An injury to one is an injury to all

August 20, 2009

Adam Turl chronicles the rich radical working-class history of Industrial Workers of the World.

THE INDUSTRIAL Workers of the World (IWW) union, founded in 1905 in Chicago, would lead some of the most important struggles in the history of the U.S. labor movement.

Organized labor was dominated at the time by the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Samuel Gompers, which embodied a union movement seeking class collaboration with employers, business and craft unionism.

Craft unionism was a toxic holdover from the past, before the industrial revolution began to "deskill" much of the work process. Craft unions usually believed their power was based on the mastery of their trade instead of solidarity with other workers. These union leaders looked down on the growing ranks of the unskilled and refused to organize them.

This craft exclusionism dovetailed with sexist, anti-immigrant and racist ideas that barred many women, foreign-born (especially Asian) and Black workers from union ranks. Ultimately, craft unionism weakened the leverage of all workers--both skilled and unskilled--against the employers.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speaks to Paterson strikers in 1913
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speaks to Paterson strikers in 1913

The IWW, however, based itself on the idea of industrial unionism--of organizing all workers together in a single union, regardless of skills, craft, sex, nationality or race, under the guiding principle that "an injury to one is an injury to all."

The idea of industrial unionism wasn't new. Socialist and railway union leader Eugene Debs agitated widely for industrial unionism. His pamphlet, Unionism and Socialism, argued that the shifting capitalist economy was making craft unions obsolete.

The militant Western Federation of Miners (WFM)--and its radical leader "Big Bill" Haywood--organized on an industrial basis in their ongoing war with the mining companies.

Left-wing unionists increasingly rallied around the idea of industrial unionism as a way to solve the crisis facing both organized labor and workers more generally. Profits soared but unions declined. Millions lived in poverty even though the workday stretched from dawn past dusk.

The founding of the IWW brought together figures like Debs and Haywood, but also Lucy Parsons--the radical widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons, Mother Jones and syndicalists influenced by European unions.

What else to read

For further reading on the Industrial Workers of the World, Philip Foner's History of the Labor Movement of the United States, Volume 4: The Industrial Workers of the World 1905-1917 is an excellent history.

Joyce Kornbluh's Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology is another great resource and includes IWW songs and cartoons.

Historian Sidney Lens draws out the lessons of some of the U.S.'s most bitterly fought working-class struggles--and the repression used against workers--in The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs.

Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States is an excellent history of the labor struggles that have shaped U.S. history.

Haywood began the convention with the words:

This is the Continental Congress of the working class. We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism.

The gathering represented at most 100,000 organized workers, compared to more than 2 million workers affiliated to the AFL (which delegates came to call the "American Separation of Labor"). The delegates expected the balance of forces between the AFL and IWW to change. They believed the IWW would grow as industrial unionism proved itself in practice. The best AFL affiliates, they argued, would break off and join the IWW as workers rallied around the "One Big Union."

Such hopes were quickly dashed.

Soon after its founding, the IWW was caught up in defense campaign for Haywood, WFM president Charles Moyer and former WFM member George Pettibone--arrested on false charges of conspiring to murder the governor of Idaho. The defendants were vindicated, but in the militant leaders' absence, more conservative forces took control of the WFM and disaffiliated it from the IWW.

The IWW was also plagued early on by political splits. One of these was over the question of "political" versus "economic action" (or both). Many radicals and socialists turned against "political action" because right-wing "sewer socialists" jettisoned radicalism in search of votes. Eventually, this led to indefensible positions like abstaining the question of women's suffrage.

Early on, some left-wing socialists--including Debs--grew worried that the IWW had grown too distant from most organized workers who were in the AFL. Debs allowed his IWW membership to lapse. While most IWW organizers considered themselves socialists, the IWW's "dual unionism" and rejection of "politics" led it in an anarchist direction.

Despite these problems, and even with its membership reduced to about 25,000, the IWW's best days were to come--days that showed what a commitment to class struggle and solidarity could win.

THE WOBBLIES sunk roots in two important sections of the workforce: migrant workers in the West and immigrant workers in the East.

Western migrant workers were constantly mobile, working several jobs a year--going from town to forest to orchard to mine. Most were native-born but couldn't vote (as they couldn't establish residency). Police treated them like criminals.

Immigrant workers in the East also found themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder. Many couldn't vote, and due to their immigrant status and skill level, the AFL considered them unorganizable. The IWW welcomed them.

Opposed to all craft exclusions, the IWW sought to bring immigrants together. IWW organizers criticized politicians and police as the bosses' agents, and Wobblies spoke out against patriotism and nationalism.

The IWW offered militant tactics to fight for immediate gains, promoting "direct action" and "sabotage." While different members meant different things by these terms, it usually meant interfering with production through strikes or "slowdowns." Unlike most AFL leaders, they believed that pickets shouldn't be passive and symbolic but should shut down production and keep out scabs.

They also offered a vision for the transformation of society. As the IWW's Industrial Worker argued:

The IWW always has one fundamental aim in view when going on strike. Other aims and purposes may be the most widely advertised and better known...But back of them all and vastly overshadowing them all in importance is the fundamental thing for which we strike: Raising the standard of consciousness and aggressiveness of the working class.

One of the most controversial positions of the IWW was its opposition to "time-contracts." The IWW opposed signing contracts over wages, benefits and working conditions with the employers and even expelled a local in Montana for signing such a contract.

It's true that labor contracts are the result of negotiating the terms of exploitation, whereas revolutionaries have the goal of abolishing exploitation. However, these things aren't mutually exclusive. Without contracts, the IWW failed to consolidate many of the gains it made. This "uncompromising" position meant that workers were less organized for larger--even revolutionary--struggles down the road.

Wobblies believed the IWW would become "One Big Union" incorporating the bulk of workers--a framework for a new socialist society organized within capitalism. The death blow to the system would be a mass general strike, followed by expropriating the bosses' wealth.

To spread these ideas, the IWW toured brilliant speakers and organizers like Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and published in-depth pamphlets on workplaces and conditions. The IWW also developed a culture of resistance. Wobbly Joe Hill wrote dozens of songs (like "Master and the Slave") still sung to this day. Ralph Chapin penned the labor anthem "Solidarity Forever." These songs were collected in the IWW's Little Red Song Book.

Even though the IWW remained small--a "militant minority" as Haywood described them--they were to animate larger forces.

THREE STRUGGLES illustrate the IWW during its heyday: the free speech fights, the drive to organize lumber workers and the great Lawrence textile strike.

The free speech fights spanned the West, where the mobility of the workforce put a premium on soapbox recruiting--meeting workers with street speeches as they arrived in a town, distributing the Industrial Worker and signing up new members.

Authorities in city after city hounded the IWW by passing laws banning street-speaking. The response that the IWW developed was to mobilize en masse, violate the laws, pack the jails, refuse bail, demand jury trials and choke the system until the city cried "uncle."

One of the most important fights occurred in Spokane, Wash., in 1909. Spokane was a center for migrant workers. Employment agencies--which the IWW dubbed "sharks"-- developed a practice of sending workers off to non-existent job sites and pocketing fees. Employers were in on the scam. One firm hired and fired 5,000 workers in a season, never employing more than 100 at a given time.

The IWW launched a "Don't Buy Jobs" campaign, and the city responded by prohibiting public meetings. When IWW organizers were arrested, more workers set out for Spokane. The jails soon overflowed, but protesters kept coming--even from Canada and Mexico. Logging camps were deserted by lumberjacks headed to Spokane. With more protesters on the way--with 600 prisoners in jail and 1,200 arrests on the books--the city gave in.

In Rebels of the Woods, author Robert Tyler criticized the free speech fights as a "distraction" from organizing--a sign that the IWW just liked causing trouble. But Tyler is wrong. The free speech fights were central to the IWW's labor organizing--which is why workers have often been at the forefront of fights for free speech.

The IWW's commitment to organizing workers was borne out in drives to organize lumberjacks and mill workers in the West and the South. Mill work was dangerous and monotonous, and lumberjacks faced horrible conditions and often had to pay for meager room and board.

Lumber was ripe for industrial unions. There were a dozen different trades in the industry. Organized along craft lines, workers had little leverage against their employers.

IWW members got jobs in the camps, and, armed with the Industrial Worker and the Little Red Song Book, they acted as one-person organizing centers. In the camps' squalor, they recruited converts to the class struggle, and when they were fired, they hauled off to another camp to spread the gospel of industrial unionism. By 1912, they had recruited enough workers to form the National Union of Forest and Lumber Workers.

One of the most inspiring IWW lumber fights took place in the Jim Crow South. Of nearly 250,000 Southern lumber workers, half were Black, and all of the workers made less than their Western counterparts. One study found the Louisiana lumber industry violated every single labor law on the statutes.

In 1911, workers formed a new independent union, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW). Almost immediately, Gompers tried to cut a deal with lumber companies to destroy the BTW and replace it with an AFL union. Later that year, BTW members voted to affiliate with the IWW.

The IWW sent Haywood to Louisiana to the founding convention of the new affiliate. When he found that the Black and white workers were meeting in separate halls, he convinced them to desegregate the meeting. The integrated assembly elected Black and white workers for the coming IWW convention.

A strike in Merryville, La., showcased the power of solidarity and interracial unity. Black and white workers stuck together, and Mexican workers who the company brought in as strikebreakers refused to break picket lines. Unfortunately, the strike was defeated by hard-line employers and the union went into decline.

The union had brought down the full wrath and fury of the Southern ruling class--a group of workers were even framed for murder (though they were eventually exonerated). At the time, some argued the reason for the BTW's decline was interracial unity. But the only reason victory was even a possibility for these workers were the principles of multiracial solidarity promoted by the IWW.

SOLIDARITY WON a clear victory in the 1912 Lawrence textile strike as 23,000 workers from 27 different immigrant groups went on strike--facing down bayonets and hired thugs--and won.

Lawrence, Mass., was an industrial city of 30,000 workers employed in a dozen mills. By 1910, the vast majority of Lawrence's residents were immigrants and their children. Company agents had fanned out through Europe with promises of the good life for recruits. In Lawrence, they found no pot of gold but wages of $7 a week and child mortality rates above the national average. The socialist newspaper The Call claimed 36 in every 100 mill workers died by age 35.

The immediate cause of the strike was a new law reducing the workweek from 56 to 54 hours. The problem was pay. Even a 3 percent pay cut would cause incredible hardship. A group of IWW workers tried to meet with employers to discuss the pay issue--but got no response.

The strike began spontaneously when pay envelopes came. A group of Italian workers complained they had been shortchanged "four loaves of bread" and walked. They marched to other mills, flying Italian and American flags, and called out more workers.

Gompers was appalled by the strike, calling it a "class-conscious industrial revolution," and the AFL told its 1,000 skilled members to stay at work. They joined the strike anyway.

Workers asked the IWW for help and they sent Joe Ettor--one of their best multilingual organizers. He organized the citywide strike committee--a key ingredient to the strike's success.

Each of the 14 largest immigrant groups elected four representatives to a strike committee of 56 (and a second committee in case the first was arrested). The committee met daily along with daily meetings of each immigrant group and weekly meetings of all strikers.

It was one thing to walk out, but it was another to hold workers together for the duration. The strike committee was designed to quickly share information and tactics and maintain solidarity. Most of the committee members weren't even IWW members at the start of the strike.

Another key to victory were mass pickets. Thousands picketed mills wearing white sashes that read, "Don't be a scab." The union held regular marches of thousands of workers.

The companies tried everything to beat the workers--repression, framing Ettor in a dynamite plot (after which Haywood was sent to replace him) and goading workers into street battles. But workers stayed united. Banned from picketing mills, they formed a human chain around the entire mill district.

The Italian Socialist Federation of New York came up with a plan to lighten the strikers' burden and shame the companies: placing the children of Lawrence in foster homes. Even this was met with repression. Police attacked 40 children and their parents waiting at a train station.

Eventually, the workers won. As Sidney Lens noted in Labor Wars, "In the wake of the Lawrence triumph, a quarter of a million workers whose employers did not want to be caught in the IWW whirlwind, gained similar benefits" as the Lawrence workers.

IN THE years that followed, three interrelated developments led to the IWW's decline.

The October 1917 workers' revolution in Russia brought to a head the question of revolutionary organization. The Bolsheviks showed that revolutionaries needed to organize themselves in a separate organization to better influence broader layers of workers and push toward the goal of revolution.

The IWW had tried to be both an organization of all workers (a union) and a revolutionary organization (organizing revolutionaries). Many of the best IWW organizers rightly came to see a need for a distinction and between "party and class" and became founders of the Communist Party.

They were also convinced that organizing a militant union separate from the much larger AFL was a mistake. Instead, they realized that they should have been arguing for those militant ideas and tactics within the AFL. The IWW's "dual unionism" ceded terrain to labor leaders like Gompers as well as the "sewer socialists" who gave Gompers cover. Without a vocal left wing inside the AFL, the AFL drifted further to the right.

Thirdly, the aftermath of the First World War and the October Revolution produced a global wave of strikes and workers' uprisings. The U.S. government tried to nip this threat in the bud by carrying out the Palmer Raids of 1919. Thousands of radicals--including IWW members--were arrested. Many were also deported. Haywood only managed to escape a long prison sentence by fleeing to Russia.

After these setbacks, the IWW continued to organize--but not as it had in its early years. Like most of the left, it grew in the 1930s before suffering during the witch-hunts against the left after the Second World War. The IWW today does good work organizing Starbucks workers. However, the IWW today--like the left generally---is but a reflection of itself in its heyday. The left and labor movement must be rebuilt.

The traditions, history and lessons of the early IWW are essential ingredients in building a new left and revitalized labor movement--one that believes in the centrality of class struggle, militancy, solidarity and the idea that "an injury to one is an injury to all."

Further Reading

From the archives