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

The IWW - Its First 100 Years

By Harry Siitonen - Past General Secretary-Treasurer, IWW (1993); written March 2005

Frequently, when someone sees one of us wearing an IWW t-shirt or a button at a demo or picket line, the question invariably pops up: "What, are you guys still around?" Like we'd been dead and buried somewhere back in the 1920s. Or, "Oh, so the Wobblies are back!" But we're here to tell you, we never left. We're celebrating our 100th birthday this year and are organizing workers with good, recent successes. But more on that later. Let's go back to the very beginning.

Near the turn of the 20th Century, there was considerable dissension among workers over the narrow craft orientation and exclusivity of the American Federation of Labor, with the bulk of the American working class left unorganized. So in June of 1905, a gathering of about two hundred socialists, anarchists, and radical unionists from all over America held a convention in Chicago, at which the Industrial Workers of the World was organized. The theme was industrial unionism, where all workers would be organized in solidarity in One Big Union, irrespective of race, color, ethnicity or gender. Its founders included Big Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, Daniel De Leon, Eugene V. Debs, Thomas J. Hagerty, Lucy Parsons, Mary Harris Jones ("Mother Jones"), William Trautmann, Vincent Saint John, and Ralph Chaplin.

Its current Preamble has the spirit if not the letter of the original:

"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 the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the earth. .. Instead of the conservative motto, 'A fair day's wage for a fair day's work', we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system'."

While some mistakenly consider the IWW as anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist, it's more inclusive than that, although many anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists have always belonged. It espouses revolutionary industrial unionism, and poses no ideological litmus tests, as long as one is a wage or salaried worker, and is not an employer of wage labor. The emphasis is on democratic rank and file unionism, instead of a hierarchy of union bureaucrats running the show and asking the members to merely follow, like in most business unions. Workers on the shop or office floor are encouraged to deal directly with the boss as a unit.

Since the beginning, women, immigrants, and people of color were welcomed and many have been prominent in the organizing. People like Carlo Tresca, Joe Hill, and Mary Jones were among those immigrant activists. My maternal uncle, Antti Saikkonen, came from Finland to the United States at age 16 around 1907, worked as an itinerant logger and miner and was a proud bearer of the Wobbly Red Card.

It was a militant union from the beginning and was not timid about taking on the employers. So it drew the immediate enmity of the ruling class, as a threat to the status quo. IWW members were accused of being bomb throwers and saboteurs, but generally espoused the philosophy of the "folded arms" in the withholding of their labor when the occasion called. And they were often effective in improving working conditions. What they considered "sabotage", comprised tactics of slowdowns, following rules exactly, mass sickouts---practices which are not uncommon today in workplace struggles. For the Wobblies often favored the idea of "striking on the job", rather than just striking and starving on the picket line outside the plant and watching the scabs do their work, unless there was a good chance of winning the more traditional strike.

But the bosses were relentless and these masterless rebel workers were often jailed, beaten and sometimes killed in trying to wrest some dignity from the voracious robber barons of capitalism. Free speech fights were a fight-back tactic particularly in the Western States, where IWW organizers would be arrested for soap boxing in the skid rows of large cities, trying to sign up loggers, miners and farm workers who were waiting to get hired by unscrupulous labor sharks. So the IWW contributed considerably to our civil liberties by having hundreds of members come from all over to soapbox, get arrested and pack the jails. They would sing the lusty Wobbly songs in the jails, and end up costing the cities where they were locked up so much money that they'd be released and often the free speech bans would be lifted, as in Spokane in 1909.

In 1908, there was a policy split (nothing new on the Left), which culminated at the 1908 Convention in Chicago. Daniel De Leon's doctrinaire Socialist Labor Party group wanted to dominate the fledgling union under his autocratic dominance, and thus wanted that political action should be included in the policy. But the more radical faction, led by Saint John, Trautmann, and Haywood favored an emphasis on direct action, propaganda and strikes as the effective way forward, and opposed arbitration and political affiliation. The militants won and the De Leonists left in anger. Although Haywood himself and thousands of other Wobblies were Socialist Party members then, the IWW since then has not been affiliated with or endorsed any political party, direct action being its forte. Present policy is that you're welcome in the organization whatever your personal political or religious stance and can be active in such movements, but just leave your politics or anarchism or religion outside the IWW union hall.


The IWW first got on the map in labor struggles at Goldfield, Nevada in 1906 where for a time it ran the town as a de facto government. In 1909, the IWW won a spectacular victory in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, at the Pressed Steel Car Company which drew widespread notice. This was the same year as some of the spectacular free speech fights. Meanwhile, in Alexandria and Grabow, Louisiana, IWW poet Covington Hall was organizing lumberjacks and mill workers. Big Bill Haywood, who had been found innocent of a framed up murder charge in Salt Lake City in 1907, went down to Louisiana to lend a hand. He discovered that black and white lumberjacks were meeting separately at Alexandria. The two groups were soon integrated by the IWW and met together, something unheard of in the Deep South at the time. Interracial labor solidarity gained a tenuous foothold.

By 1912, the union had about 50,000 members, including dockworkers, and in agriculture, textiles, logging, and mining. They were involved in around 150 strikes in that period. The most famous of these was the Lawrence textile strike in Massachusetts. Since the mills employed thousands of immigrant workers of many nationalities, with limited knowledge of English, no one thought a successful strike organization possible, especially the mill bosses. But rallies were addressed by ethnic speakers of all these groups in their own languages, which was also reflected in strike literature, and an amazing solidarity was forged. This strike also involved masses of women workers who performed heroically, inspiring the beautiful labor song, "Bread and Roses". Early strike leaders Joseph J. Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, also a noted IWW poet, were jailed. Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Tresca, and Trautmann came to fill the gap, and after great sacrifice the strike was won with considerable gain for the workers. At that time, the IWW did not believe in signed contracts and eventually the union vanished from Lawrence. The same kind of strike was prosecuted in 1913 at the Paterson, New Jersey mills, which eventually fizzled out, though hard fought.

From the late 1910s to the 1930s , the IWW's Marine Transport Industrial Union, led by an African-American dockworker Ben Fletcher, organized mainly Black longshoremen in Philadelphia and Baltimore and practically controlled the work in that industry for more than a decade. Between 1915 and 1917, the IWW Agricultural Workers Organization organized many thousands of agricultural workers throughout the Midwest and West, with many successful results. The Union was also heavily engaged in Canada.

In 1916, another major strike in the iron ore mines on the Mesabi Range had similar ethnic demographics as Lawrence, but again the formula of having organizers from every ethnic group involved made for solidarity. The Finns who a major ethnic group in the Mesabi Range mines, were a particularly militant force, and even created what became a Finnish-language IWW daily newspaper in Duluth. It was the only daily newspaper ever published in the IWW. Again, the long, bitter strike was lost, although some wage gains were made. But plenty of miners kept their Red Cards and Northern Minnesota remained a strong Wobbly stronghold.


While the IWW primarily eschewed electoral action in favor of industrial direct action as the best way to achieve the new society, thousands of Wobblies did belong to the Socialist Party. Big Bill Haywood even traveled with Gene Debs on the Red Special train during the SP's presidential campaign of 1908. He was also serving on the Party's National Committee. The Party was enjoying considerable electoral success, winning the municipal governments in a number of cities, including Milwaukee, where Victor Berger was elected to Congress on the SP ticket. Many good legislative gains were made for the people of these cities under Socialist administrations. But these gains brought about a trend to compromise on Socialist basics to attract more middle class votes, even those of small business. With the bad press of the capitalist media hounding the IWW as the agents of Satan, perpetrators of violence and sabotage, way overdone, the more reformist elements felt that the IWW elements in the SP were a liability for growing electoral success. So the radicals had to be jettisoned, for purposes of "respectability". So in 1912, Haywood was recalled from the National Committee, despite pleas by such Party luminaries as Helen Keller. His views were thus declared incompatible with Party policy. This led to a major exodus of thousands of IWW members from the SP. This became the first major schism within the Party. From my perspective, the move really hurt both the Party and the IWW badly and was a tragedy. The Party lost thousands of its most militant, courageous, class-conscious working class members for good. And the increased electoral successes for the Party did not happen in any great measure. In fact, Joseph R. Conlin in his book, "Big Bill Haywood & The Radical Union Movement", Syracuse University Press (1969), indicates that in those municipalities in which the Wobblies were strongest, that the Party actually lost votes after the schism, instead of attracting the middle class. For the Wobblies, it proved disastrous as the baiting by the SP's reformist wing added fuel to the public fire fomented by the bosses that the IWWs were indeed the evil spawn that they portrayed. In subsequent decades an SP member presence has been re-established within the IWW, joining the anarchists, syndicalists, and other rebel workers within its ranks, but serious damage was done in those earlier times.


Although the IWW's tactics emphasized non-violence, the reaction by the government, bosses, and mobs of "respectable citizens" were brutally violent. In 1914, Joe Hill (Joel Hagglund), a Swedish-American itinerant worker and famous Wobbly songwriter an poet, was accused of murder on only flimsy circumstantial evidence and was executed by a firing squad in Salt Lake City in 1915. IWW organizer and General Executive Board member Frank Little was lynched by company thugs during a copper strike at Butte, Montana. At Everett, Washington, a drunken mob of deputized businessmen led by Sheriff Donald McRae, attacked Wobblies on the steamship Verona, killing five, with six lost in Puget Sound. Hundreds of Wobblies were shipped in freight cars to be marooned in the New Mexico desert by copper bosses and their vigilantes during a strike at Bisbee, Arizona.

World War I gave the Army the opportunity to crush the IWW. Although most Wobs opposed the war, the union never took an official position on it. But the government and employers fomented a lynch spirit to attack the IWW. In 1919, in Centralia, Washington, vigilantes attacked the IWW hall, and when IWW member and returning war veteran Wesley Everest shot back, he was killed by the mob. In September, 1917, the Feds made simultaneous raids on 48 IWW halls around the country. 166 IWW activists were arrested for conspiring to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others under the new Espionage Act. 161 went on trial before Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1918 and all were found guilty. Some had not even been members for many years. While on bail, Big Bill Haywood fled to the Soviet Union where he died in 1928, a lonely and broken man. Communist Party promises to reimburse the bail money for Haywood and others were never fulfilled.

Even after the war, the repression continued. IWWs were persecuted and harassed under state and federal laws. A number of Wobblies were sentenced to lengthy prison terms under the so-called criminal-syndicalist laws. These included Fred Thompson, a popular Chicago Wobbly writer, editor, organizer, educator and historian, who joined the SP in his later years, as well as his lifetime in the IWW, until his death in 1987. Many foreign-born Wobblies and other radicals were deported under the Palmer Raids.


Another major hit hurt the IWW as a consequence of the Russian Revolution. Considerable numbers of members were lost to the Communists in the heady days of promise in its aftermath. Although the Union at first was sympathetic, soon reality hit. The Red Labor International in Moscow urged Wobblies and other radicals to join the AFL and other "yellow unions" and "bore from within". Those kinds of tactics were distasteful to the IWW and something an honest rebel could not countenance. Then Moscow wanted to name who could be on the IWW General Executive Board. This went totally counter to the IWW's principle of union democracy; its rank and file members elect the GEB, no one else. So with the increasing top-down dictatorial rule developing in the Soviet Union, the IWW became an opponent.

Still, despite all its adversities the IWW continued to organize. In 1923, its membership was at its historic highest of some 100,000 members. Then the disaster of "splititis" struck again in 1924. A bitter division developed between the "Easterners" and the "Westerners" over a number of issues. Chief among them was the role of the General Administration, simplified as a fight between "centralists" and "decentralists". This battle played holy havoc for several years before it subsided. However, by 1930, the membership had shrunk to around 10,000. It was still able, however, to conduct a successful state-wide mining strike in Colorado in the late 1920s, but again, despite gains for the workers, the organization was unable to stabilize its presence and disappeared mostly from the scene.

But the IWW never gave up fighting and during the 1930s organized a number of stove factories in Cleveland with which it signed contracts and represented until the 1950s. Of course, all this time, Wobblies took part in the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s. Many were "two-carders". They held membership in whatever union existed on their job, but also kept up their IWW dues., and always maintained the principles of union democracy and rank and file militancy wherever they worked. (For instance, the author is a "three-carder". He is a retiree member of 48 years standing in the International Typographical Union, later the Printing Sector of the CWA, a 15-year active member of the Screen Actors Guild, as well as almost 36 years in the One Big Union.). With the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959 and its anti-communist affidavits to rid unions of leftist leaders, the IWW lost the Cleveland metal shops. As a point of principle, the IWW, along with the Typographical Union and United Mine Workers, refused to sign such loyalty oaths, so the Cleveland shops left the Union and affiliated with a more compliant one. This was a major loss for the IWW.

The IWW was at a lowest ebb in membership as the Sixties approached, but the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war activity and university student movements brought new life to the Union. Small scale organizing drives resumed and successes were attained in printing collectives, coffee shops and art movie houses. In the 1980s the IWW were successful in organizing a large non-profit book store and warehouse operation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and gained a voice in its management. But a few years later the top managerial bureaucracy sold out to a for-profit operation elsewhere and the Ann Arbor workplaces were closed. From the 1990s on the Union achieved good successes in organizing shops. In Berkeley, California, the Union has succeeded in organizing three workplaces which are now under contract. These include two recycling plants and a fabric store with almost all women employees. Ecology Center trucks picking up household recycling goods all over the city are operated by IWW members. Portland, Oregon has organized numerous non-profits and shops in various industries, operates the Red and Black restaurant collective and a couple of years ago at the city's May Day parade, 300 people marched under the IWW's banner. In the Stockton, California area close to 250 independent truckers, mostly East Indian, but including Filipinos, African-Americans and Mexicans joined the IWW in 2004 and have won some important disputes, particularly in the payment for excess wait time and reinstatement of firings. Since these truckers are "independent contractors" they are not recognized as a labor union under Federal labor law, but it's surprising what can be done on an informal basis as long as strong solidarity is practiced.

Other labor struggles the Union has participated in was Redwood Summer and the picketing of the Neptune Jade in the Port of Oakland in late 1997, for which the IWW earned positive recognition from the maritime unions, in which some of our members are two-carders. In recent years, the union has set up organizer training programs both in the US and Canada in many localities. Our brilliant young woman General Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss has played a vital role in organizing these trainings. With the difficulty of going to NLRB route for recognition in the hostile anti-labor climate of late-stage neo-liberal capitalism, the IWW has brought the concept of "minority unionism" to the fore. Never mind playing around with the obstructive government restrictions on recognition. It's possible to sign up workers in the Union, and operate informally at a workplace in solidarity direct actions to defend and advance workers. rights in increasingly sweatshop conditions. Here GST Buss and veteran labor activist Staughton Lynd have conducted workshops around the country on minority unionism. This really harks back to the early days of IWW organizing when loggers would have stop-work meetings to demand lice-free mattresses in the bunkhouses and decent grub at the evening meal, and often win. Being the Industrial Workers of the World, the organization is not only confined to the USA, but has active branches and sections in Canada, Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom.


We would be remiss if the importance of the popular culture of the IWW wasn't included in this article. The entire labor movement has enjoyed the impact of IWW songs, poetry, skits, music, art (particularly cartoon and poster art), and irreverent satire, even at its own expense. Being the free-spirited, anti-authoritarian kind of folks the Wobblies are, the juices of their cultural creativity know no parallel in the labor movement. "Solidarity Forever", written by early Wobbly Ralph Chaplin, has become the virtual national anthem of the entire labor movement. Joe Hill is celebrated for both his irreverent, colorful songs and poems as much as for his martyrdom. T-Bone Slim (the itinerant Finnish-American worker from Ashtabula, Ohio, Matt Valentine Huhta) wrote many great songs, including "The Popular Wobbly", and as a writer for the Industrial Worker, was known for his great humor and surreal twists on the English language. Poets included Covington Hall, Ralph Chaplin, Arturo Giovannitti, and Matilda Rabinowitz (later, Matilda Robbins who I met in Los Angeles in the 1950s where she was a good friend of the SP). She was also one of the great early woman organizers of the Union. The IWW Little Red Songbook is still in print and continues to be a best-seller at every public gathering where an IWW literature table is present,. Dozens of performing artists sing old and new Wobbly songs. If you ever have a chance to go hear a Utah Phillips concert go hear him or buy one of his CDs. This veteran IWW sourdough knows all the old faves, and is a great story-telling raconteur to boot.


We've been here for a century now, and raring to go on and organize workers for the next 100. The world is in huge trouble, however, for its working masses and the earth's very survival with the madcap cancerous rampage of an insatiable, carnivorous capitalism. The working class, despite all, remains the best hope to challenge it. All the so-called "mainstream" unions in this country are shrinking rapidly and represent 13% of US workers at present. Animated, even panicky, discussion is going on right now for the restructuring of the AFL-CIO, but most proposals are for top-down hierarchical approaches, staying within the parameters of business unionism, supporting the Democrats with even more money, and not challenging the very existence of capitalism as a class movement. Certainly, the core ideas expressed in the IWW Preamble are more relevant than ever. The IWW will be in the middle of all this dialogue, calling for a class-conscious, rank-and-file controlled democratic labor movement, empowering women, people of color, and sexual and other minorities within the working class to be fully participatory components within it. And above all, working to end the great scourge of capitalism. At the Seattle anti-WTO globalist demonstrations in 1999, the IWW contingent carried a banner, reading: "Capitalism Cannot Be Reformed". Amen!