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

What is the IWW and What Does it Want?

By Justus Ebert - from the One Big Union Monthly, March 1, 1919v1n1 pg24-26

This being the first issue of the One Big Union Monthly there might be a number of people who look for an explanation of what the I.W.W. is and what it wants.

The capitalist press is full of notes about us every day of late, but hardly ever will one find a correct description of us and our aims. They seem to be afraid that if people find out who we are and what we want, it will be ìall offî with themselves and their paymasters.

Everybody knows what a labor union is. Well, the IWW is a labor union, the very latest in labor unions. It embodies a new invention, or rather a discovery in the field of labor unionism. It is hardly right to call it merely an improvement on old trade unionism, no more than it would be right to call the limousine an improvement on the wheelbarrow. It is an entirely new departure in the domain of social organization, a discovery that is right now, at this very moment engaged in no smaller a task than revolutionizing the whole world.

But are you not afraid to speak of ìrevolutionî in that reckless way, the reader may ask. You ought to know that the U.S. authorities, at the present time particularly, are in no mood to tolerate that kind of talk. Well, we are no more afraid to use the world revolution in this connection than we are afraid of speaking of geological revolutions, or biological revolutions. Neither one of them lies within the control of mere man, be he a hunted I.W.W. man or a highly respected prosecuting attorney or judge. All three of these revolutions are the result and outcome of conditions that precede them, and we are only the human material used by the makers of world revolutions in their effort to improve this universe of ours. Why should the tree be afraid to speak of the ax, why should the dough be afraid to speak of the baker? If the prosecutor wants to do business, why does he not tackle our boss, the fictitious mind or spirit that has guided the fortunes of this planet so far, and who will have to take the responsibility for the conditions at the bottom of this world revolution as well as the honor of having instilled this new idea in the human mind.

But to return to the subject. The I.W.W. is a labor union, and as such it has first for its aim to organize the workers, so that they can jointly force the employers of workers to grant better pay, shorter hours, and better conditions. Experience has shown us workers that we will never get any improvement except by exerting pressure on the boss and putting our organized power behind it.

This same thing has been attempted also by the old trade unions. As long as we lived in a society of small private capitalism, and as long as production was carried on craft lines, the trade unions made a success of it. In fact, all the progress made by labor in the 19th century was due to the pressure exerted by trades unions. It is perhaps wrong to speak of progress, for the progress was only superficial. What we gained in improved living conditions, we lost in prospects and independence, until today we have no prospects at all except eternal wage slavery, and no independence except such as the master class sees fit to grant us, and that is very little. After a century of trade unionism we are too poor to be independent.

Trade Unionism is out of date. The new capitalistic conditions require a new kind of unionism, namely industrial organization of all workers into one big union, and this is just what the Industrial Workers of the World proposes to be when it gets ready. With these larger aggregations of men along industrial lines we feel that we are better able to fight with the employer for living conditions.

On the basis o this reasoning we are organizing the workers irrespective of craft into one big union.

Taking for instance the stockyards. We do not know how many crafts there are in the stockyards, but there are many. According to the old style, these crafts would be organized each by itself, the carpenters belonging to the national union of carpenters, the engineers to the national union of engineers, the butchers to the national union of butchers, etc. It also belongs to old style unionism to leave the unskilled workers unorganized.

Our method would be to organize all the workers in a plant, as a branch of the Stockyard Workersí Industrial Union. This would imply the cancelling of trade distinctions and craft lines. As against the employer we would face him not as butchers, laborers, carpenters or engineers, but as stockyard workers, no matter whether we are office clerks or laborers, or carpenters, or engineers. This is what we mean with industrial unionism. The various branches would combine into district organizations if necessary, and all of them together would form the Stockyard Workersí Industrial Union as part of the Industrial Workers of the World.

By being thus organized we hope to be able to carry on the fight locally, or by districts, or on a national scale with better chance of success, than if we were split up in a great number of unions in each plant, with little or no contact with one another. The advantages of the one big union idea are so apparent, that no honest worker will in earnest contradict us.

The only reason why the stockyard workers have not as yet organized as we suggest, is that the ideas has not yet reached the great mass of them or else not penetrated into their mind. When it does, as it will sooner or later, the powerful foodtrust that is now holding the American people by the throat, is going to rock on its foundations.

So far we have only pointed out wherein the I.W.W. is an improvement on the old trade unions, and we now leave that point and take up the grand fundamental idea underlying the I.W.W., the idea which perhaps more than anything else has made it hated by the capitalist class and loved by the workers.

The I.W.W. proposes to become the structure of the new society. Most every intelligent worker now-a-days recognizes as a fact that capitalism is going to pieces, and that a new system of owning and operating the means of production and distribution is going to take its place. The I.W.W. claims to have discovered that system and is now perfecting it as fast as it can, with the hope of having the structure of the new society ready to take the place of capitalism, when the latter no longer can perform the functions of society, viz. supplying the needs of the people.

As we have already stated, we are now re-grouping the people into industrial organizations, beginning with the actual performers of socially useful labor. When this system is ready it will be so constructed as to be able to absorb every human being. Every ablebodied person will be compelled to perform some useful social task, or he cannot exist.

The joint administration of these industrial organizations or unions will be the administration of the new society.

Private and collective capitalist ownership and control of the means of production and distribution will cease. The people itself takes over everything with the industrial unions as holding organs.

We maintain that only in this manner can the social question be solve. Only in this manner can the worker obtain the full product of his toil, only in this manner can parasitism, the curse of our day, be abolished and freedom be secured for every man, woman and child.

Our aim is not to establish a political dictatorship of the proletariat supported by force of arms, but to remodel the world in such a manner that there shall be nobody to be dictator over. We intend to make everybody a worker of some kind or other, thereby removing conflicting class interests and the necessity for dictatorship.

These few remarks will suffice for the present. For the rest we refer the reader to the preamble and to other articles in this number, to our advertised literature, and to our weekly papers.

The One Big Union Idea

The modern idea is the One Big Union idea. The idea of a union of all the worldís workers, on the basis of the worldís industries, is the hope of the human race. It is the idea that will save society from a breakdown of capitalist imperialism. It is the idea that will enable society to climb out of imperialist chaos and war into human fraternity and growth.

Under capitalist imperialism life is a war, for field investments. Under the One Big Union idea life is peace, for human enjoyment and development. It is an abhorrence of the kind of idealism that sees human advancement in savage reversions. It sees more in life than degradation and enslavement. It sees emancipation and aspiration. Such is the One Big Union idea.

The One Big Union idea is something more than the opposite of prevailing ideas. The One big Union idea is born of big industrial conditions that can only be dealt with by big unionism. The machine process is making the world one. In a world of machine-made oneness, a oneness in union ideas is a growing fact, as well as a necessity. So let no man ridicule the One Big Union idea as utopian, because the only thing utopian about the One Big Union idea is those who ridicule it. Be a One Big Unionist. Be a man with a big idea.

District Organizations and Industrial Unions

One often hear people speak of District Orgnization and Industrial Unions as mutually exclusive, and the discussion sometimes develops quite some heat. The fact is, of course, that they supplement each other.

Just as the district industrial union co-ordinates the work of surrounding branches, so the general industrial union co-ordinates the work of the district unions.

District organizations have been tried in every country, and are there to stay, because they are absolutely needed. Whether to have them or not, is largely a matter of convenience and expediency, a matter that should be settled by those concerned.

Take for instance the Lumber industry. The lumber industry of this country is located in 6 or 7 principal districts: Maine, The Great Lakes region, The Rocky Mountain region, The Pacific Coast region, The Louisiana-Arkansas region, and the Georgia-Florida region. These districts are separated by wide stretches of territory, and have each a more or less permanent crowd of workers.

Of course, all the lumber workers of the country should be organized into one Industrial Union. If all branches belong directly to this industrial union, its business office will be a big one and a busy one, being that it would have to attend to not only matters of detail for each branch, but also to all matters of a national scope, or eventually worldwide scope.

The main office should be centrally located, but even so the work will of necessity be quite cumbersome, and no matter how centrally located it is in this country, it will still be a long way off from the various districts.

It is not for the editor of this magazine to tell the lumber workers what they shall do, or not do. They can best order their own affairs. But it should not surprise us, if they found that the district industrial union is just the thing for them. If the lumber workers establish a district office at some central point of each district, it would of course increase expenses to some extent, but the advantages would perhaps more than compensate for this. Business would be more easily transacted between neighboring locals, and there would be a closer and more frequent contact.

The work of the general office of the union would be greatly simplified. It would perhaps find time for the important task of planning the transfer of the industry into the hands of the workers, when the elected officers are freed from routine business, as well as taking care of the educational side of the work, issuing of books, pamphlets and periodicals on pertinent matter, etc.

Where the union is not as yet big enough to keep district offices as well as a general office, the membership would have to decide whether to keep 2, 3 or more district offices, and for the moment dispense with the general office, or to keep no office besides the general office.

Through the district offices we get the advantages of decentralization, through the general office we get the no less important advantages of centralization. In the end we must have both.

A Constructive Ideal the I.W.W.

The Industrial Workers of the World is something more than a movement to organize unions along industrial instead of trade lines, with more wages and less hours as its one and only aim.

The Industrial Workers of the World is a movement that attempts to prepare a new society, in which the workers employed in the worldís industries shall own and control those industries--shall own and control the world in fact. It means the creation of a new world--a new life!

The Industrial Workers of the World is the conscious effort to organize and prepare the workers for this purpose, not because of impossible dreams, but because of the demands of society in its upward climb. It is industrial development--capitalist development--that makes the Industrial Workers of the World necessary, and that compels the preparation of a working class competent to continue this development to higher planes, when capitalism itself shall have been overthrown by its own incompetency, contradiction and failures.

The Industrial Workers of the World is a great constructive force, brought into being by capitalism itself to supplant capitalism. It is because it is such a constructive force that the Industrial Workers of the World is so hated by capitalism. Like all selfish fathers, capitalism hates to see its own progeny turn on and supplant it.

Consider what the Industrial Workers of the World program implies! No longer, under the idealism of the Industrial Workers of the World, are workingmen and women considered only fit to train themselves to make profits for capitalists. Instead they are called on to study industry, in all its technical, economic, financial, and social features. from the crudest of materialists, content with a bellyfilling job, they are urged to become the most scientific of idealists, competent for mastery over all the problems of society and life.

The Industrial Workers of the World calls on the working class to be supermen instead of slaves; and as supermen to labor for no manís subjugation, but for the cooperation and elevation of all in all. The liberation of the bourgeoisie from aristocracy and kingcraft gave capitalism a great impetus forward! And the emancipation of the working class from capitalist domination will give the race a forward impulse impossible of calculation. It will be progress at once stupendous and immense; for the working class is the human race, and its liberation means the liberation of every human faculty and aspiration.

This, then, is the Industrial Workers of the World: It is constructive, idealistic, evolutionary and revolutionary. Hated by capitalism, persecuted to death, it still lives, the embodiment of an ideal that can only die with its own consummation.