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This Week in Labor History, vol. 7: Founding of the IWW

by Sean Lundergan, Fr. Boyle Fellow

The Industrial Workers of the World was founded 115 years ago today. The IWW, whose members are known as Wobblies, has played an essential role in American labor history, including in the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. 

At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was no stranger to labor agitation. The issues that drove such mass labor action as the Great Upheaval of 1877, the May Day general strike in 1886, and the Pullman strike of 1894 had not been meaningfully resolved. The major national labor organization of the day, the American Federation of Labor, consisted of separate craft unions that excluded unskilled workers, the ever-growing population of factory workers and other laborers that bore much of the brunt of Gilded Age capitalism. To the radical socialists and anarchists who would form the IWW, the exclusionary policies and atomization of AFL unions was not only morally wrong but a strategic disaster for any working-class movement. The manifesto adopted at the IWW’s founding denounces craft unionism as detrimental to solidarity: “Separation of craft from craft renders industrial and financial solidarity impossible. Union men scab upon union men; hatred of worker for worker is engendered, and the workers are delivered helpless and disintegrated into the hands of the capitalists. Craft jealousy leads to the attempt to create trade monopolies.” The proposed solution was the IWW, termed “One Big Union” for all workers, which advocated for workplace democracy through direct action.

The cast of characters who convened in Chicago on June 27, 1905, reads as a who’s who of turn-of-the-century radical labor activists. Among the delegates were union organizer and perennial socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs; anti-child labor advocate and organizer Mother Jones; Western Federation of Miners activist and socialist agitator William “Big Bill” Haywood; Lucy Parsons, prominent socialist organizer and widow of Albert Parsons, one of the men executed for the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886; and dozens of other important and colorful figures in the history of labor in the early twentieth century.

The IWW embraced internationalism as a founding principle—one of the first members of the union was James Connolly, the Scottish-Irish freedom fighter and organizer who was living in Troy, New York at the time of the IWW’s founding. In its manifesto the organization declared that “Workingmen bringing union cards from industrial unions in foreign countries should be freely admitted into the organization.”

This focus on internationalism and on unskilled labor drove the organizing work that culminated in the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912  in Lawrence. AFL-affiliated unions at the time had little interest in organizing the low-wage, unskilled immigrants who comprised a majority of the textile workers in Lawrence. Wobblies had organized smaller-scale actions in Lawrence mills in 1911, exposing thousands of workers to radical politics and the potential for change that direct action carried. This organizing paid off when in January of 1912 mill owners cut pay in response to laws restricting the working hours of women and children, who were the majority of workers in the mills. Workers walked off the job beginning with a group of Polish women on January 11; by the 15th, more than 20,000 workers from every mill in Lawrence had joined the strike. The onset of the strike was spontaneous enough—though, as labor historian Robert Forrant points out, it arose out of an environment rich with organization—that several days into the strike the IWW scrambled to send organizers up from New York to offer support. Those organizers proved essential to coordinating among the multilingual group, helping to form nationality- and language-based committees, a decentralized democratic approach that distinguished the IWW from other unions of its day and many modern unions. The strike prevailed after ten often chaotic weeks, which included threats, violence and arrests by police, state militia, and United States Marines. They withstood these attacks, as well as pressure from the mill owners (one of whom was the governor, Eugene Foss) and Pinkerton infiltrators, and won pay increases and overtime pay.

Lawrence was one of the IWW’s great successes. But the union’s radicalism made it a target of both government  and corporations, and it faced near-constant suppression from both. The infamous conviction and subsequent execution of Joe Hill, an IWW member wrongfully accused of shooting a store clerk and his son in Salt Lake City, Utah, has been widely seen as a deliberate attempt by government authorities to remove a prominent organizer (and songwriter) from the IWW rolls. Despite attempts at repression, membership grew during and immediately after World War I. An ideological split among members, primarily over whether the union’s organization should be centralized or decentralized, led to a break in 1924. By 1930, membership had declined from a peak in 1923 of nearly 100,000 to just over 10,000. Further government repression, including Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor laws, hurt the IWW, but it saw a slight resurgence when the civil rights and antiwar movements opened the door once again for radical politics. In recent decades the union has still played an important part in labor actions—it attempted to instigate a general strike in Wisconsin in 2011, for instance—and it has nearly 6,000 members today.

The IWW has made a lasting impact on the labor movement that is still felt today. In addition to the material gains it’s made for workers like those in Lawrence, the union has made some of the most recognizable cultural contributions of any workers’ group. The slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all” was popularized by early Wobblies; such union anthems as “Union Maid” and “Solidarity Forever” (which has been translated into at least nine languages) were written in the 1910s by IWW members; even the phrase “pie in the sky,” which has fully assimilated into the modern lexicon, was coined by Joe Hill, the organizer wrongfully executed in Utah. But they’re justly known best for their actions.

So today we wish a happy birthday to the One Big Union dedicated to working-class solidarity, direct action and workplace democracy.

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