Industrial Workers of the World Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the Industrial Workers of the World was founded, it was the only union to welcome African Americans, women, and immigrants. Active in many labor disputes and opposed to war, it has faced strong opposition from company management and the U.S. government.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) emerged in 1905 in the United States as a labor union committed to organizing a wide range of unrepresented workers by using the tactics of direct workplace action. The IWW, whose members are known as the “Wobblies,” took as its fundamental premise the reality of sharp and sustained class conflict in American capitalist society. IWW organizers argued for a broad-based multiethnic union to advance the interests of all wage laborers, but especially those workers not included in large craft unions. Initial organizers of the IWW came from already established unions, such as the Western Federation of Miners, the United Metal Workers, the United Brewery Workers, and various socialist and labor rights groups. Wobblies defined their work within the international labor movement as well. In contrast to organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which emphasized contract negotiations and electoral politics within existing industrial and economic relations, IWW political philosophy called for direct action to build working class power, with the eventual goal of ending the inequities of wage labor and shifting to decentralized worker control across the spectrum of American industry and business.Industrial Workers of the World

During its early decades, the IWW used organizing tactics such as strikes, work slowdowns, worker education classes, music, political art, and journalism. This emphasis on cultural work and strikes has made the IWW a very visible presence in American labor organizing, with organizing work in the twenty-first century focused on low-wage, skilled, and semiskilled workers.

The tactics employed by the IWW in its early decades were agitation within agricultural work, domestic service, and the mining, logging, textile, and construction industries. By refusing to focus on contract strategies, IWW organizers brought workers into direct confrontational encounters with owners and managers, on terms set by the union through strikes, slowdowns, and independent journalism. Wobblies pushed the flashpoints in labor politics decidedly to the left.

The IWW also broke through racial, gender, and ethnic barriers to integrate unions around the country, to work for the rights of agricultural and migrant workers, and to propel women into national labor leadership. By prioritizing worker education, music, journalism and cultural creativity (art, cartoons, and the like) the Wobblies expanded public exposure to leftist critiques within American labor relations. Committed to decentralized power, Wobblies also rejected authoritarian and centralized models for socialism or communism as strongly as they rejected the AFL focus on contract negotiations. IWW activity often sparked severe reactions from government and business, including violent suppression of strikes, suppression of free speech, and imprisonment of IWW organizers. These dynamics exposed American labor relations to critical public scrutiny, both domestically and internationally.

Further Reading
  • Buhle, Paul, and Nicole Schulman, eds. Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. New York: Verso, 2005.
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
  • Kornbluh, Joyce. Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1998.

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