gathered by the sheriff, and five Wobblies
were shot to death, thirty-one wounded. Two of the vigilantes were killed,
nineteen wounded. The following year -- the year the United States entered
World War I -- vigilantes in Montana seized IWW organizer Frank Little,
tortured him, and hanged him, leaving his body dangling from a railroad