This site is a static archive. Visit the current IWW website at ▸
Skip to main content

IWW Cultural Icons

The IWW's history is rich and colorful, with a large collection of cultural icons that are deeply embedded in US and World labor history. Each of these icons has a detailed story and an explanation.  Here we briefly introduce you to the more famous IWW icons and offer some explanations of their origin, as well as suggested further reading:

The "Wobbly" Nickname - Members of the IWW have been collectively known as "the Wobblies" and very often we get asked how we got that nickname and where it arose.  Here are some theories.

Joe Hill - The IWW, being a no-holds barred, proud and revolutionary, class struggle oriented, industrial union has brought on no shortage of state and capitalist repression throughout its history and we have generated many martyrs as a result.  Here we explore the phenomena of our most famous martyr.

The Little Red Songbook - The IWW has long been known as "the singing union" for good reason.  Since the early 1910s, the IWW has published at least 38 editions of this famous collection of labor hymns and anthems, and yes, always with a bright red cover!

Solidarity Forever - one of Organized Labor's most famous anthems (set to the tune of "John Brown's Body"--better known as the Battle Hymn of the Republic) was penned by our very own Ralph Chaplin in 1915. 

"Soap Boxing" and Free Speech Fights - The First Amendment to the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States of America supposedly grants citizens the right to peacefully assemble, petition for a redress of grievances, and speek freely without government censorship, but workers in the US (and elsewhere) have always had to fight to assert these rights when challenging the capitalist class.  The IWW's "free speech fights" are the stuff of legend and lore.  Here we briefly explore these events.

Hoboes - The IWW has a long cultural association with Hoboes and Hobo culture.  This is not accidental; in fact, there is a logical, historical, economic explanation for the  IWW's affinity with those who "ride the rails".

The Black Cat - Sometimes known as "sab-kitty", or "sabo-tabby", the IWW's frequent use of the black cat to symbolize "sabotage" (direct action at the point of production, not destruction of machinery or property) is explained.

The Wooden Shoe - Sometimes also known as the "sabot" the root word of "sabotage" is explained, but it does not actually derive from incidents of workers throwing these wooden clogs into machines to hinder their operation, despite romantic myth.

Silent Agitators - The IWW's use of colorfully (well, red and black at least) graphic stickers to communicate silently with other members and potential members, their origins, and their artistry (for example, many were designed and drawn by Ralph Chaplin) are briefly explored.

Mr. Block - Here we briefly describe the IWW artist Ernest Riebe created cartoon character, Mr. Block: the dense worker who doesn't ever seem to get the IWW, class consciousness, or that the employing class is not his friend.

Direct Action and Sabotage - Despite what you have heard, sabotage is not destruction of property or machines (and the IWW does not endorse or condone such actions). It is the collective withdrawal of efficiency by the workers at the point of production.  Here we discuss this loaded and controversial concept.

The General Strike - Labor's most powerful and potent weapon was not created by the IWW, but IWW members William "Big Bill" Haywood and Ralph Chaplin defined and explained the concept better than anyone else at their time, and the IWW has historically been the most consistent advocate for the use of the tactic.  Here we offer their original and unabridged writings on labor's ultimate weapon.

The Industrial Worker - The IWW's current official newspaper is not the original nor is it the only existing official periodical publication, but it is the longest continuously existings uch publication.  here we give a brief description of our much beloved (and sometimes much maligned) newspaper.

IWW.ORG - since 1995, the IWW has maintained an internet presence.  The IWW is only the second union in the world (the first was an Israeli teacher's union local--but the IWW's was the first international union website).  Here we give a brief history of our website, thus explaining how the IWW pioneered the "virtual" soapbox as well.