In the Shadow of I.W.W.

By William LeFevre

black catiww logoblack catiww logo

It is a wonder that mention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) brings scant recognition from the average person today. In the little over a decade that it flourished, the union evoked intense emotions among its members and detractors. The IWW, whose members were and are known commonly as Wobblies, advocated such radical ideas as an eight hour work day and a forty hour work week, fought and sometimes won bitter freedom of speech fights, championed the causes of mineworkers in Bisbee, Arizona, and struck to improve the working conditions in the textile mills of Patterson, N.J. and Lawrence, Mass. In its heyday, the IWW was almost a household name. Wobblies were hated by many and loved by a few, but most importantly, they played a significant role in the shaping of modern America.

In June of 1905, delegates came together in Chicago for the founding convention of the IWW. The convention was a response, in part, to the restrictive organizing efforts of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) along lines of craft unionism and specific areas of manufacture. Moreover, it was a response to the unsafe working conditions, lack of job security, and low wages found in all areas of American industry at the turn of the century. Splintered by ideology regarding the organization of labor, delegates to the first IWW convention conceived a union with a low dues structure and a weak executive board. The power to recall the General Executive Board and for collection of dues rested with the general membership, and that membership would be open to all regardless of gender, race, or occupation. Delegates to the convention included veteran organizers from the Western Federation of Miners, unionists from the AFL and American Labor Union, and members of the Socialist Labor Party. Among the attendees of the convention was Eugene Debs.

In the early days of the IWW, much of the American work force labored under poor and dangerous working conditions, and the constant threat of replacement by the waves of immigrants flowing into the United States. Periodic economic recessions added to a climate in which lesser skilled workers were often seen as replaceable commodities. General organizing of workers had been attempted in the late 1800s, most notably under the Knights of Labor, but most people worked without benefit of union contracts. At the time the IWW was founded, the AFL was the most powerful labor institution in the United States, but it largely promoted organizing efforts among white, male, skilled workers. The convention delegates at the first IWW meeting, with no little disdain for the AFL, hoped to expand organizing to include workers across the United States without regard for race, creed, state boundaries, or gender.

Unlike the AFL which organized workers by skill, the IWW envisioned organizing workers by specific industry, regardless of the job performed. With organizers like Vincent St. John and Big Bill Haywood, both veterans of the Western Federation of Miners, the IWW attempted to enlist workers in industries not traditionally viewed as worth pursuing by the AFL and individual unions. Soon, there were IWW Industrial Union Locals among miners in the Southwest, lumberers in the Northwest, textile workers in the East, and dockworkers and marine transport workers around the country. With an emphasis on organizing, the IWW grew from 200 members to over 100,000 by 1917.

At its zenith, the IWW was helped in its efforts by growing public awareness of its battles over organizing and free speech. The union was blessed with skillful orators, among them Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Joseph Ettor. Martyrs to the cause, such as Frank Little and Joe Hill, added mystique to the IWW. Successes in the East and dramatic tragedies in the West, such as the Bisbee deportation, in which 1200 men where forcibly transported out of Arizona for alleged organizing attempts, made the IWW a champion of the masses in the eyes of the public. In the Utah murder case against Joe Hill, pleas for compassion came from Woodrow Wilson and the King of Sweden. At its peak, the union was defended by the likes of Clarence Darrow and included in its membership such luminaries as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Helen Keller. Martyred in Utah, Joe Hill gave unions organizing songs like "Casey Jones" that are still recognized today. His death was immortalized in IWW member Earl Robinson's song, "I Dreamt I Saw Joe Hill Last Night." . Another IWW member, Ralph Chaplin, wrote "Solidarity Forever," now recognized as the premier rallying song of American labor. Indeed, much of what American unions and American workers hold dear today was first championed by the IWW.

The decentralization of the power within the union made organizing efforts and the free speech fights of the IWW quite successful, but it also played a major part in the downfall of the union. The fact that roving delegates could act as "one man locals," signing up members and collecting dues, hid the inherent instability of the union. Much of the IWW success came from the charisma of its organizers, songwriters, and poets. However, the union's resistance to dues checkoffs and written contracts, both seen as tools employers could use against the union in times of disputes, robbed it of money and bargaining power. The fact that union organizers or delegates did not often stay in one place meant that many of the locals organized by the IWW simply stopped forwarding dues to the union or disbanded outright. Even successful organizing drives were marred when different Industrial Union Locals fought one another to organize the same workers within an industry. Finally, IWW leaders often engaged in internecine squabbles over the direction of the organization, resulting in a constant state of turmoil at the IWW's upper levels.

U.S. involvement in World War I changed public perception of the IWW and brought increased attention from the government. IWW organizing efforts during the war were thought to be counter to the patriotic spirit of the time and the union's inflammatory language was uncomfortably close to that of radicals in other parts of the world. The IWW's decision to organize heavily among immigrant workers, blacks, migrants, and other alien elements of the workforce helped to cast it as a menace to the United States.

During the last year of the war, the government moved to seize the records of the IWW and its locals, and jailed many leaders and local union members. Eventually the IWW's outspoken leader, Bill Haywood, left for the Soviet Union, where he is buried alongside the columnist John Reed at the Kremlin wall.

The trials broke the back of the IWW. Bereft of money and its most influential leaders, the union never again attained the widespread support it enjoyed in the early 1900s. Membership increased during the Great Depression, in the 1940s and again in the early 1960s, but it never reached the levels of its first decade of existence. Today, the IWW still exists and has several Industrial Union Locals around the United States and the World.

To the Exhibit:
one big union
Early illustration that reflects the IWW's intention to organize all workers. c.1918

Illustration depicting an IWW
member jailed during the trials of 1918. c. 1918


Illustration showing IWW disdain for the AFL. 10/27/17

WW 1

Illustration showing anti-IWW
feelings in the U.S., c. 1917

IWW Collections at the Walter P. Reuther Library:
  • Industrial Workers of the World Collection
  • Industrial Workers of the World - Detroit - Ann Arbor Branch Collection
  • Industrial Workers of the World - Minneapolis Branch Collection
  • Industrial Workers of the World - San Francisco Bay Area Branch Collection

Selected Bibliography:
Bird, Stewart, Georgakas, Dan and Shaffer, Deborah. Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW. Chicago: Lake View Press, 1985.

Conlin, Joseph R. At the Point of Production: The Local History of the I.W.W. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981.

Dubofsky, Melvyn A. We Shall be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinios Press, 1988.

Kornbluh, Joyce L. Rebel Voices, an I.W.W Anthology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964.

Renshaw, Patrick. The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1967.

Thompson, Fred. The I.W.W.: Its First Fifty Years. Chicago: Industrial Workers of the World, 1955.

For More Information About The IWW You Can E-Mail William Lefevre At Or Call Him At 313-577-2789

Revised July 2005.
Send comments on this site to
Paul Neirink
Direct reference questions to
William LeFevre

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