Injury to one is an injury to all

March 18, 2011

The Industrial Workers of the World was one of the first labor organizations in the U.S. to fight for industrial unionism. While never embracing more than a small minority of workers, the IWW left a legacy of militancy, innovative tactics and principled commitment to workers' solidarity that ensured an influence far beyond its numbers. Paul D’Amato recounts the lessons--both positive and negative--of the struggles of the IWW.

TWO HUNDRED delegates--union activists, socialists and anarchists representing 43 organizations and over 60,000 workers--met in Chicago in June 1905 to form the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They were responding to a crying need in the labor movement--the need to organize the massive and expanding industrial working class across the barriers of skill, ethnicity and race.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), which organized almost exclusively among a tiny minority of white, native born skilled workers, was ineffectual in securing rights for the whole class. AFL leaders like Samuel Gompers and John Mitchell--well-paid, smug bureaucrats--had in many ways much more in common with the employing class than they did with their own rank and file.

Eugene Debs echoed the sentiment of the IWW when he said:

There is certainly...something wrong in the form of unionism whose leaders are the lieutenants of capitalism; something wrong with that form of unionism that forms an alliance with such a capitalist combination as the Civic Federation, whose sole purpose is to chloroform the working class while the capitalist class go through their pockets.

Striking garment workers march against the mill owners in Lawrence
Striking garment workers march against the mill owners in Lawrence

The IWW's aim was to build an organization that would embrace all workers to fight for immediate demands as well as for a new industrial commonwealth. William "Big Bill" Haywood, representing some 27,000 members of the largest single industrially organized union at the time, the Western Federation of Miners, outlined the promise of the IWW in his keynote address:

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.

IWW leaders like Haywood and William Trautmann emphasized class power was economic rather than political, and that the working class was wasting its time in the political (i.e. electoral) arena. All workers needed, they argued, was to come together in One Big Union and organize for a cataclysmic general strike that would paralyze the economy and force the bosses to hand industry over to the working class.

In combining trade union methods with revolutionary ideology, a variant of syndicalism, the IWW was reacting not only to the AFL bureaucracy, but also to the Socialist Party's (SP) abandonment of the working-class movement.

As a predominately middle class, vote-gathering organization, the SP, and in particular its right-wing headed up by Victor Berger, rejected the class struggle and internationalism. It appealed to the middle class and supported measures against Asian immigrants. Many left-wing SP members were attracted to the IWW, and some, including Haywood, held dual membership until 1912 when the SP expelled most of the left.

THE IWW initially focused its efforts in areas where AFL unions already existed, thus bringing down upon it criticism of "dual unionism."

When the Western Federation of Miners bolted from the AFL in 1908, many believed that the IWW would sink into oblivion. But this was not to be the case. The IWW began to make its mark by organizing where the AFL refused to go--among the migratory timber, lumber mill, mine, construction and agricultural workers of the West and the mostly immigrant and unskilled workers of the East.

In many ways, it was more a propaganda and agitational league than a union organization. Before 1916, it never reached over 20,000 members. Yet it was able to lead many successful strikes throughout the country, even in workplaces where IWW members were a small minority, making a name by using imaginative tactics to win victories.

The IWW was the first organization to employ "striking on the job," that is, the sit-down strike that became so famous in the 1930s.

It was unique among labor organizations at the time in its appeal across racist, sexual and ethnic lines. The IWW united in solidarity, for example, black and white lumber workers in the South into the Brotherhood of Timber Workers--breaking down for some years Jim Crow barriers that kept Black and white workers apart.

In most cases, such as in the famous Lawrence textile strike of 1912 and the McKees Rock, Pa., steel strike of 1909. IWW organizers were called in at the behest of striking workers to help organize the strike.

But it was the Western IWW that came to predominate in the organization--the mostly young and male migratory workers who hopped freight cars from city to city in search of whatever work they could find. Treated as vagrants and tramps, hounded by police and railroad men, disqualified to vote by their constant movement from place to place, paid paltry wages for extremely dangerous and hard work, these men were the most open to the IWW's radical, anti-political unionism.

Ironically, it was the IWW's commitment to organizing in the West that drew it into one of the most significant political battles of the early 20th century--the fight for free speech. In towns like Spokane, Wash., and San Diego, Calif., IWW organizers were dependent on "soapboxing," public speaking, usually in front of labor recruitment offices, to get their union message across.

In town after town, local governments, under pressure from business groups, passed ordinances barring IWW organizers from speaking. When police began to jail speaker after speaker before they could get a sentence out, the local IWW chapter would put out a call for "Wobblies" (as IWW members came to be known) to deluge the town and defy the speaking ban one after another.

The strategy was to clog the jails and make life so difficult for law enforcement agencies that they would be forced to give in. The tactic was strikingly effective in a number of towns, including Spokane (1909), San Diego (1912), Fresno (1911) and Kansas City (1914), where IWW organizers won the right to speak freely in public places.

The Wobbly tactic of passive resistance was met with some of the fiercest violence in U.S. labor history. Where Wobblies weren't jailed in overcrowded cells, underfed and harassed by prison guards, they were run out of town, beaten and warned never to return. In San Diego, the city's leading bankers and merchants, organized as vigilantes, forced Wobblies they captured to kiss the American flag and then "run a gauntlet of 106 men armed with clubs, whips and guns."

The Lawrence textile strike of 1912 demonstrated all the strengths and weaknesses of the IWW. Here the organization proved it was possible to organize immigrant textile workers of 25 different nationalities who spoke 45 different languages.

IWW organizers like Joseph Ettor, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Arturo Giovannitti and Haywood also revealed their great genius as strike leaders. They organized a strike committee of 56, with all nationalities represented on the committee. Mass meetings to keep the morale and organization high were held in all languages, and mass picketing was sustained throughout the strike.

It was possible on some days to see 20,000 workers weaving their way through the streets of Lawrence in a "moving" picket that covered every struck mill. Every few days, worker parades were held, and workers would sing "The Internationale" and "Solidarity Forever."

Despite the presence of 2,500 soldiers and a virtual state of martial law in the city, the strike was victorious. But although the IWW had signed up 16,000 new union members into Local 20 of the United Textile Workers of America, they were not able to hold them. When the strike was over, a sustained counterattack against the IWW in the local press and in the mills, reduced the union to barely over 700 members overnight. One member of Local 20 wrote, "The work of agitation during the strike was not followed by the more important work of organization."

The IWW's aversion to signing contracts--seen as a compromise with the bosses--proved a great obstacle to building up stable union organization.

THE IWW had its greatest organizing success after the outbreak of the First World War, when they began to focus more seriously on sustained union organizing in the iron mines, lumber camps and saw mills in the Southwest and Northwest.

At its height in 1917, the IWW could claim 105,000 paid-up members. But its efforts were destroyed by government repression.

Alarmed by IWW successes during the war, local states in the West implemented "criminal syndicalism" laws to smash the IWW's organizing efforts. An article published in the oil company-controlled Tulsa World expressed the ruling-class hysteria surrounding the IWW: "The first step in whipping Germany is to strangle the IWWs. Kill them, just as you would kill any other kind of snake."

A reign of terror was unleashed against the IWW beginning in 1917. Many of its organizers, including Frank Little, were murdered. The repression had a devastating effect on he IWW, effectively making it a shadow of its former self.

Yet even without the repression, the IWW was beset by a fundamental contradiction. If we compare the IWW's actual goal, the organization of the bulk of workers into One Big Union in order to overthrow the system, with its results, the organization of at most several tens of thousands in a handful of unions, then we have to say that the IWW was a failure.

At its peak, it never even approached the almost 2 million members of the AFL, itself a minority of the working class. Moreover, it never attempted to bridge the divisions between skilled and unskilled. It simply avoided skilled workers inside and outside the AFL.

The IWW was caught between the task of building trade union organizations--which by their nature can and should embrace a majority of the working class--and a revolutionary "militant minority." As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote of French syndicalist organization in the early 1920s, the IWW was "too indefinite for he role of a party, and too small for the role of a trade union."

Its hostility to politics mirrored, from the left, the AFL's emphasis on "pure and simple" trade unionism. It thus left workers open to the influence of reformist socialists.

The IWW's view of a general strike in which the mere act of all workers downing their tools would force the capitalists to submit was utopian; such a view ignored the very palpable fact that the armed forces of the state need to be confronted and defeated before the ruling class will give up its power.

Nevertheless, the IWW represented an important step both in the fight for industrial unionism and in the struggle against the conservatism of the Socialist Party and the AFL. It has left behind a rich legacy of fighting tactics, militant labor songs and unparalleled examples of labor solidarity.

This article originally appeared in Socialist Worker in September 1989.

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