Industrial Workers of the World

From Anarchy In Action
IWW demonstration in New York, 1914

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is an international union, founded in 1905 in the United States, with a dedication to industrial unionism, meaning the organization of all of an industry's workers into a one union rather than dividing them by skill or trade. The historian Howard Zinn writes, "[T]heir energy, their persistence, their inspiration to others, their ability to mobilize thousands at one place, one time, made them an influence on the country far beyond their numbers."[1] By 1917, the IWW had 250,000 members in the United States.[2] In 2014, the IWW had 3,020 members in the country.[3]

The IWW has spread to many countries throughout its history, including Australia, Argentina, Canada, Chile, China, Ecuador, Fiji, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Peru, Sweden, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.[4]

Members are often called "Wobblies," with the origin of the term being unclear. According to one theory, a Chinese restaurant keeper in 1911 could not pronounce the letter "w" and said he belonged to the "I Wobble Wobble."[5] Wobblies have held a variety of Marxist, Anarchist, and syndicalist views, although the organization does not identify under any of these labels.[6]

The IWW's Constitution calls for "forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old". Their eventual aim, according to the Constitution, is to shut down capitalist industries through a general strike, and then to "carry on production" under workers' self-management. The IWW consists of chartered branches (organized by location) and Industrial Unions (organized by industry). Local branches and Industrial Unions send delegates to make decisions at annual national conventions, and an elected General Executive Board (GEB) carries out administrative tasks for the rest of the year. General Executive Board members may serve no more than three one-year terms. From the local to national levels, decisions are made by majority vote.[7]

Preamble to the IWW Constitution

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.

Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system."

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.[8]

Founding Convention

In 1904, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) leaders called a Chicago meeting of six radical spokesmen, who in turn invited thirty radicals to a conference in Chicago on 2 January 1905. Attendees wrote the Industrial Union Manifesto and invited all who agreed with it to a public convention, chaired by "Big Bill" Haywood, on 27 June at Chicago's Brand Hall. Nearly 200 delegates from 34 organizations showed up. The June convention approved the IWW constitution, including a clause in the Preamble calling for the union to engage in electoral "political" organizing. A sizable minority opposed this clause, while the faction represented by the Socialist Labor Party's Daniel De Leon strongly supported it.

Six months after the June convention, the governor of Idaho was killed by a bomb at his house. Harry Orchard was arrested, and Orchard implicated WFM leaders including Haywood. At the 1907 trials, Haywood and the other WFM leaders were acquitted and Orchard was exposed as a perjurer with contradictory statements. The WFM, upset at how the IWW's radical politics hurt their image during the trials, voted in 1907 to leave the IWW, and it fired Haywood.

At its 1908 convention, the IWW removed from its constitution the clause advocating "political" action. In response, De Leon started a rival IWW, which changed its name in 1915 and dissolved in 1925. According to Joyce Kornbluh, this rival union served as "a propaganda arm of the Socialist Labor Party."[9]

Free Speech Campaigns

From 1907 to 1916, the IWW fought in about thirty free speech struggles, seizing the right to publicly agitate for union organizing. One fight took place in the city of Spokane, Washington, which banned non-religious street meetings and soapbox speaking in 1909. Wobblies began speaking in defiance of the ban and on 2 November, thousands defined the ban. By the end of the month, over 600 had been arrested. In March 1910, the city agreed to release the free speech prisoners and let the Wobblies speak on the streets.

In Fresno, California, police were breaking up IWW meetings and arresting members. In May 1910, they arrested unionist Frank Little, and Little called the IWW's headquarters in Chicago to ask for them to send people to help wage a free speech struggle. Over 150 Wobblies and many other workers came to Fresno. Thousands defied the street speaking ban and filled the jails. The city overturned the ban in March 1911 and released the free speech prisoners.[10]

1912 Lawrence textile strike

Children of Lawrence, MA strikers sent to live with sympathizers in New York City during the work stoppage 1912

In January 1912, 25,000 workers went on strike for 10 weeks in Lawrence, Massachusetts. They won their demands for significant wage increases. A slogan of the strike read, "We want bread and roses too."

On 11 January, women at Everett Cotton Mills were denied their full wages, so they walked out of work. The town's mill workers held a mass meeting and formed a strike committee. The committee demanded a 15 percent wage increase, double-pay for overtime work, and no discrimination against workers who participated in the strike.

AFL leaders denounced the strike. The AFL's United Textile Workers president John Golden dismissed the strike as "anarchistic" and "revolutionary," while AFL president Samuel Gompers complained it was a "class-conscious industrial revolution".

Strikers found themselves targeted by corporations and police. Days into the strike, police found dynamite planted in three places in Lawrence and said they suspected the Wobblies. Later, a contractor named Ernest Pitman, who built the American Woolen Company mill, confessed that the textile corporations orchestrated the planting of the dynamite in their Boston offices in an attempt to frame the strikers. On 29 January, a woman striker Ann LoPizzo was killed when police tried breaking a picket line. Strikers said a cop shot her. Police arrested the IWW members Ettor and Giovannitti and charged them with inciting the murder. The police then imposed martial law, banned public meetings, and arrested the striker Joseph Caruso for the murder. Strikers sent their children to other cities where sympathizers housed them. On 24 February, mothers brought 150 children to the Lawrence train station to send the kids to Philadelphia. At the station, police clubbed and arrested mothers and children. The clash, writes Lawrence Kornbluh in Rebel Voices, "was the turning point of the Lawrence strike. Protests from every part of the country reached Congress."[11]

On 12 March, American Woolen Company agreed to all the strikers' demands. The rest of Lawrence's textile companies fell in line, too, by the end of the month. Meanwhile, the arrested Wobblies Ettor and Giovannitti sat in jail. They received much public sympathy after Pitman confessed the textile companies were behind the planting of the dynamite. The IWW continued agitating, and on 26 November, Ettor and Giovannitti were acquitted.[12]

1913 Paterson silk strike

In 1911, silk manufacturers in Paterson, New Jersey introduced new technology that had workers use four looms at once instead of two. Workers complained this automation would raise unemployment and lower wages. On 27 January 1913, 800 workers at Doherty Silk Mill walked out of work, and on 25 February, thousands of silk workers joined the strike and attended a mass meeting. Within a week, 25,000 workers were on strike. Bill Haywood told Outlook magazine, "There's a red card in the home of every silk worker." Kornbluh says Haywood's claim "was but a little exaggerated".[13] Only 9000 workers were paid-up IWW members in Patterson, but many more were active and simply behind on dues. Strikers established a finance committee and a relief board, two relief stations, a restaurant, a grocery, and a drug store.

In May and June, police arrested an average of 100 workers a day. Private detectives hired by the mill workers killed 2 workers during the strike, and no one was tried for the murders. On 7 June, Patterson workers performed a pageant at Madison Square Garden to an audience of 15,000. It was a reenactment of their strike. Despite being a financial failure, it received positive reviews.

On 18 July, the ribbon weavers withdrew from the strike committee, ending prospects for an industry-wide settlement. The strike collapsed that month.

Philadelphia Longshoremen and Local 8

Philadelphia's longshoremen walked off the job on 14 May 1913. Slightly over half of the workers were African-American. Drawn by the IWW's commitment to racial equality and influenced by a prominent local Black Wobbly named Ben Fletcher, the strikers established IWW Local 8. After 2 weeks of striking, the bosses conceded and offered an increase in wages and overtime pay.[14]

Local 8 became, according to historian Peter Cole, the era's "most diverse and integrated organization (not simply union)." Members were about one-third Black, one-third Irish and Irish-American, and one-third immigrants from the rest of Europe.[15]

One of Local 8's main accomplishments was achieving racial integration in the workplace decades before federal law required this. Local 8 insisted on integrating work gangs and replaced the docks' prior practice of ethnic and racial segregation.[16]

Another victory involved replacing the employers' oppressive hiring practice known as the "shake-up." Workers used to have to show up and compete with each other to work for lower wages and longer hours. Local 8 established a system where bosses would simply call the union and the local would send workers on their own terms.[17]

On the local's first anniversary, members decided to skip work and throw themselves a party. Virtually the whole workforce joined, defying bosses' threats to fire anyone who didn't show up to work.[18] Local 8 led another successful strike in 1915 and organized many smaller direct actions.[19]

Several factors led to Local 8's decline in the 1920s. First, in 1917, the U.S. arrested and imprisoned 6 Philadelphia Wobblies, including Local 8's prominent Black organizer Ben Fletcher, on grounds of alleged treason.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag Finally, thanks to the widespread repression of workers during the first world war, employers had gained more power nationwide by 1922 when Local 8 decided to show up an hour late to work as part of an action for shortening the workday to eight hours. Employers locked out the Wobbly workers and replaced them with scabs. The lockout helped slowly tear apart the local, a situation that couldn't be reversed even by Fletcher's release from prison in October of that year.[20]

Wheatland Hop Riot

In 1913, 2,800 men, women and children arrived to work at E.B. Durst's hop farm in Marysville, California. Durst hired over twice the number of workers he had space for. Workers were given no drinking water all day except for lemonade they had to pay for, and they all had to share just nine outdoor toilets. They disposed of garbage in irrigation ditches, producing a nauseating stench and the spread of dysentery. About 100 of the 2,800 workers were IWW members. 30 of them formed a local upon arrival, and these IWW members wielded significant influence over the mass of workers.

On 2 August, three days after they arrived, the workers held a mass meeting. At the meeting, workers appointed a committee to demand drinking water twice a day, wage increases, separate toilets for men and women, and better sanitary conditions.

The IWW called their own meeting on 3 August, and 2,000 workers attended. Two cars of deputy sheriffs arrived and a deputy fired a shot into the crowd. Fighting broke out, and the district attorney, a deputy sheriff, and two workers were killed. The episode became known as the Wheatland Hop Riot. Police arrested hundreds of suspected Wobblies and tortured some of them in prison. One prisoner committed suicide and another "went insane from police brutality."[21] Blackie Ford and Herman Suhr were convicted of second-degree murder, sentenced to life imprisonment, and jailed for over ten years.

The workers' agitation did have an impact on the industry. In the year following the riot, 40 new IWW locals formed in California. In 1917, the IWW Hop Pickers' Defense Committee claimed the IWW's boycott had cost California farms $10 million a year. The farm owners claimed that the workers' actions cost them $15 million to $20 million since 1914. Additionally, farm owners hired private police to deal with the IWW, costing the farm owners another $10,000 a year on average.[22]

Joe Hill

Joe Hill was a Wobbly and songwriter who wrote songs for the IWW's Little Red Songbook and Industrial Worker journal. In 1914, Hill was arrested and charged of murdering the grocers John and Alving Morrison. Despite there being no direct evidence, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Before being executed by a firing squad, Hill wrote to Haywood, “Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize.”[23]

One of Hill's songs, “The Preacher and the Slave,” went:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,

Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;

But when asked how 'bout something to eat

They will answer with voices so sweet[24]

Timber Industry Organizing

In 1917, the IWW organized the Lumber Workers' Industrial Union No. 500 in Spokane, Washington, which demanded an eight-hour day, Sundays and holidays off, more sanitary food and dining conditions, better housing, free hospital service, semimonthly pay, an end to child labor, and an end to anti-IWW discrimination. They went on strike on 1 July, and by August they "paralyzed more than 80 percent of the lumber industry in western Washington."[25] In many areas, nearly 90 percent of loggers joined the IWW. Even after the striking workers returned to work because of a lack of funds, they engaged in work stoppage tactics. They would work as slowly as possible so that nothing got done. The boss would fire them, but the new round of workers would work just as slowly, while the workers he just fired would move on and repeat the tactic at their next job site.

In March 1918, the Northwest's lumber industry announced it would switch to an eight-hour day. The IWW took credit for the victory.

In November 1919, the IWW's hall in Centralia was trashed, and Tom Lassiter, a blind newsstand operator and IWW sympathizer, was kidnapped, left in a ditch, and told he'd be killed if he returned to town. The IWW rented a new hall. On 11 November, at an Armistice Day parade welcoming returning veterans, marchers stopped at the IWW hall and suggested storming it. As marchers rushed to the hall, shots were fired from the hall, from a nearby hotel room, and from a nearby hillside. Three members of the American Legion were killed. Wesley Everest, a Wobbly, ran from the hall and was chased by a mob. He offered to give himself up to any police officer in the crowd, but the mob rushed to get him. Being rushed, he shot and killed a legionnaire. The mob knocked Everest unconscious and dragged him to jail. That night, a group entered the jail, took Everest, and castrated and lynched him.

Under pressure from the powerful American Legion, police arrested over 1,000 suspected Wobblies. Seven Wobblies were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 to 40 years in prison. Years after the trial, six jury members gave an affidavit saying they would have voted to acquit the Wobblies if they had known all the facts.[26]

World War I, Government Repression, and Decline

The IWW declared its opposition to World War I in 1914: "We as members of the industrial army will refuse to fight for any purpose except the realization of industrial freedom."[27] Still, fearing government repression, they declined to explicitly oppose the draft. The IWW paper Solidarity took the moderate position of encouraging members to register for the draft as "I.W.W. opposed to war." This moderation did not prevent the repression that the Wobblies feared.

In 1917, around the country, federal agents raided 48 IWW meeting halls and arrested 184 Wobblies, who were charged with interfering with the war effort, encouraging resistance to the draft, conspiring to cause insubordination in the military, and injuring citizens selling ammunition to the government. The Wobblies were tried in three groups--in Chicago, Sacramento, and Wichita--and given harsh sentences: in Chicago, all 100 defendants were found guilty, fifteen were sentenced to twenty years, thirty-five to ten years, thirty-three to five years, twelve to one year, and the rest given nominal sentences.[28] The defendants were fined a total of $2.5 million.[29]

By many accounts, the IWW greatly declined during and after World War I. Zinn blames government repression: “The war gave the government its opportunity to destroy the IWW...The IWW was shattered.”[30] Staughton Lynd names additional factors: macho posturing (threats to burn crops in California, which Wobblies probably never acted on, provided President Wilson with cover to crack down on them), a weak, neutral stance toward the draft (it didn't help them avoid prison sentences like they hoped, but it did reduce the organization's relevancy to the anti-war rank and file), and disunity among IWW political prisoners fostered by the government (a schism developed between those who accepted executive clemency as individuals and those who refused to leave prison until all the Wobblies were released, leading to a split at the 1924 convention and pushing the organization to virtual oblivion by 1931).[31]

However, Tom Wetzel disputes the notion that the IWW declined during this period:

Actually the IWW continued to grow in the early 1920s, reaching its peak in 1923. The IWW mass unions were in industries where there either was no American Federation of Labor (AFL) union or a competing AFL union that was no larger than the IWW union. Moreover, in industries where IWW was a minority they often worked as a "dual card" pressure group within the AFL unions.[32]

Resurgence in 1960s

In 1960, the IWW had less than one hundred paid-up members. The organization tripled its membership that decade. A new Chicago branch published The Rebel Worker, running “articles on youth revolt, rock 'n' roll, free jazz, urban insurrection, humor, the critique of work & daily life”, and articles by Paul LaFargue, Situationists, Surrealists, C.L.R. James, Cornelius Castoriadis, and others.[33] The Chicago branch opened the Solidarity Bookshop, which sold comics and revolutionary literature, and in 1964 they organized Michigan blueberry pickers to strike.[34]

Earth First-IWW Local #1

In 1989, the Wobbly and Earth First!er Judi Bari organized timber workers in northern California into the IWW Local #1, often known as “Earth First!-IWW Local #1”. The group organized a campaign against Georgia-Pacific's exposure of PCB to its workers. The local joined with other Earth First! chapters to plan Redwood Summer, a 1990 mobilization against corporate logging inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's 1964 Freedom Summer. By identifying timber corporations as a common enemy, Bari helped join together groups that the ruling class sought to pit against each other. Bari's biographer Steve Ongerth writes, “Indeed, even some of the timber workers whom the media claimed were the sworn enemies of Earth First! were also members of the IWW and covertly working with Bari and Cherney There were even a handful of timber workers who had openly declared their alliance with Earth First! and their support of Redwood Summer.”[35]

On 24 May 1990, days before Redwood Summer was slated to begin, a bomb went off in Bari's car, injuring her and Darryl Cherney. The FBI and Oakland police arrested them and accused them of attempting to transport the bomb to use in an act of ecological sabotage. Bari and Cherney sued the FBI and police for discrimination, wrongful arrest, and violation of their First and Fourth Amendment rights. In 2002, after Bari had died of cancer, a federal court ruled in Bari and Cherney's favor and awarded them $4.4 million.[36]

2016 Prison Strike

On 9 September 2016, the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, the IWW's Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee coordinated a nationwide prison strike against forced labor. According to The Guardian, an estimated 24,000 to 72,000 prisoners around the country took part in the strike, making it potentially "America's biggest prison strike" in history.[37]


Within the IWW, William Z. Foster strongly criticized the union's predominant strategy of dual unionism, meaning the establishment of separate radical unions outside of the mainstream unions. Foster argued that workers would see the new IWW local unions as a threat to their main unions, and that the separate union prompted an unhealthy sectarianism within the labor movement. Furthermore, Foster argued, the IWW withdrew radicals from the mainstream unions, leaving behind liberals who would bring these unions into even closer collaboration with the bosses. Foster advocated that Wobblies embrace a strategy of "boring from within," meaning the formation radical caucuses within the mainstream unions with the goal radicalizing them from the inside. Successful examples of this strategy included the Anarchists' capture of the CNT in Spain, the UON in Portugal, and the CGOM in Mexico.[38]

Peter Gelderloos criticizes the IWW for avoiding the sorts of violent self-defensive tactics and underground organizational structures that could have protected them against state repression. "They were jailed, beaten, lynched. The government repressed them because of the radicalism and popularity of their vision. Renouncing violence prevented them from defending that vision."[39] Gelderloos contrasts the IWW's approach with Italian-American insurrectionary anarchists in New England that avoided mass arrest despite facing even harsher state repression during the Red Scare:

Government forces killed a few by police action or judicial execution, and imprisoned more than a dozen more, but unlike the Wobblies, the Galleanists avoided being arrested en masse. This was, in part, due to the decentralized, security-conscious forms of organization that the Italians’ concept of militant revolution influenced them to adopt. And it should be noted that the Galleanists were especially at risk of government repression because, unlike many of the Wobblies, they could be targeted with WASP xenophobia and threatened with deportation.

Writing in the Trotskyist journal International Socialist Review, Joe Richard criticizes the historic IWW for putting ideology over pragmatism. Richard argues that the IWW's refusal to sign contracts with bosses made lasting victories difficult to secure, while the IWW's refusal to join legislative fights reportedly left theim on the sidelines of critical political battles. Richard writes, "Most centrally, the IWW tried to be both a union and a revolutionary organization at the same time, and in attempting this, never fully succeeded at either."[40]

  1. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005), 331.
  2. Michael Schmidt, Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism.
  3. US Department of Labor, Office of Labor-Management Standards. File number 070-232. Report submitted September 30, 2014.
  4. "A Brief History of the IWW Outside the United States," accessed 8 September 2017,
  7. IWW Constitution, as amended through 1 January 2014.
  9. editor Joyce Kornbluh, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1988), 1-6.
  10. Kornbluh, 94-97.
  11. Kornbluh, 158-164.
  12. Kornbluh, 158-164.
  13. Kornbluh, Rebel Voices.
  14. Peter Cole, Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly (Oakland: PM Press, 2020), 13-14.
  15. Cole, Ben Fletcher, 1-2.
  16. Cole, Ben Fletcher, 19.
  17. Cole, Ben Fletcher, 19.
  18. Cole, Ben Fletcher, 21.
  19. Cole, Ben Fletcher, 22.
  20. Cole, Ben Fletcher, .
  21. Kornbluh, 227-233.
  22. Kornbluh, 227-233.
  23. Kornbluh, 227-233. Zinn, 334.
  24. Zinn, 334.
  25. Kornbluh, 251-257.
  26. Kornbluh, ibid, 251-257.
  27. Kornbluh, ibid, 316-325.
  28. Kornbluh, 316-325.
  29. Zinn, A People's History, 373.
  30. Zinn, A People's History, 372-373.
  31. Staughton Lynd, "What Really Happened to the Wobblies?," Counterpunch, 21 November 2014,
  32. Tom Wetzel, "Misunderstanding Syndicalism," Socialist Worker, 29 April 2015,
  33. Franklin Rosemont and Mike Konopacki, “Wobblies in the '60s: The 'Rebel Worker' Group in Chicago” (cartoon) in editors Buhle, Paul and Nicole Schulman, Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (New York: Verso, 2005).
  34. Rosemont and Konopacki, "Wobblies in the '60s".
  35. Steve Ongerth, Redwood Uprising: The Story of Judi Bari and Earth First!-IWW Local #1,
  36. Ongerth, Redwood Uprising.
  37. Nicky Wolf, "Inside America's biggest prison strike: 'The 13th amendment didn't end slavery'," The Guardian, 22 October 2016,
  38. Schmidt and van der Walt, Black Flame, 225-227.
  39. Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State, second edition, Anarchist Library,
  40. Joe Richard, "The Legacy of the IWW" in International Socialist Review, Issue 86.

External Links

Chronology of the IWW

A brief history of the IWW outside the United States

"Industrial Workers of the World," Wikipedia