Industrial Workers of the World (1905 — )

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Industrial Workers of the World member Frank Little (1879 - 1917)

We condemn all wars, and for the preventions of such, we proclaim the anti-militarist propaganda in time of peace, thus promoting Class Solidarity among the workers of the entire world, and, in time of war, the General Strike in all industries.

Is it any wonder that workers who adopted this resolution at their convention in 1916 were eventually hounded, jailed, and exiled, once Woodrow Wilson involved the U.S. in the First World War? With one of their leaders in prison, they joined many others in a vigorous anti-war campaign, with their slogan, “Don’t be a soldier, be a man. Join the I.W.W. and fight on the job for yourself and your class.”

With the European war for conquest and exploitation raging and destroying the lives, class consciousness and unity of the workers… we openly declare ourselves the determined opponents of all nationalistic sectionalism, patriotism, and the militarism preached and supported by our own enemy, the capitalist class.

Co-founded in Chicago in 1905, by William V. Haywood, Eugene Victor Debs, and Mother Jones among others, the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) committed themselves to radical actions and proselytizing in word and song. As Sidney Lens wrote, their lyrics “had both the bite and the tang of America, eschewing all circumlocutions and vagaries,” and satirized the American Federation of Labor as “the American separation of Labor.” Balladeers Ralph Chaplin and others wrote songs, substituting proletarian lyrics for old gospel hymns. Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever” sang the praises of the unacknowledged builders of America: 

It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops; endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand, outcast and starving, ‘mid the wonders we have made;
But the Union makes us strong.

IWW ClockTheir most notable achievement was a victorious immigrant strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, against the textile industry in 1912, where the average wage was sixteen cents an hour. During the nine-week struggle, police arrested 375 strikers, later released, and National Guard soldiers intervened to break the strike, with two leaders, Joseph J. Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti, falsely arrested for murder. Through ingenuity and courage, the I.W.W. induced strikebreakers to quit, and eventually won the strike.

Secretary-treasurer of the Western Federation of Miners, before he co-founded the Wobblies and later took a leadership position, William V. (Big Bill) Haywood was born in Salt Lake City in 1869, and worked in the mines from the time he was fifteen. Defended by Clarence Darrow, Haywood was declared “not guilty” in a sensational murder trial in 1907, and played a central role in the Lawrence strike. Although Debs and the Socialist Party eventually dissociated themselves from the Wobblies, Debs continued to support their right to organize. But the I.W.W. eventually floundered from lack of organization, particularly after a defeat during the Paterson, New Jersey strike in 1913, deciding to focus then on organizing miners and foresters in the West. After entering World War I, the U.S. government, accusing workers of disloyalty for opposing it, succeeded in the labor struggle, displaying particular vehemence toward the I.W.W. Haywood was prosecuted, and Debs eventually sent to federal prison, as were many members of the union, for draft and war resistance.

IWW LabelAlthough relatively short-lived, the achievements of the Industrial Workers of the World in the struggle for decent wages and working conditions were considerable at the time, and significant in labor history. Among writers and artists of the early 20th century, including John Dos Passos, Dorothy Day, and editors of The Masses, their message and their commitment to workers were an inspiration. Organizing in areas where labor and living conditions were horrible, they employed new and imaginative strategies in their struggle, and are credited with early experiments in slow-down and sit-down strikes, which were employed successfully in the 1930s. Their efforts led to successful campaigns to unionize workers in forests and lumber camps in the far West, and oil fields of Kansas and Oklahoma.

Joe HillFor a variety of reasons, the Wobblies have enjoyed a fame quite beyond the size of their membership of about 100,000 members, continuing among modern-day activists in the labor, civil rights, and peace movements. Among their most well known members was the Wobblie balladeer, Joe Hillstron, who, as Joe Hill, has been celebrated by Utah Phillips, Joan Baez, and Tom Morello, as well as in lyrics by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me.
Says I, “but Joe, you’re ten years dead.”
“I never died,” says he.
“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me.
“Joe Hill ain’t never died.”
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side.

A Swedish immigrant and successful organizer among miners, Hill was arrested for murder, and was eventually executed by the state of Utah, on the basis of ambiguous evidence. The prosecution relied on the public conception of the I.W.W. as “a motley horde of hoboes… who will not work and whose philosophy is a philosophy simply of sabotage and the violent overthrow of ‘capitalism’… they are arch-fiends and the dregs of society.” Once the prosecution indicated that Hill was an I.W.W. agitator and the author of I.W.W. songs, conviction seemed inevitable. In an international campaign for his defense as he awaited execution, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn appealed to President Woodrow Wilson on Hill’s behalf, but the Governor of Utah would not hear of it. The sentiment of Hill’s last will and testament was, “Don’t mourn. Organize.” A telegram he sent to Big Bill Haywood in Chicago said, “It is only a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. “Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material about Industrial Workers of the World
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW. New York: Quadrangle, 1969.
  • Haywood, William D. Bill Haywood’s Book: The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood. New York: International Publishers, 1929.
  • Lens, Sidney, Radicalism in America. Rev. ed., Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1982.
  • Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. Ed. Joyce Kornbluh. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1988.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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