The Industrial Workers of the World was established in Chicago, in 1905, by members of the socialist-led Western Federation of Miners and other groups opposed to what they saw as "class collaboration" by the American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.).
The driving force behind the I.W.W. was William D. Haywood, the leader of the Western Federation of Miners, which had established a reputation for work stoppages in Colorado mines. Joining Haywood at the launch of the I.W.W., which he described as the "first continental congress of the working class," were Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party and Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party. Also present were Mother Jones, the "angel of the miners," and Lucy Parsons, whose husband had been executed in the Haymarket affair.
In the west, the ranks of I.W.W. were filled primarily by unskilled workers, mostly of the low-wage, migratory type. The I.W.W. organized unskilled factory workers in the eastern United States. But the union also spread its message to many distant lands through its maritime workers unit. Farm workers, miners, and loggers were heavily represented and they hoped that collective action would bring pay increases, shorter hours, and safer working conditions. Unlike other unions of the day, the I.W.W. organized on a class basis, welcoming all working people including immigrants, minorities, women, and the unemployed. When children found organizing necessary for their own protection for example, in schools during a strike by their parents contingents of "Junior Wobblies" were formed.
From its inception in 1905, the I.W.W. advocated the overthrow of the wage system, and putting workers in control of their own work lives through industrial organization. These goals were to be accomplished via class warfare. The I.W.W. willingly employed strikes, boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of direct action to achieve their ends. They were initially opposed to the use of labor contract and quickly rejected electoral politics as a solution to the problems of poor working folk. The I.W.W. advocated the use of sabotage, defining this concept according to its original meaning, "the withdrawal of efficiency." Thus, according to the Wobblies, even a strike was one form of sabotage. Their tenacious advocacy of direct action, often in opposition to collective bargaining, brought harsh criticism in some quarters, and ultimately resulted in labor laws aimed at curtailing such creative tactics.
Haywood and the majority of the organization saw the union as the best mechanism for realizing social change. Haywood often spoke of the union as "socialism with its working clothes on." But De Leon and his followers had seen the I.W.W. as an adjunct of the Socialist Labor Party. After several years of feuding between the Socialist Party and the Socialist Labor Party, union members became fed up and voted to terminate support for any form of electoral politics in 1908. De Leon left the I.W.W. and formed a rival union organization, totally subservient to the Socialist Labor Party, but that organization lasted only a few years. Debs also left the organization, but remained sympathetic to its goals.
In 1912, the I.W.W. claimed a membership near 100,000, and was organizing factories in the eastern United States. By 1917 the I.W.W. boasted a hundred thousand members in the Agricultural Workers Organization (A.W.O.) alone. The I.W.W. was growing in strength, and that fact alarmed capitalists and their supporters. Nervous state legislators enacted anti-syndicalist laws, aimed specifically at membership in the I.W.W. In many states, simply possessing a red card signifying membership in the union was considered evidence of a crime.
The I.W.W. had always been opposed to all manifestations of capitalist domination. Therefore I.W.W. members described World War I as a "boss`s war." But war fervor dominated the period, resulting in widespread disapproval of the Wobblies. Many in the organization evaded the draft, and others were falsely accused of taking money from German agents. But the greatest impetus for action against the union was its success in organizing industries critical to the war effort, and its refusal to disavow strikes during the war. A number of leaders were arrested under provisions of the Espionage Act, including Haywood, who skipped bail and escaped to Russia, leaving the union with an enormous debt. Others were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.
The hard line against the I.W.W. continued after the war. By the mid-1920s the combination of government repression, a split in the organization, and widespread defections of the membership to the Communist Party resulted in a significant loss of its organizing strength.
The I.W.W. may never have reached its goals, but members of the I.W.W. maintained a coherent critique of the A.F.L. and its principle of organization by craft. In contrast, the I.W.W. advocated organization by class. The I.W.W. called its philosophy revolutionary industrial unionism, and many of its industrial unionism ideas were adopted by the C.I.O., which later joined the A.F.L. Echoes of Wobbly creativity can be seen in the C.I.O.`s early use of sitdown strikes, for example. The I.W.W. continues to organize today, although it is still struggling to build that "One Big Union" of all the workers.
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