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The Wobblies

Elizabeth Knipe: The movement to organize labor is filled with colorful characters and none more so than those who led the International Workers of the World, more popularly known as the Wobblies.

“Workers of the world, awaken
Break your chains, demand your rights
All the wealth you make is taken
By exploiting parasites”
Joe Hill, The Little Red Songbook, circa 1923


“Pray for the dead. And fight like hell for the living.” --Mother Jones

The movement to organize labor is filled with colorful characters and none more so than those who led the International Industrial Workers of the World, more popularly known as the Wobblies.

Origin of the nickname Wobblies is a mystery. There was considerable debate on their website in 2005 on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the I.W.W.; however, the consensus is no one can actually pinpoint the origin. Since International Workers of the World is a mouthful, my guess is Wobblies evolved as a simpler, easier to remember name.

Yes, they are still with us, albeit in much smaller numbers and with little of the influence they once wielded. They are headquartered in Chicago and there are active branches in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

They have listed on their excellent website their many current organizing activities, including the Starbucks Union. (who knew?) If you wish to join the Starbucks Union, there are no dues, and if you want to join the I.W.W. it will cost you seven dollars. They were also involved in promoting a general strike in Wisconsin in response to the governor’s union killing legislation this past winter.

I consider them the “shock” troops in the labor organizing effort

The International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) was founded in 1905 in Chicago by a group of socialists, anarchists and radical trade unionists (that must have been some gathering), as an alternative to Samuel Gompers and his AFL. The five influential union officials, active in the revolutionary labor movement, who organized this first meeting, were already members of the Brotherhood of Engineers, the Americans of Labor, and the Brewers Union

Among the founding members at this meeting in 1905 were Big Bill Haywood, Eugene V. Debs and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and Lucy Gonzalez Parsons.

Big Bill Haywood, who went to work in the Utah mines at the age of nine, was active in the West helping to organize mineworkers. He had just been acquitted of murder in Idaho in 1905, when he showed up in Chicago to help form the I.W.W. Hayward was a true believer in socialism at its most pure. He was often quoted as saying that “the union was socialism with its working clothes on.”

A controversial figure with his fanatical dedication to organizing workers everywhere, he believed in head on confrontation with the “employing class".

Mother Jones and Lucy Gonzalez Parsons were tireless fiery union organizers. Both lived to a ripe old age, spreading the gospel of free speech and the right of workers to organize all over the United States.

Mother Jones, dubbed “the angel of the miners is the most famous of this group. It is believed that the song “She will be comin’ ‘round the mountain when she comes” was written about her and her tireless efforts to organize the mineworkers in Appalachia.

Lucy Parsons was considered by the Chicago Police Department to be “more dangerous than a 1000 demonstrators". Her husband was one of the seven hanged in the tragic aftermath of the Haymarket riots.

Whereas the AFL was organizing by craft and was highly structured, the founders of the I.W.W. believed that a labor union should be governed by the rank and file, and that all unions should stand together. They believed that “it was necessary to promote worker solidarity in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the employing class".

The first sentence of the preamble to I.W.W.’s constitution sums up its philosophy:

“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 in life.”

They advocated the overthrow of the wage system and believed that the workers had to control their own lives through industrial organization.

The term “Wobbly Shop” meant that the workers could elect recallable delegates to the bargaining table.

They originally disdained collective bargaining agreements all together, but reality took over, and they would allow collective bargaining if a clause in which unions could lend support to other unions in gaining benefits was included. Today this could be interpreted as “not crossing a picket line.”

Other innovative tactics adopted later, especially by the CIO, was slowdown in the workplace or what the Wobblies called “sabotage,” defined by them as “a collective withdrawal of efficiency by workers at the point of production.”

Their sit down strikes were another tactic adopted other unions.

Sometimes known as the singing union, the I.W.W. developed its “ I.W.W. Songs” subtitled “To Fan the Flames of Discontent”. More popularly known as the “Little Red Song Book,” it gave workers a feeling of solidarity in an era when illiteracy was the norm, and many immigrant workers especially in the West did not speak English. The songbook has gone through 35 editions since its inception in 1910.

Rivalry between the AFL and the I.W.W. was bitter and long. The AFL was known to sabotage I.W.W. organizing efforts.

Colorful, idealistic, pretty effective in their heyday, they quickly became a lightening rod for all those who opposed organized labor. They were the most radical of all the labor-organizing groups. Confrontational, outspoken, and with a “take no prisoners” attitude in their organizing efforts, they provoked equally strong reaction on the part of the employing classes.

Black Cat (or the sab-cat) stickers posted in a particular area signified the Wobblies would be holding meetings and attempting to organize.

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The I.W.W. was unique in that they welcomed Afro-Americans, women, and new immigrants to their ranks. In particular, Local 8, the longshoreman’s union in Philadelphia in 1918 had a majority of black members. At its peak, it had 5,000 members.

By May 1912, 25,000 workers claimed membership in the I.W.W.

They ranged from dockworkers in Philadelphia and Baltimore, mineworkers in Utah and Nevada; migrant farm workers in the Midwest and West; and textile workers in the Northeast.

The I.W.W., estimated expenses for relief and handling a number of strikes in 1912 alone was over $100,000. Some 75,152 strikers and their families were involved. An estimated 1,445 strikers were arrested and 577 were convicted.

Between 1915 and 1917, they organized more than a 1000 migratory farm workers throughout the Midwest and Western United States. They were very effective in organizing lumber workers in the far West and British Columbia in 1917, and bringing about improved working conditions.

Big Bill Haywood became formal head of the IWW in 1915. Using his controversial, sometime violent methods, honed in the mining fields of Colorado, Utah and Nevada, he led strikes in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and helped recruit over 3 million mine, mill and factory workers.

In 1918 using the Espionage Act of 1917 as its weapon, the Federal government arrested, Hayward along with over 100 other leaders for instigating strikes during wartime, and conspiracy to hinder the draft, and encourage desertion. They were prime targets, as they had made no secret of their opposition to the United States entering World War I.

They were all convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. Hayward served one year in the federal prison at Ft. Leavenworth, and while out on bail, awaiting appeal, he decamped to the Soviet Union. There he served as advisor to the Bolshevik government. Half of his ashes are buried in the Kremlin near his friend John Reed. He also left the I.W.W. in tremendous debt.

In the West I.W.W. leaders were lynched, mysteriously murdered or, if they were lucky, just run out town.

Their beloved troubadour Joe Hill was arrested in Utah and tried for murder on flimsy evidence. His fame was such that President Woodrow Wilson requested the Attorney General of the State of Utah to look into the matter. However, Hill’s wish to become a martyr was fulfilled, and he was hanged for a murder he did not commit. His rallying cry to his fellow union members was “don’t mourn, organize.”

This intense crackdown on the I.W.W. by Attorney General Palmer heavily damaged the I.W.W.’s organizing capabilities, and membership slipped when unions it had helped organize left and either disintegrated or joined other unions.

There was a damaging split between the West and the East factions over a number of issues. However, the I.W.W. continued to be successful in organizing migrant farm workers in the Midwest throughout the great depression.

Attempts to take over the union by the Communist Party, and the rise of the AFL further decimated the I.W.W. until by 1930 there were only 10,000 actual dues paying members.

When the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947 and called for the removal of communist union leadership the I.W.W. lost even more members.

Attorney General Tom Clark on his own initiative placed the I.W.W. on the list of subversive organizations in 1950, where they were listed along side such groups as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

It is hard to imagine today the class warfare that was being waged in the latter part of the 19th century into the 20th century, or then again maybe not. However, this battle between the “employing class” and the “employee class" was bloody, unrelenting, and there was no safe haven – no social safety net, no ACLU, no Federal Government intervention – they were on their own. Their courage and boldness in the face of vicious opposition is amazing.

To me what was interesting was how much activity preceded the I.W.W. The AFL was slowly organizing. The Brotherhood of Railway Employees was in play as was the American Labor Union and the Brewers Union. It was tough going.

The tragic Chicago Haymarket riots in 1886 were a serious setback to the labor movement.

However, in 1905 with the founding of the I.W.W., labor organizing was on the upswing, and the shock tactics of the I.W.W. became front-page news. The fuse was lit, and the I.W.W. went off like rocket.

I think the best summation of their efforts is in the verses, especially this first one. of “Solidarity Forever” by Ralph H. Chapin and sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

 “When the Union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall rise
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
But the Union makes us strong.


elizabeth knipe

Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
But the Union makes us strong”

Elizabeth Knipe

Published with permission from the Valley Dems United, Margie Murray, Editor.