Founding of Industrial Workers of the World

With the founding of the radical workers’ organization Industrial Workers of the World, labor joined socialism.

Summary of Event

The years preceding the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were filled with turmoil for workers who attempted to earn a fair wage in good working conditions. Influenced by the Populist movement and the Knights of Labor, the Western Federation of Mines Western Federation of Mines (WFM) organized in 1893, with a membership of U.S.-born white men only. Demanding safety legislation and money instead of scrip, the WFM was associated briefly with the American Federation of Labor American Federation of Labor (AFL) but split with the AFL when that organization did not assist in the WFM’s 1894 strike at Cripple Creek, Colorado. The Cripple Creek strike erupted when miners’ wages were cut. Mine owners hired gunmen, and the governor brought in the state militia. After the strike, the WFM began to establish its own mines. Strikes in 1903 and 1904 brought miners in the West to the realization that they must combine with workers in the East. Industrial Workers of the World;founding
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[kw]Founding of Industrial Workers of the World (June 27, 1905)
[kw]Industrial Workers of the World, Founding of (June 27, 1905)
[kw]Workers of the World, Founding of Industrial (June 27, 1905)
Industrial Workers of the World;founding
Labor unions;Industrial Workers of the World
[g]United States;June 27, 1905: Founding of Industrial Workers of the World[01320]
[c]Business and labor;June 27, 1905: Founding of Industrial Workers of the World[01320]
[c]Organizations and institutions;June 27, 1905: Founding of Industrial Workers of the World[01320]
Debs, Eugene V.
Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley
Haywood, Bill
Hill, Joe
Jones, Mother

The eastern wing began with Eugene V. Debs, who had combined railway workers into the American Railway Union American Railway Union (ARU). The ARU was not craft-exclusive; it was open to almost all who worked for railway companies. The ARU believed in a brotherhood that included all workers, with the exception of African Americans. As head of the eastern IWW, Debs tried but failed to combine the eastern and western organizations in 1902.

On June 27, 1905, in Chicago, the WFM, ARU, and anti-AFL unionists, socialists, and anarchists joined forces to combine into the IWW. “Big Bill” Haywood chaired the meeting and called for a working-class movement that could control economic powers. Considered to represent revolutionary industrial unionism, the IWW combined an ideology of Marxist, Darwinian, and Socialist elements in one large union that encompassed men and women of all races. It was an alternative union to the AFL, the capitalism and selective membership of which were in direct opposition to IWW directives.

The IWW was considered to be a radical movement, one of daring imagination. Members did not want to be a working-class political party; rather, they wanted the IWW to be a force that could make economic and political change through revolutionary tactics. Charging low dues, the union committed itself to impoverished workers and operated as thirteen big groups that held sit-ins and performed street theater to gain members and support. The IWW became noted for large numbers of strikes and was not trusted by the general public, who thought the group’s members to be “syndicalists,” or people who were capable of overthrowing the government.

One of the IWW’s most powerful tactics was the use of direct action, even to the point of violating the law. IWW members believed that such action offered the only way for them to gain publicity and support for the organization. In the West, they held “free speech” fights, which were banned. Members seeking arrest protested and were jailed. Because they had an antireligious approach, they were unable to get permits to hold meetings. Instead, the IWW intruded into meetings of the permit-holding Salvation Army.

Noted for its egalitarian system, the IWW welcomed women, who were incorporated into male industrial unions except for certain strike meetings. Mary “Mother” Jones, an immigrant dressmaker and organizer of the United Mine Workers, United Mine Workers and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn both helped to organize the IWW. Although never top officeholders in the union, women were very active strikers. No other labor union could boast the number of women who were actively speaking or raising funds as could the IWW. Membership included the skilled and unskilled, men and women, African Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, and Japanese. The racially and ethnically diverse membership became known as the Wobblies.

The economic depression of 1907-1908, factionalism, harassment from the government, and the WFM’s leaving the union created problems for the fledgling IWW. Then, in 1909, skilled workers joined unskilled immigrant strikers at a Pennsylvania steel car company over an incentive pay system. The plant shut down, and, when a split occurred between the groups, IWW leaders took charge. The show of force resulted in the owners’ breaking down and settling.

In 1912, one hundred women workers already on a plant speed-up conducted a massive textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, when their wages were cut. Labor strikes;Lawrence, Massachusetts The women were mostly immigrants less than eighteen years of age and suffering from malnutrition. Only two days later, an additional twenty thousand workers of forty different nationalities joined them. IWW leaders, including Flynn, hurried to Massachusetts to help the strikers. Workers were instructed to conduct mass pickets, a method to avoid arrest by forming an unbroken human chain. In Lawrence, the chain consisted of between five thousand and twenty thousand workers walking continuously for twenty-four hours in nonviolent action. The workers were organized according to nationality, and translated literature aided in the continued strike.

When a woman picketer was shot and killed, some IWW officials were arrested, although they had been miles away at the time. Martial law was declared, meetings were banned, and police were called into action. When a fifteen-year-old Syrian boy was killed by the state militia, strikers sent their children out of Lawrence, which generated much publicity. When companies tried to block the move, the country was outraged and the mill owners were forced to settle the strike, granting the workers raises, overtime pay, and other benefits.


The Lawrence strikes, although they successfully joined immigrant workers, did not have the impact of a widespread movement. The wage gains were offset by increased use of mill machinery. Public outcry erupted in Lawrence as the Roman Catholic Church campaigned against the Wobblies, and the Citizens Association attacked the IWW as atheistic anarchists. A spy network brought harassment to the victorious workers. A subsequent strike in New Jersey did not meet with success, as laborers fought against one another. The depression of 1913-1914 further hurt the IWW movement.

A revitalization occurred with the initiation of the Agricultural Workers Organization Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO), a branch of migrant farm laborers who fought for immediate demands. The results were an increase in pay and better working conditions for harvest workers. In 1916, northwestern lumber workers greatly benefited the Wobblies’ organization when the strikers tenaciously held out against police brutality and shootings.

In 1914, IWW labor agitator Joe Hill was charged with the murders of two Salt Lake City men. His subsequent conviction and execution made him a symbolic martyr. Martyrdom could not save the Wobblies, however, as lawmen pursued the IWW’s members. Although the IWW had gained worker support, it had lost any endorsements to the AFL. Despite an effort to downplay antiwar criticism after World War I began, the IWW’s refusal to endorse the fighting brought fierce government attacks, especially when the IWW began to encourage young men not to serve their country. To American nativists, the mainly immigrant members of the IWW made the union appear dangerous. These anti-IWW feelings helped the growth of the AFL. Finally, during the Red Scare of 1919-1920 Red Scare (1919-1920) , many Wobblies were put on trial for having communist leanings. Although the union virtually died, interest in the IWW has waxed and waned over the years. IWW membership fluctuated as the organization concentrated on doing educational work, then renewed its radicalism in the 1960’s when singer Joan Baez popularized “The Ballad of Joe Hill.” The organization printed a newsletter for three thousand in the 1980’s; more recently, the newsletter has been published for a paying membership reduced to mere hundreds. Industrial Workers of the World;founding
Labor unions;Industrial Workers of the World

Further Reading

  • Bird, Stewart, Dan Georgakas, and Deborah Shaffer, comps. Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW. Chicago: Lake View Press, 1985. A collection of essays and oral histories revealing the dedication of IWW members to the union’s cause.
  • Buhle, Paul, and Nicole Schulman, eds. Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. London: Verso, 2005. This collaboration between historians and graphic novelists presents the history of the IWW through comic-book-style art (along with connective essays) by such contributors as Peter Kuper, Harvey Pekar, and Seth Tobocman.
  • Conlin, Joseph Robert. Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1969. Six essays analyze the problems encountered by IWW members during their struggles for better working conditions.
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969. A large volume about the IWW, with excellent profiles of union leaders and an absorbing history of the movement.
  • Foner, Philip S., ed. Fellow Workers and Friends: I.W.W. Free Speech Fights as Told by Participants. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. A collection of personal histories of IWW workers as they relate to their fight for free speech.
  • Kornbluh, Joyce L., ed. Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. 1964. Reprint. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1998. A chronologically ordered anthology combining narratives, cartoons, songs, and other memorabilia to form a picture of IWW solidarity.
  • Renshaw, Patrick. The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States. Rev. ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999. Describes the formation of the IWW and discusses the union’s goal of bringing together workers from around the world.
  • Winters, Donald E., Jr. The Soul of the Wobblies: The I.W.W., Religion, and American Culture in the Progressive Era, 1905-1917. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. This look at the IWW takes the perspective that its solidarity was comparable to a religious belief.

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